We have a long-term Volkswagen GTI in our fleet, so the prospect of driving a base Golf wasn’t that exciting to me. What a surprise, then, when I got into this car last night and was simply blown away by the level of comfort, refinement, quality, and performance in this $18,240 hatchback. The words that come to my mind to describe the Golf are creamy, supple, smooth, fluid, and firm. From the level of tension in the clutch pedal, to the easy-shifting five-speed manual, to the natural feedback in the steering, the Golf just feels right. The ride and handling balance is ideal, and worlds better than that of Golfs from a decade ago, which were far too soft. Its interior also feels good to the touch, as the cabin materials and textures are all exemplary, and the interior design is itself simple yet elegant. Even though our test car is a two-door hatch, there is a decent amount of room in the back seat, and the large rear side windows give rear-seat passengers a good outward view, which should reduce any feelings of claustrophobia.
I even didn’t mind our test example’s lack of options; by avoiding an automatic transmission and a sunroof, you keep the price well below $20K, yet you shouldn’t feel shortchanged, since ABS, stability control, A/C, and a decent radio are all standard equipment. I’m further impressed by the Golf when I realize that the Nissan Versa hatch – albeit a four-door – that we just had in the office stickered at about $1500 more. I know which car I’d rather have: the VW. It just needs a new set of sharp aluminum wheels to replace the plastic wheel covers.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I’m not quite as blown away by this Golf as Joe DeMatio was. First off, the steering wheel feels much too large in comparison to our GTI’s spectacular looking and feeling wheel. I know I’ve complained about our GTI’s upgraded stereo system because it looks like it should include navigation, but the base radio leaves me wanting. I found the FM reception to be sub-par and the sound quality wasn’t very good, which is probably a result of the poor reception. It’s a little disappointing that VW doesn’t offer any other option for the stereo in the regular Golf. If you move up to the GTI or TDI models, there are much nicer stereos available and navigation becomes an option.
There’s a very distinct German feel to the interior of this car. I recently spent a week in Germany where even the taxis are BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes. The Germans do a good job of reducing the cost of an interior (both for taxi duty and for that handy sub-$19k entry price) without making the plastics feel or smell nasty. If you want a bare-bones hatchback, the Golf is right up your alley. But if you’re looking for a more premium compact hatch, the MINI Cooper starts at a similar price and doesn’t require you to move up to a turbo engine to have a more plush interior.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
I actually agree with both my colleagues regarding how this base Golf compares with the TDI and GTI. As Phil Floraday notes, it’s somewhat odd that one can’t order the nicer interior bits on the base car, but like Joe DeMatio, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the GTI’s refined, fun-to-drive character survives the $6000 price cut. Indeed, I wonder if it’s this latter point that explains the lack of available feature content. If customers could spec out a five-cylinder Golf with all the luxury accoutrements, how many would spend still more for the GTI? The difference in power (30 hp and 30 lb-ft of torque) is significant but not mind blowing, and I almost prefer the Golf’s more relaxed suspension tuning for daily driving. Unless you plan on going to the track, the GTI might not be worth the extra cash.
In all this parsing among the VW hatchback variants, though, we’ve glossed over the main point, which is simply this: Regardless of trim level, the sixth-generation Golf is now the best small car on the market. Shortly after sampling this test car, I climbed into a Mazda 3 hatchback and was frankly shocked by how inferior it felt in nearly every way. Everything from the suspension tuning to the choice of seat upholstery is just a notch better in the Volkswagen. Keep in mind, the 3 has until now been regarded around here as the standard bearer for the segment, and it has an All-Star award to prove it. I’d say that the new Golf has raised the bar even higher.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Having driven this base Golf back-to-back with its turbocharged GTI brother, I’m not so sure I’d blindly pay an extra $4000 for the extra boost. This in-line five is fairly smooth and provides decent acceleration, especially if you’re willing to make the most of your shift points.
Yes, the steering wheel is larger than that of the GTI, but this, along with different seats, the bare-bones AM/FM/CD radio, and the lack of a flip-up cover over the 12-volt outlet in the center console, are the only major differences I noted during my time behind the wheel. At no point does this cabin come off as cheap or stripped down – in fact, most of the materials and components are identical to those used in higher-spec Golf and Jetta models, which we’ve previously lauded as being upscale.
Although Phil misses the deluxe audio options, I miss the six-speed manual gearbox used in both the TDI and the GTI, as the I-5 turns around 3000 rpm while cruising at 70 mph. I’m sure the five-speed was chosen to help lower the starting price on this German-built hatchback, but other competitors in the compact class are starting to offer six-speed transmissions as standard equipment.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
A bit too much wind noise from the B-pillar is the only real complaint I have with this Golf. It’s got comfortable seats, nice steering, a nice gearbox, and a strong engine. Sure, it’s no GTI, but it also costs $6000 less than that pocket rocket and rides a bit more comfortably day-to-day, as David noted. I was very fond of the turbo-diesel Golf that we sampled a couple weeks back, but that model carries a $4700 price premium over the base 2.5-liter five-cylinder Golf, which consequently makes a very strong case for itself as the best small car on the market, as David also opined.
True, the base Golf does look a bit downscale with its wheelcovers and plain grille, but the only hesitation I’d have in recommending this car for basic transportation is VW’s poor reputation for reliability (although that bad period seems to be receding) and my feeling that 22/30 mpg city/highway is too low for an entry-level compact car. So I may be leaning again toward the Golf TDI, which is rated at 30/41 mpg.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
This base Golf isn’t a bad car for $18,000. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is strong and reminds me of the old 12-valve, 2.8-liter VR6 engine, with gobs of torque and its intake growl. As others have noted, the steering wheel feels huge and the hard plastic isn’t attractive. The center stack and radio is bland, but not bad for a “base” system. The seats are reasonably comfortable for long stints, and even though this is a two-door, the back seat offers plenty of space. If I were in the market for an $18,000 car, I would seriously consider this base Golf; free maintenance, good gas mileage, and a peppy 170-hp engine are all plusses. Perhaps the only option I would consider would be alloy wheels.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
I have long thought that Volkswagens are overpriced, though their window stickers seem to be coming closer to the norm lately. This base Golf seems reasonably priced at $18,240, but I have to point out that this is the absolute cheapest Volkswagen you can buy in the United States. Think about the features buyers really want like four doors (add $1845) and an automatic transmission (add $1100) and you end up with a $21,185 entry-level car. That price is still on the mark, but it seems to me that Volkswagen should have something to offer in the $16,000 range.
That said, the Volkswagen Golf is a great compact car with excellent comfort and performance. I’ll chime in for West Coast editor Jason Cammisa and sing the praises of the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. While many four-cylinders start to feel coarse when displacement crawls over 2.0-liters, the five-cylinder provides a perfect solution. It’s incredibly smooth and offers fuel economy and output on par with four-banger competitors.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
2010 Volkswagen Golf 2-Door
Base price (with destination): $18,240
Price as tested: $18,240
2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
Electro-mechanical power steering
15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers
Tire pressure monitoring system
Power/heated side mirrors
Tilt/telescoping steering column
In-dash single CD changer with MP3 capability
Auxiliary input jack
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
6-speed Tiptronic transmission — $1100
Power sunroof — $1000
Bluetooth connectivity — $199
22 / 30 / 25 mpg
Size: 2.5L I-5
Horsepower: 170 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Curb weight: 2968 lb
Wheels/tires: 15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers
195/65R15 Continental ContiProContact all-season tires