Driving the New VW Golf a Half-Year Before Its U.S. Premier

While Europeans can have the pleasure walking into a Volkswagen dealer and buying the new seventh-generation Golf now, Americans must wait a bit longer. During a recent trip to England, I spent time in three variations of the newest German four-door hatchback: A Golf GT 2.0 TDI with a dual-clutch DSG automatic, a Golf GT 1.4 TSI with a six-speed manual, and a Golf GTI with a six-speed DSG.

The latest Golf is on the Volkswagen Group’s new MQB platform. This setup allows Volkswagen and Audi (along with Seat and Skoda) to develop cars of varying sizes and engine configurations off one common chassis. MQB is both lighter than the outgoing platform—51 pounds lighter—and it simplifies the process of engineering and producing various sizes and types of automobiles.

My first press car loan was the 150-hp TDI, the diesel with the DSG gearbox. The Golf GT nomenclature brings along some sporting touches but is not meant to be as focused as a full-fledged GTI. If you haven’t sat in a Golf recently, the level of craftsmanship in the hatchback is quite astonishing. Inside the Golf GT, you find standard technology such as touch-screen satellite navigation, radar cruise control with emergency braking, Bluetooth, iPod integration, eight-speaker audio, parking sensors, 17-inch aluminum wheels, Alcantara/cloth sport seats, and leather-wrapped steering wheel, handbrake and transmission selector knob. The door pockets are carpet-lined and the whole experience in the cabin is very upscale. It’s a big step above the comparable Ford Focus.

I didn’t put many miles on the TDI but the experience revealed gobs of torque and a smooth, quiet diesel engine. The car got well over 40-mpg on a fast motorway run from Heathrow Airport to Stratford-upon-Avon. The Golf had plenty of room for four people—even five at times—and the generous cargo area is easily expandable, with its two-level rear floor, which allows you to choose between maximum cargo space or a hidden area under the cargo floor for stashing valuables.

It wasn’t until I swapped into the Golf 1.4 TSI that I was reminded how nice it is to have a lighter gasoline engine sitting over the front axle. The heavier Golf TDI was more prone to understeer and its turn-in also suffered the extra nose weight. The Golf 1.4 felt more neutral and was happier to be driven briskly on the undulating and twisty British back roads.

The turbocharged 1.4-liter gas engine is an interesting setup. The motor makes an impressive 185 lb-ft of torque at just 1500 RPM, and is rated 140 horsepower. It’s smooth, quiet, and happy to linger at 1500 RPM. So long as you’re not looking for rapid acceleration, the Golf TSI will happily pull up a hill at low revs in sixth gear with four people on board, which is unexpected performance from a 1.4-liter engine in a car with a ton of interior space. VW UK’s press material notes a 0-62 mph of 8.4 seconds and a top speed of 131 mph. The 1.4 TSI is quicker by 0.2 tenths to 62 mph compared to the Golf 2.0 TDI, despite being down 10 hp and 51 lb-ft of torque.

One especially trick feature is the 1.4 TSI’s cylinder deactivation, which seamlessly shuts off two of its four cylinders. Yes, we’ve seen this on other cars and trucks, but the Golf is especially impressive for how often the “Eco” light illuminates and how otherwise you never notice the transition. The Golf TSI averaged 34 mpg (indicated, U.S.) over 400 miles of mixed driving, much of which was in the city. If I really wanted, I could have pushed the 1.4 TSI past 40-mpg. Not bad for a 130-mph car without a hybrid system or a diesel engine.

The last Golf I had in England was the most interesting example. Add that “I” to “GT,” and it’s a completely different car, not merely a more sporting version of the Golf. It takes just a few bumpy, fast corners to realize that the steering and suspension damping on the GTI are in a different league compared with the more pedestrian GT. Having recently spent a few months with the new Ford Focus ST, it’s so refreshing to get back into a GTI. The Focus ST is an enormously fun car but there is something about the maturity and craftsmanship of a GTI that impresses. The GTI has no torque-steer, the seats and seating position are spot-in and the dash is laid-out brilliantly. And the VW is no kid-racer. It’s subtle in its sportiness. Yes, you can easily oversteer the Focus ST, but that comes at the expense of the kind of refinement the GTI has in everyday driving. Cruising down the English motorway in the GTI at 90 mph is involving but comfortable and effortless. I never combine those three words when thinking about the Ford.

When I drove off the smooth motorway and onto lumpy, cambered back roads in England, the GTI continued to prove its breadth and capability. My test car had three-mode adaptive dampers (Dynamic Chassis Control, or DCC) fitted—a US$1200 option in England. I kept the suspension mostly in the middle, normal mode because of the multiple steps needed to toggle between settings, and the VW soaked up all the imperfections with ease, while maintaining near-perfect body control. While the Volkswagen may lack that last little bit of driver involvement that you get in a Focus ST at the limit, the GTI chassis is better balanced overall.

The trip computer displayed an average 25-mpg over three-days of very quick driving. The dash gauge indicated 30 mpg during a 90 mph run to the airport with four people and luggage. VW estimates an EPA rating of 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway for the new GTI.

The GTI’s DSG gearbox works flawlessly but I still miss rowing my own gears. There is something about the simple, German layout with the classic tartan cloth seats and meaty steering wheel that feels better with a manual gearbox. Luckily, the DSG is optional. I can’t wait to try the three-pedal version.

My GTI tester didn’t have the new Performance Package, which includes an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, 10 more horses (to 230 hp), and larger brakes—13.4-inch front rotors instead of 12.4-inch. For about US$1500 in the UK, I’d likely add this option, if only for the diff. Still, without it, the GTI never struggled for traction or speed. When I turned off the stability control (as much as possible) I could barely get any wheelspin, no matter how stupid I tried to be with the throttle by rocketing out of roundabouts. It’s a deep contrast from the Focus ST. It wasn’t easy giving the GTI back to the VW UK press office. It’s going to be a long wait until spring/summer 2014 for the new Volkswagen hatchback’s arrival in the States. The base Golf in the U.S. will get a new turbocharged 1.8-liter engine with 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, replacing the less-than-brilliant 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that’s standard the outgoing base Golf. VW of America also will offer the 2.0 TDI. Thankfully, VW has confirmed both six-speed manual and DSG automatic gearbox options with all three engines. The U.S.-spec GTI will have an estimated 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The horsepower number is down from the Euro GTI, most likely due to our lower-octane fuel.

Other changes include a conventional handbrake on our cars instead of the frustrating (and fun-sapping) electronic e-brake on European models. The GTI’s Performance Package eventually will be available here, and summer performance tires will finally be offered too. Golf and GTI models for the U.S. will be built in Puebla, Mexico. VW also says that pricing in the States will be very competitive. Figure just under $20,000 for a base Golf and $26-28,000 for a GTI. I can’t wait.

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