If you’ve ever wondered what car an auto writer would own, I’m about to tell you: A Volkswagen GTI with a 6-speed manual transmission. It’s compact, it’s fun to drive, and (a necessity for my husband) it will fit a set of golf clubs in the back.
While the Golf is not a GTI, it reminded me that even at a base level, this car is a blast. And it’s affordable.
The Golf is a 5-door hatchback, and rather than having swoopy, curvy lines like a Mazda3 hatch, VW has opted to give the Golf more handsome, austere horizontal lines.
It has a very clean appearance and is perked up by some new LED lighting and chrome accents, which is a part of a mild refresh for 2018.
The interior is clean and simple, and all the gauges and controls are easily accessed. The test vehicle was a base S model, and I thought the cloth seats were nicely done with a neutral-patterned surface. The addition of the 6.5-inch color infotainment display ads some excellent visual interest to the space.
The radio screen is graphically boring with simple black-and-white text, but when you wire in your phone and use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (which are standard), the display wakes up to its potential.
One design flaw I would like to point out is the position of the cup holders. I’d almost rather forgo the center console holders (gasp!) than have them right behind the gearshift where your elbow constantly bumps them.
Ride & Handling
With its small size and peppy 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, the Golf couldn’t be anything but fun to drive. The suspension is stiff, but not so stiff that your teeth are clattering over every bump in the road, and the steering is nice and tight.
The engine makes 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque – which is more than enough for this 2,945-pound vehicle.
The Golf comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, which has a higher clutch point than our GTI, but it’s relatively smooth shifting. If you want an automatic, it’s available for an additional $1,100.
EPA estimates the Golf with the 5-speed manual will get 25 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway – one of the rare modern instances when the manual still gets better fuel economy than the automatic.
If you opt to get the 6-speed auto, fuel economy drops to 24/33 mpg, respectively.
Tech & gadgets
At a base level, the Golf doesn’t have any options or up-level high-tech features. But, unlike some of its other German compatriots (cough, BMW), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration are standard.
While I’m still not a fan of Apple Maps, I do like that it is a free way to get in-car navigation, and the talk-to-text functionality works really well.
At the SE trim, VW’s Car-Net Security & Safety is available for a subscription fee ($199/year, $378/2 years, $540/3 years or $17.99/month). This system offers features such as automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, remote vehicle access, speed alerts and boundary alerts.
The Golf has only two trim levels, and if you want any options or available tech features, you have to opt with the upper SE trim.
S ($21,760): This base trim comes equipped with 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, LED taillights and daytime running lights, cloth seating surfaces, manual lumbar support, a 6.5-inch infotainment touchscreen display, one USB port, Bluetooth connectivity and rearview camera.
SE ($24,505): This trim adds a power sunroof, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, passive entry, push-button start, leatherette seating surfaces, heated front seats, SiriusXM Satellite radio, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and Car-Net Security & Service.
At a standard level, Golf has all the safety systems you’ve come to expect in modern vehicles such as anti-lock brakes, six airbags, rearview camera and tire pressure monitoring. But it adds items such as a post-collision braking system and intelligent crash response system, which will shut off the fuel pump, unlock doors and turn on hazard lights.
Available features include forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Golf an overall 5-Star Crash test rating. While the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Golf mostly “Good” crash-test ratings, it only gets an “Acceptable” rating for the passenger-side small front overlap test. And it doesn’t get one of IIHS’s coveted Top Safety Pick awards because it only has a basic automatic braking system.
Not sure what the safety ratings mean? We break it down for you here.
New for 2018
Golf gets a mild refresh for 2018 with LED daytime running lights and taillights as well as some chrome accents on the front and rear of the vehicle. Another nice addition: The base S trim gets automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
A few of my favorite things
This is a $20K car that has a peppy engine and standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.
I love that the Golf is fun to drive, gets excellent fuel economy and still manages to have space to store my husband’s golf clubs.
What I can leave
I’m not really a fan of the seats. The seat bottom tilts up at the end, rather than down, which provides an awkward driving position for someone who’s on the petite side of the scale. This isn’t a new problem, and I have it in the GTI I share with my husband. So, obviously, it wasn’t a deal breaker.
But I do sincerely wish the seat bottom titled down so I wouldn’t bump my right knee on the underside of the steering column every time I move from gas to brake. Is that so much to ask?
Also, because of the positioning of the gearshift, the Golf falls prey to the cup holder conundrum. You can’t put anything large or tall in the cup holders because you will constantly hit it with your elbow when you shift.
The good news is, there’s a large cup holder in the door, which will easily hold a 24-ounce Camelback water bottle, but it can be a little tricky to access while driving.
The bottom line
I think the Golf is a nearly perfect car for someone who lives – or spends a lot of time – in an urban environment. It’s compact enough to make parking easy, yet it has a functional rear cargo area.
The best thing is at a base level, it’s really nicely equipped with a four-color infotainment display screen on the center stack that hooks up to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and it has plenty of power for quick off-the-line starts or merging with traffic.
While I definitely appreciate the extra oomph of our GTI, I didn’t completely miss it during the test week. And at $20K for a brand-spanking-new vehicle, you won’t be stuck eating Ramen until you pay off the car note.
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