Despite some signs of recent change, most U.S. buyers still prefer four-door sedans to five-door hatchbacks. That’s why the Volkswagen Golf three- and five-door compact hatchbacks have always played a supporting role to the sales-leading VW Jetta compact sedan, which was completely redesigned for 2011.
The latest Golf was redesigned the previous year, with evolution rather than revolution being the name of the game. It's a simple, uncluttered and attractive shape that shouldn't age as badly as more adventurous rivals. The Golf also has a higher-quality, more Germanic interior than its cheaper four-door brother, the Jetta. It's also more fun to drive, with better ride and handling.
In fact, only the brand-new 2012 Ford Focus offers the same blend of tight cornering and behind-the-wheel precision as the Golf, which stood alone in the compact class for many years.
The hatchback is also more practical than the Jetta, though if you want to carry passengers in the back then we'd advise the five-door model, rather than the sporty three-door. You'll pay around $2,000 more for the extra doors, but if the back seats are used regularly, it'll save a lot of effort.
That does take prices significantly higher than the equivalent Jetta though - the five-door Golf starts at almost $20,000. That's also more expensive than talented rivals like the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Chevrolet Cruze. Sure, the Golf is higher quality than its rivals, but that's still quite a premium for no more space or equipment.
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf has only two engine options: a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder gasoline engine, and the same 140-hp, 2.0-liter TDI clean diesel offered in the Jetta. The gasoline five and its five-speed automatic work fine, but the lumpy idle is hardly refined. The TDI diesel is clearly the better engine, not to mention greener, and it’s the only Golf fitted with VW’s excellent paddle-shifted dual-clutch DSG “automatic manual” transmission.
The EPA rates the diesel Golf TDI at 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 34 mpg. It's worth noting too that the EPA's ratings for diesel vehicles tend to under-estimate the actual economy on offer, and many Golf and Jetta diesel owners comfortably beat the official figures.
Specifying the gasoline engine lowers those numbers to 24 city, 31 highway, and 26 combined with the six-speed automatic.
Equipment levels are good--a CD player is standard, and Bluetooth can be ordered on any model. Befitting a price that can reach $28,000, the TDI model offers satellite radio, a sunroof, and many other options.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Volkswagen Golf on our sister site, TheCarConnection. The high-performance 2012 Volkswagen GTI model is also separately reviewed.