The 2016 Volkswagen Golf has long been one of the benchmark models for compact hatchbacks, and today it stands as a broad family of hatchbacks and wagons, with variants ranging from frugal turbo-diesel TDI and all-electric e-Golf models to the sporty GTI hatchbacks and the top-performance all-wheel-drive Golf R.
The Golf had in recent years been stepping farther up the maturity ladder, but that stopped last year, with two- and four-door hatchback versions of a new lineup that essentially turns the clock back a bit. It’s slightly larger, yet also lighter, and in the transition of this model to VW’s latest global MQB platform it’s become a more pleasant-driving car as well as more versatile inside.
Hatchbacks aren’t all of it, though. VW last year added the Golf SportWagen too—the latest generation of what we previously knew as the Jetta SportWagen, adding about a foot of extra length and full-fledged wagon practicality.
Styling is still going to be seen by some as too conservative, at least from first look. The profile is much the same—handsome but essentially the same as the previous car—yet the wheels have been pulled closer to the front, the pillars have been slimmed out, and the roofline’s picked up a very slight arch. Look a little more closely and there’s a character line in the side sheetmetal, but for the most part is a design that favors subtlety and sensibility. Inside, the dash is canted more toward the driver, with the whole instrument panel carrying more of a gently sculpted, flowing look as a whole and a cockpit look up close to the driver, a la Audi; and the mix of light and dark materials help make the interior feel less institutional.
At the base level, the Golf TSI gets a 1.8-liter turbocharged four with 170 horsepower that nets up to 6 miles per gallon better than its predecessor, and up to 37 mpg highway with the manual gearbox. The efficiency pick—especially for longer-haul commuters—is the 2.0-liter turbodiesel TDI, rated at 150 horsepower. It ranges up to 45 mpg on the highway, but we’ve already seen better.
Most Golf models come with a four-wheel fully independent suspension with a firm but absorbent ride, plus some of the best-weighted, most precise electric power steering tuning in this class, and road-noise isolation. Keep in mind that TDI models come with a torsion-beam rear suspension, but it still handles very well, with firm steering responses and a ride that strikes the right balance of comfort and sport.
The sporty GTI is the most deliberate of the hot hatchbacks—and yes, the least edgy and spontaneous-feeling—in terms of appearance and driving personality, but altogether it has far more appeal, day-in-day out, than most of its rivals. As a more finely focused performance car, it can work surprisingly well for daily commuters.
The GTI gets an upgrade to VW’s 2.0 TFSI engine, now making 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque (at just 1,500 rpm). There’s a choice between six-speed manual and six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) gearboxes, with acceleration to 62 mph in just 6.5 seconds for the standard versions. A ‘progressive’ steering system and a suspension that’s tuned for performance make the GTI more satisfying to drive fast than the Golf — although its heavy-handed stability-system electronics can get in the way for serious enthusiasts.
And then there’s the Golf R, at the top of the lineup, which adds a 292-hp engine plus all-wheel drive, a stiffer suspension, and performance enhancements throughout. On the Golf R and GTI you can also opt for VW’s dynamic chassis control (DCC) suspension, which brings you better ride comfort and isolation without detracting from the drive—which, for the ‘R,’ is edgier in all respects, although some will wish the powertrain response to be a little sharper.
The Golf is still right in the middle of the compact class, with an overall length of 167.5 inches. Its front seats set the pace for the class, while in back it’s a bit tight (although getting in and out is easy thanks to the roofline). There’s all the cargo convenience you might expect, too, with 16.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats, under the parcel shelf, or 22.8 cubic feet from the cargo floor to the roof.
VW points out that the Sportwagen has more cargo space than some small crossover utility vehicles: 30.4 cubic feet with the rear seat in place, or a capacious 66.5 cubic seat once you pull the quick-release latches to fold down the seat back.
A rearview camera is standard on all models of the Golf for 2016, and VW has buffed up its active-safety options to include a new forward autonomous-braking system that, on SE and SEL models, allows them to achieve the top Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ accolade. Otherwise, it offers several more noteworthy features, like blind-spot, lane departure, and cross-traffic systems, and outward visibility is actually quite good.
With a starting price of around $19k, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf offers a good set of standard features—including touch-screen audio, satellite radio compatibility, Bluetooth, and power accessories. From that, it’s quite the lineup, though—extending to well above $30k for a well-equipped Golf GTI and reaching for $40k in the high-performance, all-wheel-drive Golf R.
For 2016, Volkswagen has made the cloth seats standard on the Golf S (last year they were part of a Launch Edition model), and a rearview camera system is included in all models. The diesel-powered Golf TDI largely follows the same trim levels, except the TDI SE has a standard sunroof. While it doesn’t offer the base gasoline models’ six-speed automatic, its six-speed dual-clutch automatic is an option.
Volkswagen has made some major improvements to its touch-screen systems over the past several years. This year brings larger 6.5-inch (or 8-inch for the e-Golf SEL) screens as well as upgraded App-Connect capability. Keep in mind, though, that base Golf S models include a smaller 5-inch setup.