by Adam Lynton
The Volkswagen Golf is a benchmark within the compact hatchback segment and is one of the oldest in the game, too - having established its popularity alongside the time-honored Honda Civic, it has been met by newer rivals such as the Mazda 3 along the way since then. The 2019 model year brings to an end the seventh Golf generation originally introduced in 2014, with an all-new eighth-gen iteration due for 2020. This year's Golf is powered by a smaller 1.4-liter turbo four-pot engine with outputs of 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque which are directed to the front wheels via either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic gearbox. While many know the Golf for its hot GTI sister, the standard one is a little lacking in gusto. But that doesn't mean it can't hold its own, and a lively chassis, exceptional steering, high levels of specification, and impressive practicality prove time and time again why the Golf is, and always will be, the benchmark of this segment.
The Golf gets some significant upgrades and alterations for the 2019 model year, most notably in the powertrain department, with the familiar 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine being replaced by a new 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, which can now be coupled to either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic gearbox. A handful of advanced driver assists have been made standard across the lineup too, including a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring. An optional Driver Assistance Package is made available for SE models, which comprises adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping system, high beam control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
Over the years, the VW Golf has received sharper lines and sculpted contours that have kept its design contemporary yet still one of the easiest cars to recognize on the road. Every Golf is fitted with automatic headlights with LED daytime running lights, as well as with LED taillights and power-operated heated side-view mirrors. The Golf SE comes outfitted with front LED fog lights and a power tilt/slide panoramic sunroof as standard. While the Golf S is equipped with 15-inch alloy wheels, the Golf SE gets 16-inch split-V alloy wheels.
The VW Golf is on the smaller side of the compact hatchback compendium - at 167.5 inches in overall length, it's 10.4 inches shorter than the Honda Civic. The Golf gets a 103.8-inch wheelbase which is 3.5 inches short than the Civic's. With a height of 57.2 inches, the Golf is also, 0.7 inches taller than the 56.5-inch Civic, although both are 70.8 inches in width. The Golf S weighs in with a curb weight of 2,963 lbs, the SE with a curb weight of 3,023 lbs, both of which are average for the segment and on par with the Civic, which ranges from 2,901 lbs to 3,117 lbs.
There are seven cost-inclusive exterior color options available for both Golf models - the solid hues include Deep Black Pearl, Pure White, and Tornado Red, with Silk Blue, Platinum Gray, Tungsten Silver, and Night Blue making up the metallic hues. The Golf looks best in either the Night Blue metallic or Tornado Red, which - apart from being very unique colors - are intense, and accentuate the Golf's chrome front grille and exhaust trim, and contrast nicely with the solid black front air intakes, window frames, and side-view mirror accents.
The Golf's new turbocharged 1.4-liter four-pot engine may be a lot smaller and less powerful than last year's 1.8-liter turbo four-pot engine, but it's as refined and as reliable, and still supplies a competent level of power to properly spur the compact hatch around town. Power delivery is instant, and provides good pick up early on in the rev range - off-the-line acceleration from 0-60 mph takes a gradual 7.6 seconds, which is on the slower side of the segment with the Honda Civic reaching the 60 mph mark a full second faster at 6.6 seconds, and the Mazda 3 in 6.8. If you want a fast Golf, though, there's always the GTI, or even the R if you want to go all out.
The VW Golf is available only as a FWD hatch, which is the norm for the segment but isn't the only drivetrain available. The Mazda 3 is a FWD vehicle as standard too, but with the option of AWD offered, while the Subaru Impreza is available solely as an AWD vehicle.
The front wheels of the Golf are now powered with 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque provided by the new 1.4-liter turbo four-pot engine, which can now be coupled to either a six-speed manual gearbox or eight-speed automatic gearbox. Even though that's 23 hp and 15 lb-ft less than what the older 1.8-liter turbo four-pot engine provided, it's still enough to effectively propel the light hatch around. It performs best through low to mid-range speeds where power delivery is instantaneous and smooth, especially with the six-speed manual in play. Throttle responses slow down at higher speeds, though, as the engine runs out of puff, merging onto the highway and initiating high-speed overtakes can be a somewhat gradual affair, with the engine starting to feel and sound a little strained. The six-speed manual gearbox is the better of the two, it's refined and smooth shifting and benefits those who actually enjoy driving. It adds to the engagement of the Golf and hands over gear-shift control to the driver who can then manage power at will. The eight-speed automatic, on the other hand, is lethargic and has an inclination to shift gears too soon, which only weakens power delivery from the already pacified engine.
With the VW Golf, driving around town on a day to day basis is a joy - its powertrain performs smoothly and consistently which along with its soft ride quality makes for an all-day comfortable drive. While most imperfect road surfaces are dealt with reasonably well, with the Golf gliding smoothly over anything minor, more prominently broken surfaces and typical undulations do contort and vibrate the cabin more notably, but still only to a slight degree. Overall, ride comfort is decent from the VW Golf, but that's not what the hatch is truly about; its peppy turbo engine, compact dimensions, and impressive steering accord it with some of the segment's most enjoyable driving dynamics.
