2016 Volkswagen Golf 4 Door 1.8 TSI SEL
I’m willing to bet this new Golf is one of the reasons why the Jetta’s sales have slowed. It’s normal for brand loyalists to swap between models, the latest and greatest most often getting the lion’s share of attention, and so it is with the Golf that was redesigned for the 2015 model year and therefore mostly unchanged for 2016. I covered it in 4 Door SEL trim, 4 Door TDI trim (a collective sigh for the TDI) and as the Sportwagen TDI, and all impressed. I wasn’t without criticism, but each delivered at such a high level in most areas that it was easy to agree when many auto journalist associations around the world gave the Golf their car of the year laurels, including the coveted 2015 North American Car of the Year.
My criticisms are the same with this slightly more seasoned 2016 Golf 4 Door 1.8 TSI SEL as they were with last year’s newbies, all with respect to interior refinement. The exterior is classic Golf modernized to perfection, causing two very enthusiastic thumbs up from yours truly, yet while the cabin benefits from many improvements including an even more impressive multifunction steering wheel than in years past, some beautiful new metallic detailing, and even nicer soft touch surfacing where it’s used, it falls short in just how much of it gets used, the quality of some switchgear and a few other misses.
Let’s start with the soft synthetics that have long been part of the higher quality edge (or lack of edges) that set Volkswagen’s interiors apart from many of its mainstream volume badged peers. As noted the new pliable plastics are some of the finest in the compact segment and still cover the entire dash top before wrapping halfway down the instrument panel, even surrounding the primary gauges, and stretching yet further down each side of the center stack, albeit a bit crudely enveloping the cheaper plastic below where the two meet. VW goes further to extend that padded experience atop the door uppers, just like in the previous generation. There’s now a tiny strip of cheaper hard plastic just underneath in front, however, and the rear door uppers are entirely made from the hard stuff, which was never the case before. What’s more, VW used to deliver yet more luxury by wrapping all the roof pillars in cloth, while now only the front A-pillars get the rich treatment. I can live with all this, of course, because it’s still one of the nicest interiors in its compact hatchback class, but I’m really not happy with the subgrade plastics used for the column stalks that are now completely hollow and cheap feeling. Likewise for the power window controls and the rotating dials that surround the HVAC buttons, the latter items a bit on the wiggly side too. But that’s it. The rest of the cabin is brilliant.
From the thin, elegant steering wheel spokes, finished with black lacquer in my tester, the superb quality redundant buttons on top some of the nicest in the industry, to the beautifully detailed gauges that are also surrounded in black lacquer, still analog at each side yet crisp, clear and bright, to the much higher resolution multi-information screen at center, albeit still black and white, to the truly impressive infotainment touchscreen set into the black lacquer-trimmed center stack, now featuring proximity-sensing controls that brighten and pop up while increasing in size when your fingers get near, while they actively come into play when buttons get pushed, and so much more.
This is one of the better infotainment systems I’ve experienced anywhere and all-new for 2016, my upgraded tester’s being eight inches in diameter with navigation that’s actually worth paying extra for, and way too much capability within to sort out in just one week. Still, the Golf’s two infotainment systems are the big “what’s new” improvement this year and should go far to please VW lovers because both the standard and enhanced interfaces embrace simple user-friendly tech just like the brand’s cars. While the system just noted is standard with SEL trim, an impressive 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment comes standard with S and SE trims, also with a rearview camera, proximity-sensing capability, an SD card slot, CD and eight speaker audio, not to mention the most important part, App-Connect Smartphone integration for Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or MirrorLink along with a USB port.
Along with the upgraded “Discovery” infotainment system SEL trim adds a 400-watt Fender audio system with eight speakers plus a sub, auto on/off headlights, ambient LED interior lighting, LED reading lights front and rear, dual-zone auto HVAC, chrome matte interior detailing, V-TEX leatherette upholstery (it’s disappointing that real leather isn’t offered as done in other markets such as Canada), front sport seats, and a 12-way powered driver’s seat plus a partially powered front passenger’s seat for a truly luxurious small car experience, while the Golf’s exterior was dressed up with exclusive 18-inch alloys that gave the car a more balanced performance-oriented look all-round.
