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Friday
May162014

First Run: 2015 VW Golf

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Sleep has yet to come after a flight back to Detroit from San Francisco on the Red Eye. Landing at 6:30 a.m. after a full day driving every 2015 Golf I could get my hand on only served to underline the tiredness I felt, and the initial impression that the new Golf is a standard bearer for VW from this point forward. It is the stake in the ground around which the company’s new lineup of vehicles will be built.

Underneath the neatly revised sheetmetal (VW doesn’t go in for radical changes on its mainstream vehicles) is the modular MQB structure that VW will use to build everything from the compact Polo to the full-size Passat. It is a daring strategy that seeks to greatly reduce costs while increasing content; giving buyers the value play for which Asian automakers are renowned, while wrapping this tech and tinsel in a chassis that is unmistakably German and selling it at a competitive price. As the Golf is VW’s largest volume car line, launching this strategy on its back is nothing if not risky. One false step, and VW could hemorrhage money.

I’ll state right up front that more time will be necessary behind the wheel of the new Golf to make a definite pronouncement. However, the initial impression, much like that a buyer would take away after a long test drive, is very favorable. Briefly:

 

  • The structure is lighter, more torsionally rigid and more spacious than before, with the average model 79 lb lighter, despite the increase in equipment.
  • Weighting of the various controls has been lightened ever so slightly and refined, giving the Golf a more upmarket feel.
  • The front wheels have been pulled forward nearly two inches to give the car a hint of the “cab rearward” look found in rear-drive cars.
  • Overall length is up 2.1 inches, yet cargo room with the seat up, claims Volkswagen, is greater than any midsized sedan on sale today.
  • The bare body in white is 51 lbs lighter, and uses 22% more high-strength and ultra-high-strength hot-formed steel.
  • At 290 lb, and despite adding a turbocharger and associated plumbing, the new direct-injected turbocharged four is lighter than the inline five-cylinder engine it replaces.
  • This engine produces the same 170 hp as the 2.5-liter five, but has more torque lower down the rev range for better performance, and increases the Golf’s EPA highway rating by a staggering 6 mpg.
  • Jetta owners, who still must suffer with a hard plastic instrument panel upper surface in the lower trim levels, may be shocked to discover that every Golf has a handsome soft-touch instrument panel upper.
  • Each model also has more standard safety, electronic, and comfort and convenience equipment than before, and at a lower price (when adjusted for content level).
  • The U.S. is the largest market for the GTI, where it takes 40%-50% of Golf sales.
  • The GTI can be ordered in one of three trim levels (S, SE, Autobahn), and each of those can be fitted with the optional Performance Package.
  • All Golfs are now fitted with the XDS differential system that brakes the wheel with the lighter cornering load to reduce understeer. This used to be a GTI exclusive.
  • For those drivers who want the look of the GTI, but not its harsher ride and heavily bolstered front seats, they can order the new Golf Sport. It starts life as a top of the line SEL automatic, and gets a tasteful body kit for a starting price of $26,930.
  • As before, the GTI and TDI can be ordered with a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG automatic. Regular Golfs get a five-speed manual or conventional six-speed Aisin automatic to keep mainstream buyers satisfied.

 

In our test loops around San Francisco, the GTI proved to be slightly more compliant, livelier and a bit quicker than its immediate predecessors. The 2.0-liter turbo motor pumps out 210 hp/258 lb-ft. Ordering the Performance Package adds 10 hp, and fits larger brakes and an electronically actuated, torque-sensing limited slip differential. Adaptive damping also is available. Some found the GTI to be stiff and unforgiving over uneven surfaces and pockmarked roads. However, with three years ownership of a fifth generation GTI in my past, I found the car to be slightly more complaint, lighter on its feet, more willing to transition, measurably quicker, stiffer structurally, and a better drive than Ford’s Focus ST. In comparison to the Ford, the GTI feels smoother, more mature and less the hooligan.

This basic structural solidity is found in all models of the Golf, from the lowliest S model to the limited availability eGolf electric vehicle. Buyers of the diesel-powered Golf TDI — though that car uses a torsion beam rear axle in place of the rest of the lineup’s multi-link setup — are not left out of the fun. In addition to exemplary fuel mileage (31 city/42 highway/35 combined on the EPA’s dynamometer), the Golf TDI retains a fun-to-drive character, and its new 2.0-liter diesel engine is exceptionally quiet. Except for its abundance of torque (236 lb-ft) and low redline, you will only ever be able to tell it’s a diesel from outside the car when the engine is at idle. It’s so quiet on the move your passengers won't know it's a diesel unless you tell them.

The eGolf, on the other hand, is typical of most of today’s electric cars; close your eyes and you will be hard pressed to tell which EV you are riding in. It is proof positive that politicians create mobile answers to questions nobody asked (and for which each of us pays in terms of taxes and subsidies), but points the way to the plug-in hybrid Golf that will arrive here next year. With up to 25 miles of electric-only driving, it will be all the EV most buyers will need or want.

VW’s new infotainment system debuts on the Golf, but the 5.8-in. screen is a bit small, though in keeping with screen sizes in the compact car market. It does, however, use a capacitive touch sensor that allows you to use the same gestures you use on a smartphone to, for example, zoom in or out. As you hand nears the screen a menu bar appears along the bottom edge, and lets you know the system is ready to accept inputs.

All Golf models come standard with Automatic Post-Collision Braking. This safety system uses the airbag sensors to detect a primary impact, and applies the brakes to prevent the car from rolling forward and hitting other vehicles and objects after the initial impact. SE and SEL models come standard with a Driver Assistance Package that adds Forward Collision Warning, and front and rear Park Distance Control. [It is a $695 option on the Golf S.] Missing from the safety tech, however, are the Blind Spot Information and Cross-traffic Alert systems becoming increasingly popular one segment above.

The two-door only Launch Edition, a limited availability model that will disappear at the end of the 2015 model year, starts at $17,995. However, even the most thrifty probably will pop for at least the two-door Golf S for $1,000 more. You can get it with four doors and the option of an automatic, but ordering the panoramic sunroof locks you into the four-door body style. Moving up to the SE and SEL locks out the manual gearbox, two-door body and all-steel (non-sunroof) roof, but adds lots of standard equipment. They start at $24,495 and $26,995, respectively. Rather than run through every model, permutation and price, check out the VW website for specific pricing information. Just be ready to tear your hair out as you try to compare trim levels and prices.

The 2015 Golf is a strong contender, and the only contender that gives the buyer a car with a Germanic/European feel for the price. Given the cutthroat competition in the compact segment, VW will have to work hard to break through the price chatter with its technology, size, space and value stories. That’s a tall order, especially when buyers automatically expect VW to be the more expensive choice. Also, for the next 18 months, the Golf will be the only new vehicle in VW dealerships. The American-built SUV is on hold awaiting a decision on where it is to be built (Mexico or Chattanooga, TN), and it will launch in the midst of a flurry of new and refreshed models scheduled to arrive starting in the 2017 model year. VW’s stated goal of selling 800,000 units in the U.S. by 2018 is almost certainly an impossibility at this point, but that has more to do with self-inflicted wounds than the desirability of vehicles like the 2015 Golf.

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