It imparts a sporty feel to the driver that inspires enthusiastic jaunts; it's nimble around town and impressively poised when thrown around sweeping corners - it remains firmly planted to the tarmac at any speed and body roll is kept to a reasonable minimum, regardless of the hatch's softly sprung suspension. The Golf's steering responses are impeccable too, they're always instant and accurate and while the weighting is light at low speeds, it tightens up slightly for added control at higher speeds. The brake pedal is rather sensitive though, with initial input to the brakes being met with a somewhat aggressive bite. From there stopping power only increases incrementally so modulating the brakes can be a chore.
Regardless of what transmission is in play, gas mileage estimates from both are rated at being equal - with the EPA recording 29/37/32 mpg city/highway/combined from the 1.4T Golf. That's about a four mpg improvement in the combined drive cycle over the 1.8T engine from the prior model year. That's also better than the Mazda 3 which returns 26/35/30 mpg on those same cycles but is beaten by the Honda Civic, which returns 31/40/34 mpg. The Golf, with its 13.2-gallon gas tank filled to the brim, is availed with a maximum range of around 422 miles before requiring a refuel.
The Golf's cabin design is predominantly focused around the driver with the dash-integrated infotainment touchscreen and control hub slightly slanted inward, which - along with the high center console - form a cockpit focused on one person: the driver. The layout is very ergonomic and the controls easy to gauge. The aesthetic is modern and the materials accord the cabin with a high-quality impression, with soft-touch plastics and faux-leather trim lining most key touch-points. The dashboard, however, is made up of a hard-touch plastic that looks a little low-grade. Build quality could be a little better - it's fine overall, but with the volume pumped up there's a noticeable rattling that emanates from the speakers. Still, it's one of the most premium interiors in the class, only truly lagging behind Mazda in this regard.
Though there is seating for five in the VW Golf, shoulder room in the rear is rather limited with three in the back, so reserving the center rear seat for only small children is advised. The front seats feature decent levels of adjustability and the driver is positioned suitably behind the controls and with good all-round outward visibility. The seat bottoms are slightly firm and a bit short, but are comfortable and supportive nonetheless. The Golf's high roofline accords passengers with ample headroom throughout the cabin, and along with the wide-opening doors, makes for easy ingress and egress. While legroom is also ample upfront, it gets a little cramped at the rear, and the intrusive transmission tunnel means a center passenger will take up more room on either side.
The seats in the Golf S are upholstered in a decent quality cloth, which, along with the in-cabin paneling, is featured in either Titan Black or Beige. The Golf SE is upgraded with higher-quality V-Tex leatherette-appointed seats which are also featured in either Titan Black or Beige. Both models come standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, the inner door handles are chrome and are integrated to a single sleek silver panel located on the doors that match the silver trim on the surrounds of the driver information display and center dash.
The Golf has a practical cargo bay with a wide and flat adjustable load floor and an impressive 22.8 cubic feet of storage room. That's enough room for a large baby stroller and a nappy bag, with a bit more room for smaller items. With the 60/40 split-folding rear seats down, cargo room expands to 52.7 cu.-ft. which is enough room for a bicycle. The Honda Civic has slightly more room with 25.7 cu.-ft. behind the rear seats, but the larger aperture of the Golf makes loading large items a breeze.
The compact Golf's in-cabin room has been utilized smartly, with a suitable level of storage solutions offered throughout. The glovebox is surprisingly spacious, the door side pockets are wide and lined with a carpeted material for grip, and there's a small storage compartment ahead of the gear stick, too, with another beneath the center front armrest. Two cupholders are located up front, and in the rear.
Specification levels don't improve significantly from the Golf S to the Golf SE; both models come standard with a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel and gearshift knob, a tilt and telescoping steering column, six-way partial power-adjustable front seats, and manual air conditioning. The Golf SE is specified with keyless access and push-button start, heated front seats, and a power tilt and sliding panoramic sunroof. In the way of safety, the Golf S comes equipped with a rearview camera, a blind-spot monitor, rear traffic alert, and forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, as well as pedestrian monitoring, all as standard. The Golf SE also comes fitted with all that, but gets availability to a lane-keep assist system and adaptive cruise control, which are optional via an exclusive Driver Assistance Package.
The Golf S is outfitted with a relatively small 6.5-inch composition color touchscreen display which is tethered to an AM/FM radio and stock six-speaker audio system. It is Bluetooth capable and comes installed with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality as standard - but that's about it. The Golf SE fairs favorably with an upgraded infotainment system, with an eight-inch composition color touchscreen display bedecking the center dash and coming with enhanced features, such as a proximity display system. It's tethered to an MP3/WMA-compatible CD player and AM/FM/HD radio capable stereo with SiriusXM and voice control functionality.
There have already been two recalls sent out for the 2019 year model of the VW Golf, one pertaining to an issue where the ignition key could be removed even with the car not put into Park, the other relating to the Golf's rear coil springs which could easily fracture. J.D. Power gave the 2019 VW Golf a low predicted reliability rating of two out of five. Volkswagen's warranty coverage is at least relatively competitive with a six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty included as standard with every new Golf.
