It is the people's car from the company that invented the concept.
For four decades, Volkswagen's Golf, born as the Rabbit in the U.S., has offered European style and utility on the cheap. A gateway drug to German engineering, the car has sold more than 30 million units worldwide since its 1974 debut.
Now the seventh-generation Golf will arrive in the U.S. in August, about a year after it began selling in Europe. As last year's model did, the 2015 version will come in three main varieties: the gas-powered base model, the diesel TDI and the GTI performance version.
VW was careful with its updates to this latest generation, built in Mexico. The size and shape of the 2015 edition — which starts at $19,815 — are largely unchanged. It's still a front-wheel-drive hatchback that comes in two- or four-door configurations.
But the 2015 model has undergone substantial tweaks to the drivetrain, styling and other features in the hopes of staving off challenges from competitors including the Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza, Mazda3 and the upcoming Mini Cooper Four-Door.
VW could use the help. Sales of the venerable compact are slipping in the U.S. market, down 13% so far this year and down 24% in 2013, to just 31,000 Golfs sold — a fraction of the 235,000 Ford Focus models in the same period.
The next-generation TDI and GTI models may help juice sales. But the basic Golf — known as the TSI — won't.
It's not that it's a bad car. It's just not going to be the crowd-pleaser VW needs. The big update for this Golf is a new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that replaces a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter unit. Horsepower stays put at 170, but torque jumps to 200 pound-feet from 177 pound-feet.
This smaller engine promises better power while boosting highway fuel economy by 20%. Automatic models are now rated at 26 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. In a week of testing in mostly city conditions, we averaged 23 mpg.
But where there's a turbo, there's turbo lag, at least in this car. And the six-speed automatic transmission loved to hang out in the highest gear possible to save fuel. Its reluctance to downshift, and turbo lag at low engine speeds, meant the Golf felt reluctant to accelerate. Only when everything spooled up was the Golf a capable performer.
The handling wasn't much better. The suspension is certainly comfortable and compliant. But head into a curve and the Golf rolls to the side like a hard-boiled egg. Buyers of a German-engineered car expect better.
But at least there are hearty Bavarian seats to hold you in place as the car tilts aimlessly. The Golf's interior won't win any award flourishes, but that's part of its appeal. Instead, the cabin is disciplined and refined and everything is laid out logically.
Though the wheelbase grows just over two inches, there is still plenty of interior space, and cargo room is up 8%.
All Golfs come with a 5.8-inch touchscreen stereo system, a leather-wrapped steering wheel covered in buttons, cruise control, split folding rear seats and small touches like a center armrest for the front seats and heated rear-view mirrors.
Standard safety gear includes six airbags and four-wheel disc brakes, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the Golf held up so well when it slammed into walls that the agency rated it a Top Safety Pick Plus.
This makes a base Golf plenty attractive for a sneeze under $20,000. But our SEL tester sold for $29,505, which seemed like too much for upgrades that included a navigation system, 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, a moonroof, Fender stereo system, forward collision warning, Xenon headlights, LED daytime lights, and a backup camera and parking sensors.
That may sound like plenty of goodies on paper, but the real-world result was underwhelming. VW fans with that much to spend on a car should consider the GTI model. Our four-door SE model sold for $29,915, and it's worth every penny. (The GTI starts at $25,215.) Though that model lacks the TSI's navigation and the parking sensors, the GTI focuses on the mechanicals and gets them right. Mostly.
The engine here is a 2.0-liter inline four cylinder, turbocharged and direct-injected, that makes 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Though it's noisy during hard acceleration, it has a fistful of power. The engine on our GTI was bolted to a $1,100 DSG dual-clutch automatic that relished rapid-fire gear changes.
The DSG was flawed in both its modes, normal and sport. Normal was too conservative for a performance car, while sport never met an upshift it liked.
But the GTI can corner, in part because it rides lower, on a sport-tuned suspension setup. The difference was obvious the moment we pulled onto the street. This is how all Golfs should feel — a tight, stable car that feels ready to go in a way the base model doesn't.
The GTI is sharper-looking too. Using the handsome, clean lines of the base Golf as a foundation, the GTI spices things up with aggressive front and rear bumpers, red brake calipers and blade-like alloy wheels.
A fuel-sipping TDI version rounds out the Golf trio. Volkswagen did diesel fans a huge favor for the 2015 model year and dropped the base price of the 2014 MSRP by $3,000. Buyers who don't mind a manual transmission can buy a Golf TDI for just under $23,000.
An unflappable 2.0-liter, turbocharged motor makes 150 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. The power is refined and quiet, never hinting that there's a diesel motor lurking under the hood. The six-speed manual transmission was easy to live with on even the most traffic-stocked days. Our only gripe with driving the TDI is that it shares the base model's lolling suspension.
The EPA rated our diesel tester at 31 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway. After a week of more city driving than highway, we averaged 38 mpg, an impressive number given our lead-footed ways.
Clearly, VW knows its strengths. The company says it expects the TDI to grab 30% of all Golf sales, and the GTI an additional 50%. (That's not counting those who may later this year or early next go for the all-electric e-Golf and the ultra-quick Golf R.) The remaining 20% will choose the base Golf.
That's worryingly low for a mainstream car in the compact segment, especially considering how much VW sales need a boost. It means the people's car needs more people.