My tester also had the $995 Lighting package that added a sweet looking set of bi-Xenon HID headlights with adaptive cornering capability plus LED DRLs, and a $1,495 Driver Assistance package that includes an auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, Park Distance Control that displays a graphic on the infotainment system to make sure you don’t scuff up your nice new paint and Parking Steering Assistant for actual automated parking, and blind spot detection with rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning, plus front assist with forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, the latter earning the Golf 4 Door an IIHS Top Safety Pick + rating while the least expensive 2 Door claimed a five star rating from the NHTSA (the 4 Door hasn’t been tested).
Now that we’re talking positives let’s get back to all the touchy-feely luxuries that separate the Golf SEL from those masses. Just slightly above that USB, the aforementioned HVAC system is automatic, dual-zone and nicely organized, this item exclusive to the SEL, but the car’s panoramic powered glass sunroof, proximity keyless access and fog lamps actually pulled up from second-rung SE trim, whereas Volkswagen finished the instrument panel inlay of this SEL model with a stylish patterned black lacquered design decorated with a classy aluminum accent, with the same for the door uppers. Upping the luxury element, a sweet set of stitched and padded leatherette armrests can be found on the sides and at center, while the gear shift and handbrake feature classic leather boots, the former topped off with a plastic and aluminum knob while the latter gets a black lacquered aluminum and leather handle. My tester also received a high-quality overhead console with a large rubberized sunglasses holder, LED map lights, and controls for that just noted sunroof.
The Fender audio system I mentioned earlier sounds better than ever, especially when listening to dance music due to rich and tight bass tones, while the highs are particularly crisp and clear. Of course, it sounded great with all genres of music, something I found out while exercising the steering wheel controls and my eclectic auditory palate. This said the best aspect of the new Golf, at least from a sonic perspective, was the new USB, an item that to much delight I found tucked away within the lower center stack compartment. Up until this year we’ve been stuck with VW’s outdated Music Device Interface, an overly complex answer to a question no one ever should have asked, with Apple and those still using its old technology being the only benefactors. The MDI shipped with a standard dongle featuring a 30-pin Apple connector in stock trim, so if you needed a regular old USB for charging any other type of phone or a newer eight-pin Apple connector you’d be forced to purchase another dongle from your local dealership’s parts counter that, while a great way for Volkswagen to make yet more money, was an added expense and a pain for the majority of customers. Now, hardwiring your phone to the infotainment system or, even more important, recharging it is as easy with the Golf as with every other compact car. Welcome to the 21st century Volkswagen!
The standard USB and all the noted options pushed the price of my test car to $29,915, plus freight and dealer fees of course, which broken down equals $27,425 for the Golf 4 Door 1.8 TSI in SEL trim, automatic transmission included, plus $2,490 needed for the aforementioned packages, while you’ll still need to choose between three solid and four metallic exterior colors and, depending the latter choice, either Titan Black or two-tone Titan Black and Quartz (gray) interior motifs, none of which will cost you a nickel more.
All of this is very nice, but I’ve neglected to tell you about the Golf 1.8 TSI’s two best interior features, its front seats. These look especially good in SEL trim as they’re finished in VW’s V-TEX leatherette with superb bolstering that really keeps backside in place during hard cornering, which of course is necessary because this is a Golf, not one of its fast looking but less capable competitors. There are mainstream volume branded compacts with more horsepower in base trim, albeit only two and we’re talking a nominal three additional ponies apiece, the Golf’s standard 170-hp four-cylinder clearly ahead of the rest of the pack, but none offers anywhere near its 185 lb-ft of torque, which is available from as low as 1,600 rpm. That’s because the Golf’s entry-level 16-valve, DOHC 1.8-liter four-cylinder is both direct injected and turbocharged for a wallop of performance that doesn’t negatively effect fuel economy, unless you bury your foot into the floor everywhere you go.