The 2019 model year Golf received exceptional safety ratings from both the NHTSA and the IIHS. The NHTSA availed the current Golf with an exemplary five-star overall safety rating while the IIHS scored it with top results of Good for five specified crashworthiness evaluations.
Every VW Golf receives a beneficial consignment of advanced driver-assist features which are standard for the 2019 model year. These include a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward-collision warning with autonomous braking and pedestrian monitoring, which add on to the existing essentials: ABS, EBD, a tire pressure monitoring system, an intelligent crash response system, a rearview camera, and six standard airbags. Available for the Golf SE is an optional Driver Assistance Package which comprises high beam control, a lane-keeping system, and adaptive cruise control.
Along with being a great driver's car, the VW Golf is also a suitable daily driver. It's fun to drive and has just the right level of capability to allow for some occasional back-road antics. Yet at the same time, it offers all the right features in infotainment, comfort, convenience, and safety to make it a suitable daily commuter for a small family. The cabin is comfortable overall, and the cargo area is as useful and practical as any top hatchback can offer. Both the NHTSA and IIHS accorded the Golf with exceptional safety ratings and the model now comes standard with a decent selection of advanced driver assists. It's also one of the few remaining hatchbacks that come standard with a six-speed manual gearbox featured throughout the lineup, which is something any purist would appreciate, and as for the available eight-speed automatic, though not perfect, it's one of the more refined automatic transmissions out there. The VW Golf has always been a quintessential all-rounder, but with an all-new Golf generation in the works for the 2020 model year, we'd suggest holding off for a little while before making a purchase, as in its seventh iteration, rivals have become as good as, if not better than the people's compact.
Buyers can get their hands on the base model Golf S at a low MSRP of $21,845; the Golf SE comes in at a little more with an MSRP of $24,145. That is excluding Volkswagen's destination and freight charge of $895 as well as any tax, registration, and licensing fees. Optioning on the available eight-speed automatic transmission for any of the models will cost an additional $1,100.
Only two trims make up the 2019 model year VW Golf lineup, the Golf S, which is the base-spec model, and the Golf SE, which is the top-spec model.
The Golf S is equipped with 15-inch alloy wheels, a 6.5-inch infotainment touchscreen, manual air conditioning, and its seats are solely upholstered in a quality cloth material.
Stepping up to the Golf SE gets you 16-inch split-V alloy wheels and a power tilt-and-slide panoramic sunroof as standard. The Golf SE gets kitted out with an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen tethered to a MP3/WMA compatible CD player and with added infotainment functionality, including HD and SiriusXM radio connectivity as well as with proximity sensing visuals. Keyless access and push-button start are standard in the SE, and its seats are wrapped in a V-Tex leatherette upholstery with heating functionality featured in the front seats.
There is only one specified package available, and it's only for the Golf SE - The $1,295 Driver Assistance Package equips the SE with larger 17-inch alloy wheels, high beam assist, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, and a lane-keeping system.
The top-spec Golf SE isn't much more expensive than the base-spec Golf S and its specification levels are much improved. It also comes with availability to an optional Driver Assistance Package, which the base model doesn't. The package includes a lane-keep assist system, adaptive cruise control, and some other upgrades that make it well-worth including with the SE. We also recommend sticking with the six-speed manual gearbox as it fits the Golf's driver-centric impetus by adding to the levels of driver engagement. It also gives the driver more control over the engine's power delivery, is more refined than the automatic option, and just as fuel-efficient too.
The Volkswagen GTI ups the ante on performance, bringing a more powerful 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine with outputs of 228 hp and 258 lb-ft to the playing field - subsequently enhancing the hatch's straight-line performance, which - along with its already apt handling - initiate it to the hot-hatch arena. It's certainly the more driver-focused vehicle, while the six-speed manual gearbox is still standard with the GTI, there's a refined seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox optional which performs far better than the standard Golf's automatic option. The GTI is, however, a little less fuel-efficient. The GTI carries a far sportier aesthetic as well, and is equally as specced as the standard Golf in tech and features. The standard Golf comes with more driver-assist features at the base level, though, but the GTI gets a self-parking system that the standard Golf does not. The GTI is around $6,000 more than the standard Golf but is well worth the premium price, especially for those who love driving.
The VW Jetta is cheaper than the Golf, with a lineup starting MSRP of $18,745. It's equipped with the same powertrain as the Golf, but performs slightly more efficiently with gas mileage estimates of 30/40/34 mpg. It's slower though, and the Jetta's handling dynamics have nothing on the compact Golf. The Golf's interior carries a higher-quality impression than the Jetta's and there's a whole lot more practicality offered by the Golf too, with the Jetta only offering 14.1 cu.-ft of trunk space. The Golf comes far better specced with driver-assist features at the standard level as well, but the Jetta gets a lot more feature options overall that the Golf doesn't get, including a higher-grade infotainment setup, dual-zone automatic climate control, and genuine leather upholstery. At the base level, there's certainly more value found in the Golf, but as one moves up the trim ladder of the Jetta, its value quickly surpasses that of the Golf. The Jetta has the potential to be the more premium package, but the Golf is the better driver's car and better all-rounder overall.