For a car this size, and with these powertrains, the Volkswagen Golf excels, easily cruising mile after mile at highway speeds. Wind noise, even at those seriously elevated speeds, is well muted. On one test drive, in fact, the most remarkable road-sourced sound was the hiss of rainwater on the interior of the wheelwells.
The Golf accelerates briskly with the standard 2.5-liter gasoline engine. Volkswagen claims a 0 60 mph time of 7.8 seconds for the 5 speed manual, 8.1 seconds for the 6 speed automatic. During our European test, the engine readily answered the gas pedal at highway speeds, even at Autobahn rates until it ran out of steam around an indicated 122 mph (it's electronically limited to 125 mph). The manual transmission's five speeds are really all that's needed for everyday driving. Clutch engagement is smooth. Shift throws are comfortable, the linkage certain in its gear selection.
The Tiptronic automatic transmission delivers smooth transitions between gears whether left to its own or chosen by the driver via the gearshift or steering wheel paddles.
The Golf has traditionally offered chassis sophistication unmatched in the class. The balance between ride and handling has always been impressive, with agile moves, a buttoned down feel and a firm but smooth ride. That hasn't changed. Steering response is confident, if not markedly crisp. Handling in corners is mostly neutral, with understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to run) the dominant at the limit mode. The only shortfall in the ride is a tendency, associated with all cars with a relative short wheelbase like the Golf, of the suspension to lope over pavement heaves common to the U.S.'s concrete roadways.
What has changed is the competition. The redesigned Ford Focus also benefits from a European take on ride and handling, and it exhibits a similar type of chassis sophistication, as does the distantly related Mazda3. The Ford and Mazda feel a bit lighter and not quite as solid as the Golf, but they're close competitors for the Golf dynamically. The Honda Civic's ride and handling is comparable, though it doesn't show quite the same confidence when pushed as hard.
The Golf's brakes work well. We used them repeatedly on Germany's Autobahn to drag the Golf down from triple-digit speeds to 60 mph with no drama. Pedal feel was solid throughout, as was the Golf's directional stability.
For those who haven't driven a modern diesel, the TDI with its 2.0-liter diesel engine will be a pleasant surprise. It takes about a second longer to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, a significant difference, and performance is comparable with either the standard six speed manual or the optional 6 speed DSG transmission. On urban freeways, throttle response is quick and linear, with little hint of turbo lag. Thanks to the diesel's hefty torque curve, the engine pulls strongly well past legal U.S. speeds, but it doesn't rev as high and isn't as lively as the 2.5 liter much beyond 110 mph. The manual has two or three more gears than the diesel needs, thanks to its hefty torque curve. The DSG, however, is more than merely an automated manual. With one or the other of its dual clutches always engaged, it almost instantaneous shifts as slick as, or even slicker than a full automatic, making full use of its six speeds to produce a seamless delivery of optimized power to the front tires. The TDI model's 17 inch wheels wear lower profile tires and deliver more certain turn in. While handling is basically neutral, understeer appears in the TDI at the limit, which again is a bit higher than the limit of the 2.5-liter model.
In terms of fuel economy, the TDI tops the competition by as many as six mpg. The 2.5-liter engine, however, is thirstier than the new offerings from Ford, Honda and Mazda, all of which have made considerable efficiency strides with recent updates.
The new Golf R is a different beast entirely. Even GTI owners will find it to be far more willing and agile than their already capable cars. Whereas the GTI is sporty yet refined, the Golf R is more sudden and rambunctious, along the lines of a Mitsubishi Evo or a Subaru WRX STI. It's not quite as quick or powerful as those cars, but the 2.0-liter engine is a blast to drive. It revs freely up to its 6500 rpm redline, with a constant hum that lets you know this is a performance machine. Power is available immediately, but it swells over 4000 rpm to really pull this hot hatch from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds. By comparison, the Evo and STI do the same in under five seconds, but the Golf R is just as engaging to drive, if not moreso. The Golf R's Haldex all-wheel-drive system eliminates torque steer (a tug on the steering wheel in front-wheel-drive cars that pulls it to one side), which can be a problem in powerful front-drive cars.
The Golf R's 6-speed manual transmission has a pleasing mechanical feel with positive and relatively short throws. We weren't enamored of the clutch, though. It's too light and offers little feel upon engagement, which can result in some stalling.
Handling is more immediate than in other Golfs. The Golf R's razor sharp, ultra-quick steering teams with firm suspension settings to make it dive quicker into turns and feel almost twitchy. Still, the solid roots are there, and the car is fairly relaxed in everyday traffic. Between the immediate responses and the constant exhaust note, the Golf R is best left for enthusiast drivers who will appreciate those features rather than be annoyed by them.