Review: Volkswagen Golf
Few car models have hewn so closely to their original design as the Volkswagen Golf. When it went on sale for the 1975 model year, it had a 2-box hatchback design, a 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, manual or an automatic transmission, and seating for four people (five if you insisted).
More than 40 years later, the 2018 Volkswagen Golf is described in the exact same way. Sure, the car has evolved and is thoroughly modern in terms of styling, technology, and mechanicals, but uses the same basic recipe it always has, minus the splash of diesel, of course.
For 2018, Volkswagen gave the Golf a minor refresh. In addition to subtle styling tweaks, upgraded standard equipment, and improved infotainment systems, Volkswagen added a new 6-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper transferable warranty. That last feature should provide a boost in consumer confidence.
For this review, we evaluated a 2018 VW Golf SE equipped with an automatic transmission. The price came to $25,605, including the $850 destination charge.
- 2018 Volkswagen Golf Overview
- 2018 Volkswagen Buyer’s Guide
What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2018 Volkswagen Golf, it’s helpful to understand who buys this compact car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Golf buyers are predominately men. J.D. Power data shows that just 27% are women. They’re also older than the typical buyer of a compact car (53 years vs. 49), and they enjoy a higher median annual household income ($114,195 vs. $74,837).
Perhaps due to the existence of the sporty Golf GTI and Golf R versions of the car, it should come as no surprise that 31% of buyers identify themselves as performance buyers compared with just 11% of compact car buyers. Furthermore, Golf buyers are more likely to agree that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and power acceleration (95% vs. 86%), and that their friends and family think of them as someone who knows a great deal about autos (63% vs. 56%).
Golf buyers deviate from the typical compact car buyer in most other ways, too. They are less likely to agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (18% vs. 42%), that they avoid vehicles they think will have high maintenance costs (83% vs. 91%), and that their first consideration when choosing a new vehicle is miles per gallon (59% vs. 78%).
A vehicle is not just a way of getting from place to place, according to Golf buyers. Just 23% agree with that, compared with 48% for the segment. They’re not quite as concerned about reliability, either (89% vs. 95%). They are, however, more concerned about the quality of workmanship (96% vs. 91%) They’re also more likely to need a versatile vehicle that accommodates a busy lifestyle (84% vs. 78%).
Buyers say their favorite things about the Golf are (in descending order) the interior design, exterior styling, engine/transmission, driving dynamics, and seats. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the Golf are (in descending order) the visibility and safety, infotainment system, climate system, storage and space, and fuel economy.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2018 Volkswagen Golf performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM
To appreciate the Volkswagen Golf’s design, you must delve into the details. Otherwise, the car’s artful simplicity and deftly penned symmetry will be lost on you. Purposeful and functional, the Golf’s beauty resides in proportion and execution rather than trustworthy lines. Every crease and every line has a reason for being, and while some might dismiss the result as dull, it is anything but.
Balanced form and function carry through to the cabin. Large and legible gauges sit high, while secondary controls are logically arranged in the center of the dashboard. Air vents are positioned at the top of the dashboard for maximum heating and cooling effect.
There is a sense of purpose to the Golf’s interior, a no-nonsense straightforwardness executed in quality materials. From the black dashboard and upper door panel tops, which help to reduce sun glare in the windshield and windows, to the oversized and carpeted door panel storage bins, it is clear that the Golf is designed to simplify the task at hand, allowing a driver to focus on the road ahead.
If there is a quirk to this cabin, it’s that the engine start button is located on the center console near the shifter. But one acclimates to this rather quickly.
Front-seat comfort is excellent, despite limited 6-way adjustment for both front chairs. If you want, you can sit up high in this car, enjoying an exceptional view out. The center console armrest design is brilliant, sliding fore and aft and adjustable to height to ensure a perfect position.
Rear-seat comfort, on the other hand, is elusive. There simply isn’t much room back there, though VW does make it more agreeable for adults by fully padding the front seat backs. The rear seat lacks air vents, too, making this an unhappy place to be on sweltering summer days.
Speaking of which, Volkswagen’s V-Tex leatherette upholstery might look and feel like real leather, but it breathes poorly, trapping sweat and wrinkling clothing in the summer. In the winter, I presume, it would be quite cold and stiff until the seat heaters got things warmed up.
