The Golf is VW's entry-level model. It's a compact, front-wheel-drive sedan/coupe available with either gasoline or diesel engines. Prices start at $17,965 for the base 2.5L coupe and top out at $24,535 for a TDI (diesel) sedan.
WHAT'S NEW FOR 2011
The 2010 model was essentially all new, with updated exterior and interior, features and equipment - including the optionally available TDI diesel engine. The 2011 model is more or less the same, with a minor uptick in prices across the board
Athletic performance/superior handling - even from base model. Almost-hybrid fuel efficiency (42 MPGs on the highway) with optional TDI diesel - without the complexity or hassles of owning a hybrid, including down-the-road issues with the batteries.
Feels solid as the rock of Gibraltar. Can be equipped with luxury-level amenities, including hard drive music storage and Bluetooth wireless. Available as a coupe (a chief competitor, the Mazda3 isn't). Available as a sedan (another competitor, the Mini Cooper isn't).
WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD
Fairly pricey to start - and can get downright expensive if you add some of the available options. Superb, high-economy TDI diesel engine currently only offered in higher-trim/more expensive version.
Base model interior materials can be a bit bleak-looking. Exterior styling a bit bland compared with Mazda3 and Mini Cooper. VW has had some issues with quality control.
WHAT'S UNDER THE HOOD
Two engines are available in the '11 Golf. Standard is a 2.5 liter, 170 hp gas engine teamed with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic.
This engine is quite powerful for the class. Compare it, for example, with the 2011 Mazda3's standard engine (2.0 liters, 148 hp). To get equivalent power/performance (2.5 liters, 167 hp) you have to step up to the more expensive Mazda3 Sport, which starts at $19,185 - or about $1,200 more than the base model Golf. The base model Mini Cooper, meanwhile, comes standard with just a 1.6 liter, 118 hp engine (for $19,400) while the optional Mini S with turbocharged 1.6 liter engine (172 hp) produces virtually the same power as the Golf's standard engine but costs a lot more ($23,000).
The VW's 2.5 liter engine is also quite economical. EPA rates the Golf equipped with this engine and five-speed manual transmission at 22 city, 30 highway. The base Mazda3 (with smaller, less powerful 2.0 liter engine) does only slightly better: 25 city, 33 highway. The flyweight Mini is cuter than your high school girlfriend and beats them both with an exceptionally thrifty 28 city, 37 highway - but its acceleration (0-60 in about 8.5-8.7 seconds) is borderline Prius-like.
The Golf, meanwhile, is significantly quicker than the base Mini or the base model Mazda3: 0-60 in about 7.7-7.8 seconds with the five-speed manual.
But the Golf has another really strong selling point neither of its rivals can answer and that is the optional 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct injection (TDI) diesel engine. It produces V-6 levels of torque output (236 lbs.-ft., almost all of it available in the lower RPM range where most everyday driving is done) and can deliver 42 MPGs on the highway - by far the best mileage you'll get in anything short of a gas-electric hybrid (or a motorcycle).
The TDI engine has the additional attraction of being inherently more durable than gas-burning engines. A diesel engine, assuming proper care, can be expected to run reliable for many hundreds of thousands of miles - which means your total ownership costs could end up being much lower, since you may not need another new car for the next 15-20 years.
Maybe 25 or 30.
The TDI Golf comes with a six-speed manual (standard) or (optional) a six-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG). The DSG version is the one that gets best-case mileage of 42 highway (and 30 city) but manual versions still achieve a very impressive 41 highway (and the same 30 mpgs in city-type driving).
The TDI-equipped Golf isn't as quick as the 2.5 liter Golf, but it's 0-60 time of about 8.6 seconds is still almost exactly the same as the less fuel-efficient Mini Cooper and Mazda3 with 2.0 liter engine. All Golfs are front-wheel-drive.
ON THE ROAD
From an enthusiast driver's perspective, the Golf is a real pleasure to drive. It is quick enough to be sporty and has plenty of reserve power to execute fast passing/merging maneuvers comfortably and without straining. It has quick steering response, too - and will corner with athletic poise at pretty high speeds.
But from a normal, everyday driver's point of view, it is also comfortable and smooth. The ride is firm, but not stiff (it is stiff - and bouncy - in the Mini Cooper and to a lesser extent, the Mazda3). Though the Golf is a small car, it feels extremely solid - a characteristic trait of German-built cars. Even cruising along at close to 90 mph, there is minimal road/tire/wind noise transmitted into the cabin and the car seems completely at ease and ready to go much faster (which of course it is designed to do, given Germany's high-speed Autobahns). At legal U.S. speeds, the Golf feels understressed - like a powerful bodybuilder just warming up.
