Don’t let the Golf’s conservative styling fool you; anyone who sits behind the wheel is having lots of fun. Volkswagen offers four different models making between 140 hp and 265 hp, each of which is available with two or four doors. All Golfs feature a dynamic chassis and responsive steering that make them a joy to drive. Other common traits include exceptional visibility and a spacious, high-quality interior that compares well with cars costing twice as much. The base five-cylinder engine is sufficiently powerful but can’t come close to the 40 mpg achieved by other compacts. Efficiency-minded buyers will want the diesel-powered TDI, a peppy and refined engine that is rated at 30 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway. It is pricey, though. The top performer is the Golf R, a $34,000 all-wheel-drive turbocharged Golf that produces
256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. It’s quick and planted, but we prefer the less powerful front-wheel-drive GTI. The GTI is the only car ever to win our top honor, Automobile of the Year, twice. Both the Golf R and the GTI use the same 2.0-liter turbo, but the GTI is tuned to be smoother with a more linear response and minimal turbo lag. Buyers have a choice of two six-speed transmissions: a light and quick manual or Volkswagen’s acclaimed dual-clutch automatic. Sophisticated computer programming mimics the function of a limited-slip differential without adding any torque steer–and the GTI’s steering is as good it gets with front-wheel-drive cars.

Drive: Front-wheel, 4-wheel

Trim levels: 2.5L, TDI, GTI, R

Body style: Hatchback, 5-passenger

Engines: 2.0L turbo-diesel, 140 hp, 236 lb-ft
2.0L turbo I-4, 200/256 hp, 207/243 lb-ft
2.5L I-5, 170 hp, 177 lb-ft

Transmissions: 5- or 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 6-speed dual-clutch automatic

Passenger volume: 92.9 cu ft

Cargo volume: 15.2 cu ft

The enthusiast-oriented Golf R, a follow-up to the 2004 and 2008 R32s, is new for 2012. The R32s were powered by narrow-angle V-6 engines, but the new R uses a high-output version of the familiar turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder for lower weight and improved fuel economy. The last R32 was criticized by purists for its standard dual-clutch automatic transmission. Volkswagen’s mea culpa? The new R will be sold exclusively with a six-speed manual.

Standard safety features include ABS; front, side, and side curtain air bags; tire-pressure monitoring; and traction and stability control.

All: 19-30 mpg city/ 27-42 mpg highway

  • Great handling and steering
  • An engine for every purpose
  • Upscale cabin
  • Mediocre fuel economy
  • Dull styling

The compact with class.

  • Ford Focus
  • Honda Civic
  • Hyundai Elantra
  • Subaru Impreza

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