The Volkswagen Golf is a front-wheel-drive compact in two-door and four-door body styles. Both are hatchback designs that seat five. We found the Golf enjoyable to drive, smooth and fuel efficient. The front seats are comfortable and the cabin is roomy and functional, austere but of pleasingly high quality.
The 2012 Golf is a sixth-generation product, which was introduced as a 2010 model. For 2012, Volkswagen is producing a limited run of 5000 of the high-performance Golf R model, which features more power and firmer suspension settings than the already impressive GTI, which is based on the Golf (covered in a separate report). Otherwise, the 2012 Volkswagen Golf lineup carries over largely unchanged from the 2010 introduction.
The Golf offers a choice of a 2.5-liter five-cylinder gasoline engine, a 2.0-liter TDI turbocharged diesel engine, or the high-performance, turbocharged 2.0-liter gasoline engine in the new Golf R. The standard 2.5-liter five-cylinder is the least expensive, the diesel offers the best fuel economy, and the Golf R offers the best acceleration performance.
Today's Golf looks like it always has. It's roomier than it looks, and the trunk is large for the class. Inside is an austere cabin with comfortable seats. Audio and air conditioning controls are simple and easy to use. Driver visibility is excellent.
We found the Golf cruises quietly and easily with either of the two base engines. Handling and ride quality are better than that of the competition, and the brakes work well and hold up without overheating during repeated hard use.
The standard Golf models most people buy come with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that puts out a very usable 170 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. Most come with the Tiptronic 6-speed automatic transmission or, though the base 2-door is available with a 5-speed manual. The inline-5 gets an EPA-estimated 24/31 mpg City/Highway with the Tiptronic (23/33 mpg with the manual). The Golf accelerates briskly from a standstill to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds and responds readily to the gas pedal at highway speeds. The Tiptronic automatic shifts smoothly in automatic or manual mode. The 5-speed manual gearbox is easy to shift, with a smooth, easy clutch pedal and offers improved performance (0-60 in 7.8 seconds).
The Volkswagen Golf TDI comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine. TDI stands for turbocharged direct injection. The Golf TDI offers a choice of a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual, called the Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG. This alphabet soup of technology results in superb fuel economy: an EPA-estimated 30/42 mpg City/Highway with either transmission. The TDI turbodiesel produces 140 horsepower at 4000 rpm, and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque between 1750 and 2500 rpm. Note the TDI offers substantially more torque than the 177 foot-pounds generated by the gas engine, and the TDI delivers its peak torque of 236 foot-pounds at much lower rpm than does the gas engine. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills, so these numbers suggest responsive performance around town from the TDI, the kind of driving most of us do most of the time. And that's exactly what we experienced during our test drive. However, the gas engine propels the Golf off the line more quickly. The Golf TDI can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds (with either transmission), which is substantially slower performance than the 8.1 seconds offered by the standard Golf 2.5-liter gas model with automatic. Once up to speed, however, the diesel is responsive and competent.
The Golf R, on the other hand, is a high-strung sport hatch that lets in more sound and handles like a true sports car. The Golf R features a high-performance version of the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine from the GTI. In the R, it makes 256 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque. The lone transmission is a 6-speed manual, and estimated fuel economy ratings are 19/27 mpg. The Golf R gets all that power to the pavement better than other Golf models because it comes standard with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system. Golf R comes with a sport-tuned suspension, upgraded brakes, 18-inch wheels and electronic stability control tuned to allow sportier driving. Volkswagen says the Golf R can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds, and the top speed is limited to 130 mph. On the road, the Golf R is much more raw than other Golfs, including the GTI. The reactions of the steering, throttle and brakes are much quicker. While the engine does its best work above 4000 rpm, it revs freely, making the R a blast to drive hard.