A sleeper, not a snooze.
THE GOOD
  • Practical
  • Fun to drive
  • Good-quality interior
THE BAD
  • Fuel economy falls behind competitors
  • No paddle shifters for automatic
  • Overall design a bit dated

In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who golf, and those who’d rather clean out the cat box than spend time with golfers. So how did such a charming little car come to be named after one of the more pretentious and geekily dressed boomer pastimes?

A nearly perfect blend of practicality, affordability, and handling that’s dynamic enough to please the most discerning enthusiast.

Aficionados are probably already aware that Volkswagen looked to the winds for inspiration when naming their cars. “Scirocco” is named for the fierce winds of the Sahara Desert, “Passat” is German for trade wind, and “Jetta” for jet stream. Thankfully, the Golf sprang not from the country club, but from the German word for gulf stream.

Now in its seventh model generation, the Golf has sold well over 30 million since its 1974 release. And while it only ranked fourth in its class here in Canada, globally it’s Volkswagen’s bread and butter with over a million sold last year. The model range is expansive enough to fulfill the role of cheap first car, all-wheel drive family wagon, or hardcore hot hatch.

The compact car market is one of the toughest to compete in. Where once they could pretty much get away with four wheels and running gear wrapped in tin and cheap plastics, car makers must now compete for buyers who expect fuel efficiency and quality craftsmanship at a reasonable price. Multiple winner of many “best car” awards worldwide, the Golf is a nearly perfect blend of practicality, affordability, and handling that’s dynamic enough to please the most discerning enthusiast.

Outwardly, the 2018 Golf doesn’t stray far from its characteristically modest design recipe. The reworked front end features new LED running lights, and a new diffuser-style rear fascia now features chrome-trimmed, dual-trapezoid exhaust tips that are unfortunately fake. The Golf does have dual tailpipes – but they’re discreetly and inexplicably hidden on the left side of the rear bumper. A rather silly affectation for a car of such genuine character.

Our Highline five-door tester is a shade that VW insists is “Peacock Green Metallic”, a rather lofty descriptor for such an unremarkable colour . And correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t peacocks blue?

The interior is typically German, and while not quite up to Audi standards, its understated design is well executed with quality materials. Base models come standard with a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and moving up through the trim levels adds a new 8.0-inch screen, with satellite navigation and Fender premium audio on the top-spec Highline.

Upholstery ranges from entry-level cloth, to faux-leather, and in our tester, dimpled “Shetland Vienna” in a lovely pale cream that I definitely wouldn’t recommend for ferrying around the kiddos. There’s generous leg and headroom in front and back, and total cargo space increases from 493 to 1,521 litres when the rear seats are folded flat. Pocket and cubby space is a little meagre though, and below average in its segment.

Standard is a back-up camera that emerges like a gun turret from behind the VW badge when the vehicle is put into reverse. This simple but clever feature ensures that the camera is kept free from rain, dirt, and snow. My tester included the $1,750 Driver Assistance Package – a suite of safety systems including adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection with rear traffic alert, front emergency braking assist with pedestrian detection, lane assist, automatic high-beam control, and parking assist.

Particularly endearing is the flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped wheel that not only feels good, but is a portent of good things to come.

Built on VW’s new-to-North America MQB vehicle platform, the Golf, even in basic non-performance guise, boasts well-balanced, tightly buttoned-down handling. Despite its rather modest power output, the Golf doesn’t feel slow. There’s only 170 horsepower, but nearly 200 lb-ft of torque that arrives at 1,600 rpm, making it feel lively and responsive. Enthusiasts will probably be happier with the extra power and more sophisticated suspension of the GTI; however, tackling a curvy road is surprisingly enjoyable in a car that’s meant to be a daily driver. And the Golf TSI consumes regular fuel, not the fancy hi-test required by the GTI and Golf R.

The front-wheel-drive Golf features independent rear suspension and comes standard with XDS Cross Differential System, VW’s electronic answer to a mechanical limited-slip differential. Using data from each individual wheel sensor, it automatically applies braking to the inside wheel when cornering, for crisper turn-in and reduced understeer. The result is a fairly neutral car that cheerfully skips and rotates around the turns, with only a lift of the throttle needed to correct any understeer. Equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the five-speed manual, our tester lacked the paddle shifters that would placate the enthusiast who wants to row their own gears.

Left in Drive, the transmission remained in the more fuel-efficient, but lethargic low rpm range. Knocking the shift lever over to Sport produced crisper, higher-revving shifts and better throttle response. During a week of mixed highway/city driving, I averaged a rather unimpressive 8.9 L/100 km – but admittedly spent much of it “enjoying” the curves and on-ramps. Sensible drivers would probably achieve much better fuel efficiency.

In summary, the Golf is a well-built, versatile little car with genuine handling bona fides. But it’s up against such fierce competition as the Honda Civic hatch, the Mazda3, and the Elantra Sport – all excellent small cars with terrific handling and a roster of features that include heated steering (unavailable in the Golf). Still, if you’re looking for understated European sophistication in a small package, look no further than the Volkswagen Golf.

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.8L   Model Tested 2018 Volkswagen Golf Highline 1.8 TSI A/T
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $30,495
Peak Horsepower 170 hp @ 4,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm   Destination Fee $1,645
Fuel Economy 9.6/7.2/8.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $34,785
Cargo Space 493 / 1,521 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$2,545 – Light Package (LED headlights with Adaptive Front light system) $795; Driver Assistance Package (Adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection with rear traffic alert, front assist emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane assist, automatic high beam control, park assist, park distance control) $1,750