Climate Control System
As tested in Southern California during temperate weather, the Golf’s climate control system worked effectively—save for the lack of rear-seat air conditioning vents. Three knobs and a row of buttons allow the driver to make adjustments, and while the icons are on the small side, this simple design is easy to use.
The test vehicle had a new top-shelf Volkswagen infotainment system with an 8-in. display screen mounted beneath a flush piece of glass containing stereo power/volume and tuning knobs as well as touch-sensing main menu shortcuts.
Equipped with a long list of features, including three different smartphone-projection platforms and text-messaging support, this system boasts faster response to input, improved graphics, upgraded voice recognition, and Car-Net App Connect and subscription service technologies.
Fully featured and easy to use, the infotainment system impresses. And the Golf’s standard sound system is decent, too. All Volkswagen needs to do now is to relocate the USB port, which is unnecessarily hard to access.
Storage and Space
The utility is the promise a 5-door hatchback makes, and the Golf delivers by providing 52.7 cu. ft. of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. A 60/40 split design, the rear seat also offers a pass-through, which makes it possible to carry long and thin items at the same time as you’ve got two passengers back there.
With the rear seat raised, trunk room measures 22.8 cu. ft. However, that measurement includes space under the cargo floor as well as above the cargo cover. As a practical matter, even if you drop the adjustable load floor to its lowest setting, you’re unlikely to use more than two-thirds of that amount of the space.
Interior storage is generous, even if the center console bin itself is rather small. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding places in which to stash things.
Visibility and Safety
Seeing out of a Volkswagen Golf is no problem, and for 2018 a new high-resolution reversing camera is standard. Excellent outward visibility provides the driver with an added measure of confidence on the road and makes the car exceptionally easy to park.
All 2018 Golfs include an automatic post-collision braking system. Activated following a crash, this is designed to get the car stopped just as soon as is possible after the initial impact in order to prevent secondary impacts that can injure passengers following airbag deflation. It’s an important feature, and a few vehicles offer it.
When you upgrade to SE trim, Volkswagen provides a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, and a free 6-month subscription to Car-Net Security & Service including safe teen driver functions as well as automatic collision notification and emergency calling features.
In crash testing, the Golf earns a 5-star (out of 5) rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and mostly “Good” ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Both organizations identified minor issues related to front passenger protection in a frontal impact collision, the NHTSA assigning a 4-star rating for this measure and the IIHS providing an “Acceptable” rating.
A turbocharged, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine powers the Golf, and you’ve got a choice between a 5-speed manual and 6-speed automatic transmission. The engine generates 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. With the manual gearbox, it makes 184 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,600 rpm to 4,400 rpm. With the 6-speed automatic, torque measures 199 lb.-ft.
Turbo lag is nearly indiscernible, and because all of the car’s power is made below 5,000 rpm, it is easy to tap into during daily driving. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable drive, especially if you place the automatic into its Sport driving mode.
Better yet, enthusiastic driving appears to have no effect on fuel economy. My test vehicle returned an impressive 30.2 mpg on the usual test loop, improving upon the EPA’s estimate of 29 mpg in combined driving despite my use of the Sports driving mode for the twisty, mountainous sections of the route.
Tasty German driving dynamics are baked right into a 2018 Golf. This isn’t the sportiest version of the car, with GTI and Golf R variants providing more power and performance, but the standard Golf is nevertheless a communicative and responsive machine.
Equipped with 16-in. wheels, modest 205/55 all-season tires, compliant suspension tuning, and rather a light steering, this VW dances down any road with the grace of a ballerina. It goes where you point it, without any drama, occasionally thrilling its driver in the process.
Better yet, the impressive outward visibility, thick torque band, and capable handling make it easy to squirt through traffic and around slower vehicles with confidence.
The Volkswagen Golf’s greatness sneaks up on you. Conservative looks, a conventional interior, and a utilitarian nature hide an effortlessly enjoyable car.
Cramped rear-seat space and a less roomy trunk than is advertised are the two primary downsides to the Golf, but these are critiques suffered by most compact 5-door hatchbacks.
Cars like the Golf are designed for commuting during the week and running errands during the weekend, best used as a second vehicle by a family or as a primary vehicle by singles and couples without children.
And if you need more space (Golf Sportwagen), more performance (GTI and Golf R), or you want an electrified solution (e-Golf), Volkswagen can scratch those itches.