The 2013 Volkswagen Golf is the latest model in a run of distinctive German compact hatchbacks that has lasted more than 35 years. From the very first Rabbit introduced in the mid-1970s through several generations of Golf (and a transitory, mistaken return to the Rabbit name from 2006 through 2009), the Golf has always stood for sensible, solid, well-handling hatchbacks. The bulk of Golfs sold these days are the five-door model, though VW also offers a rare three-door hatchback that finds few buyers outside the sporty GTI and high-performance Golf R variants.
The Golf competes with compact hatchbacks like the Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza, and the Mazda Mazda3, plus the newer Hyundai Elantra GT and the Kia Forte. And the segment that's growing again, as the industry mantra that "buyers don't want hatchbacks" slowly fades. The Golf's Jetta four-door sedan sibling is still more popular, but the Golf has its place and VW is one of the few makers that's sold hatchbacks continuously in this segment.
The Golf's selling point is that it feels like more of a premium car than most of those competitors. The downside is that its European pedigree, more sophisticated technology, and high-quality interior make it one of the priciest compacts sold by a mass-market brand. The Jetta and Passat are Volkswagen's volume cars, and the Golf remains more of a niche player.
You can get a Golf with several different powertrains. The base model starts below $19,000, but while it feels perky behind the wheel, its 170-hp five-cylinder engine is neither fuel efficient nor refined. It comes with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission, both rated at 26 mpg combined. The sporty GTI model is a blast to drive, powered by a smooth, flexible turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI four-cylinder engine that's rated at 27 mpg with a six-speed DSG direct-shift automatic, or 25 mpg with a six-speed manual gearbox.
The even higher-performance Golf R version, sold only with the six-speed manual, adds a version of the 2.0-liter turbo engine that produces 256 hp , powering all four wheels with a version of VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive system, a performance Haldex clutch pack, and many other improvements including stronger brakes, a lower, stiffer suspension, and dual exhaust outlets. Its gas mileage is rated even lower, at 22 mpg.
For fans of fuel efficiency, by far the most appealing Golf will be the TDI diesel model. The torquey, long-lived 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel engine not only delivers a combined EPA rating of 34 mpg, its owners report that the car often exceeds those numbers in real-world usage. The highway cycle rating of 42 mpg points to the diesel's true strength: its extreme efficiency running at sustained speeds. In city usage, the 30 mpg rating is less impressive. The diesel can also be ordered with a six-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission, considerably retuned to match the diesel's narrow power output band, and that combination is rewarding to drive at the same time it delivers great fuel economy. But be warned that low fuel costs don't come cheap: The Golf TDI starts more than $6,000 higher than the base gasoline version.
Behind the wheel, the 2013 Golf offers a firm but quiet and comfortable ride, with responsive electric power steering that delivers enough road feel to hide its digital origins. The TDI diesel models have slightly sportier suspension settings, and brakes are a strong point on all Golf models. Front seats are comfortable and supportive, though the Golf lacks back-seat space compared to newer compact hatchbacks--and getting into and out of the back in the three-door models is an exercise in contortion. The cabin provides a pervasive feeling of quality and refinement, with no-nonsense instruments and controls and thankfully little electronic distraction.
Compared to more value-oriented Asian imports, the Golf may not deliver quite the equipment-per-dollar level of a Kia or a Hyundai. But its features and options distance it from the "economy car" end of the compact spectrum, with TDI versions including a touchscreen display for the stereo system, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and audio controls on the steering wheel. The GTI adds more features yet, including 18-inch 'Detroit' alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, a sport steering wheel, and various exterior and interior appearance upgrades. A touch-screen navigation system and a sunroof are optional, but it comes up slightly short on the kinds of active safety systems that are now appearing rapidly even in the compact car class--specifically in newer models like the Ford Focus, which is perhaps the closest of all competitors in character and equipment to the Golf. Finally, the Golf also lacks Bluetooth connectivity in base mdoels, a notable omission.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Volkswagen Golf range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.