TDI versions launch with forcefullness, too. If you want, you can even squeal the tires. Few 40-plus mpg cars can do that. It is also quiet - whether idling in traffic or running 75 on the highway.
I could find no fault with either of the Golf's available engines, both of which manage to be strong performers as well as very fuel-efficient. The transmission choices are also top-drawer. Manual enthusiasts will like that both engines can be teamed with a stick-shift, while going automatic involves no compromises of either performance/driving fun - or economy (DSG-equipped Golfs get the best mileage).
AT THE CURB
As mentioned above, the Golf's two bodystyles (hatchback coupe and four-door sedan) gives it a selling advantage over its two chief rivals, the Mini Cooper (no sedan version) and Mazda3 (no coupe). It's also nice that both versions have about the same interior space (more on this follows below).
The interior of the base Golf comes off as a little on the Spartan side in terms of initial impressions but the car is well-equipped as it sits with AC and most power options (windows, lock, cruise control) plus a very decent eight-speaker stereo with MP3 player. The bland-looking materials (dash cover/door panels, etc.) are however substantial-looking and panel fitment is superior.
Though you might expect the TDI version to be low-budget/economy-oriented it actually has more standard stuff than the base Golf - including 17 inch alloy rims, a premium audio system with touchscreen interface, Bluetooth wireless, fog lights - and a firmer-riding, sport-tuned suspension.
You can further dress out your Golf with leather, heated seats, GPS (bundled with music storage hard drive) Xenon HID headlights, a sunroof and other stuff - but be aware that some of these options are expensive and if you're not careful you can end up with a Golf that's pushing $30k.
Space-wise, the Golf (both versions) has more front-seat headroom (39.3 inches) than either the Mini (38.8 inches) or the Mazda3 (38.9 inches) and virtually the same front-seat legroom as the Mini (41.2 inches vs. 41.4 inches.) The Mazda3 has significantly more front seat legroom (42 inches) but the Golf beats the Mazda on rear-seat headroom (38.5 inches vs. 37.5 inches), while the Mazda has a bit more rear-seat legroom (36.2 inches vs. 35.6). The bottom line is that it will depend on your body type as far as which car feels roomier in the back.
The big point, though, is that the VW has useable back seats. The Mini, on the other hand, doesn't.
While the Mini has surprisingly generous room for front seat occupants its rear seats are Adult Unfriendly (just 29.9 inches of legroom) which severely limits its practicality relative to the VW (or the Mazda).
The VW's trunk/cargo capacity is 12.4 cubic feet - better than the Mazda3 (11.8 cubic feet) and vastly better than the Mini (5.7 cubic feet). Although to be fair the Mini has the most potential cargo room, 24 cubic feet - but that's with the second row seats down and the Mini transporting no more than two people.
A nice touch in the Golf are the standard eight-way manual-adjust seats, which can be ratcheted up and down to accommodate shorter or taller drivers and which really improves the day-to-day usability of the car.
My only gripe is that VW doesn't offer the excellent TDI diesel in a "basic" version of the Golf - perhaps even without power windows - which would lighten it up as well as lower its cost. An $18k TDI Golf capable of 44 mpg on the highway would be incredibly appealing.
There are pros and cons here. On the one hand, the Golf - especially the TDI-equipped version - is one of the most economical cars you can buy in terms of everyday fuel economy as well as potential down-the-road longevity. On the other hand, the VW's base price is fairly steep relative to other economy-type but still-sporty cars you might buy, including the $15,450 (to start) Mazda3.
Also, VW has had a somewhat spotty record in recent years as far as minor gremlins such as problems with electrical systems. The New Beetle, in particular.
That said, the current Golf is an all-new model and VW has hopefully worked out whatever issues plagued some its earlier models. And to be fair, the Mini has had its own issues with quality/reliability, too.
Warranty-wise, the Golf comes with a standard three year/36,000 basic and five year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Mazda offers exactly the same coverage on the Mazda3 and Mini offers a bit more basic coverage, with a four-year/50,000 mile standard warranty (but a less substantial four-year/50,000 mile policy on the powertrain).
The only extra-cost safety feature is back seat side-impact airbags (for the sedan; they're not available in the coupe). Both coupes and sedans come standard with ABS, traction and stability control, front seat side-impact air bags and first and second row head/curtain air bags.
The Golf costs a bit more than other entry-level sporty-economy cars but it offers superior power/peformance and (in TDI versions) simply outstanding fuel efficiency, which washes away much of the difference in up-front expenses.If you can afford to spend the extra grand or three necessary to get into one, you'll be much happier when you're driving one.