That’s tempting of course, as it’s great fun to drive, and not just because it’s quick off the line and totally capable of blasting past big highway trucks on the freeway, but more so because it has the chassis to manage all that power. Underneath is a fully independent suspension made up of coils and struts plus a 22-mm stabilizer bar up front and a four-link setup with coil springs and a 19-mm stabilizer bar in the rear, all combining for the kind of fun-loving performance Golfs have been famous for since the model hit the autobahn in the mid-’70s. Being designed to drive at higher speeds it breeds total confidence at just about any speed here at home, and when pushing it through the curves it’s so much fun that you’ll be wanting to race it around all the time.
There are no paddles on the steering wheel, such niceties left for the GTI, which I highly recommend if finances permit, although the optional six-speed auto in the Golf includes Tiptronic mode for rowing through the gears, and unlike most in this class that don’t perform as well with their automatics as with their base manuals, the 185 lb-ft of torque I spoke of before means that either transmission provides ample get-up-and-go. Flicking the shifter to the right not only allows for manual shifting, but it also engages Sport mode where the powertrain really comes even more alive. When at full throttle it actually holds a given gear right up to its 6,500-rpm redline before shifting, or higher than usual when at partial throttle, or of course you can shift it early via the lever to extract almost as much performance while saving on fuel.
Driving the Golf hard all the time could be an expensive proposition, mind you, depending on your local law enforcement rules about exceeding the speed limit. As noted it won’t rip a hole in your wallet when driven at reasonably modest speeds as it gets a claimed EPA rating of 25 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway and 30 combined with the five-speed manual or 25 city, 36 highway, 29 combined with the autobox.
Even more important, the brakes are discs all-round no matter the trim, even base $18,495 Golfs getting ventilated 286-mm rotors up front and solid 272-mm discs in the back, and coming stock with ABS, EBD, EBA (Engine Braking Assist) and HBA (Hydraulic Brake Assistant), not to mention automatic post-collision braking to go along with its ICRS (Intelligent Crash Response System). Additional safety features include ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation) traction control, ESC (Electronic Stability Control), HHA (Hill Hold Assist), EDL (Electronic Differential Lock), and XDS (Cross Differential System), the latter two being anti-spin features. What’s more, all Golfs get height-adjustable front shoulder belts with pre-tensioners and load-limiters, a theft-deterrent steering column, an anti-theft alarm, an immobilizer, tire pressure monitoring and the usual assortment of airbags.
Now that we’re on a practical note, seating is very accommodating front to back and it’s got room aplenty for cargo, the hatchback opening up a large portal and the rear seats folding completely flat in the usual 60/40 configuration for maximizing passengers and cargo. The seatbacks fold easily too, and feel really well made as they drop into place, while something unusual yet very welcome is the addition of a center pass-through that allows two outboard passengers with longer cargo like skis down the middle. By the numbers you get 17.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats when measuring below its high quality hard tonneau cover, 23.7 cubic feet with that parcel shelf removed, and 153.7 cubic feet when its seatbacks are fully folded.
As I’ve tried to relate throughout this review, that high quality theme permeates the Golf, as it always has. I’ve criticized this latest one for cutting a few corners, and I’m not referring to clipping apexes on the track but rather the cheaper plastics and unclothed pillars noted earlier, but it’s still a cut above most others in this class and on top of its impressive refinement it delivers a level of performance combined with superb fuel economy that’s hard to beat. While VW will have its corporate challenges this year, its problems won’t have anything to do with this Golf 1.8 TSI whose owners will no doubt be as happy as can be with their highly enjoyable, very well made rides. It’s a car I wouldn’t mind living with day in and day out, and one I highly recommend.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Volkswagen Copyright: American Auto Press