Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hot Hatch Reborn- Seventh Generation VW Golf and GTI

Recently I was up in San Francisco for the launch of the new seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf and GTI. It was an appropriately urban setting, considering the type of customers they expect the new Golf range to appeal to. It’s worth noting here that the Golf and Jetta continue on their divergent paths, with the Golf moving into the upscale position and targeted at younger, urban consumers while the Jetta is positioned as a mass-market mid-size sedan- and I do mean sedan, as the SportWagen will be joining the Golf line up for 2015.

The new Golf is an evolutionary change, roughly two inches longer and a half-inch wider but also about an inch lower and with the front wheels pushed forward 1.7 inches in a move that VW calls “cab backward.” VW reports that it’s a bit lighter as well. The styling is crisper but clearly Golf- it’s hard to imagine another car that’s stayed so true to its roots after seven generations. The interior is crisp and contemporary as well, and also roomier- and you’d know you were in a VW even if you were blindfolded.

The 2015 Golf will be offered with two engines- a 1.8 liter turbocharged and direct-injected four with a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic, or a 2.0-liter turbocharged clean diesel with a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG. A eGolf fully electric version is expected to be offered at a later date.

VW has expanded the offerings for the seventh-generation. There are new trim levels, two door models,  two special limited edition models, and some aggressive new pricing. There’s a Launch Edition two door with a 5-speed stick and a base price that’s $2,000 less than last year’s base model, plus Golf S, SE and SEL trim levels, so expect to see a base price range from $18,185 to $27,815 for the fully loaded SEL four door. And that SEL is pretty loaded indeed, including panoramic sunroof. Fender audio, 18” alloys, Navigation, remote entry, push button starting and a 12-way power driver’s seat. Options include a Lighting Package with bi-Xenon headlights and LED running lights, interior ambient lighting and adaptive front lighting, and a Driver Assistance Package with forward collision warning and front and rear parking sensors, although the SEL has a standard back up cam.

VW has shuffled the packages for the TDI Diesel as well. There’s a new base model TDI S four door that’s priced over $3200 less than the last generation base model. The TDI models are packaged similarly to the gasoline versions. They’re four-doors only, and all will have a standard six-speed manual transmission (the six-speed DSG sets you back $1100.) Base prices range from $22,815 for the S to $28,815 for the full-boat SEL.  

But most of our time was devoted to the GTI. It’s also all new, including a new EA888 2.0-liter direct- injected turbo four with a modest 10-hp boost to 210, and a healthy torque bump - up 51 lb-ft to 258. And later this year, there’ll be an optional Performance Package with 10 more ponies, along with beefier brakes and a torque-vectoring differential, all for $1495 extra.

GTI will also be offered in three models, S, SE and Autobahn. Pricing is roughly carryover. The two-door S is priced from $25,215, and they range up to $31,515 for a four-door Autobahn with DSG. VW has retained the retro plaid seating for the base model, which is exactly how I would want it.

We had the opportunity to sample all three models as well as every bridge in San Francisco. Both the Golf TSI and TDI were extremely likable and competent- the TSI has slightly more go but the TDI is only slightly behind and more than up to the task. The TDI is just so quiet, smooth and utterly un-diesel that, combined with the lowered base price and the much better fuel economy, it gets the nod in my book.

But my heart belongs to the GTI. VW had a full array of historic GTIs there for us to drive as well, and having owned both a First and Second Generation model new, it was quite a treat to slip behind the wheel again. The First Generation was every bit as snarky and fun as I remember it, with a high-revving and loud 1.8-liter four and a tight five-speed gearbox while the second gen is much cooler and better mannered, although slightly less of the little barbarian that I loved so dearly. 

The seventh is just a very refined version of the second- a smoother ride, more refined manners, brilliant handling, but still screaming fun and I finally capitulate- the DSG in manual mode shifts faster than I can with a stick. I had the chance to sample both with and without performance pack, and while it didn’t seem significantly faster, the brakes were superb. Adaptive suspension is also available in the US for the first time, but I didn’t have the opportunity to sample it.

I have to say that I came away impressed with the seventh-generation Golf and GTI. They’re both VW to the core- responsive drive trains, excellent handling characteristics, the road poise of much more expensive sedans and nicely trimmed cabins. It’s the entry-level for German engineering but doesn’t act like entry-level at all. I can’t think of another car that’s as true to it roots four decades later.  

Photo credit- Volkswagen of America