- The best small car you can currently buy
- Punchy engines lead very refined driving dynamics
- High quality, especially in the cabin
- More expensive than some rivals
- Double clutch auto still needs polish
- They're literally the only problems
If you just need a car, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf is the best car you can buy.
Buying a Golf is the sensible thing to do – the reason you see so many is that they are high-quality cars with an uncanny ability to mimic something much more expensive.
Other small cars are more adventurous to look at, but behind those plain lines, Volkswagen knows it doesn’t need to show off.
That’s because – despite rivals creeping closer – the Mark Seven Golf still sets the benchmark in this class, with daylight between it and those vying for second place.
The combination of small but strong turbo engines and sure-footed handling, wrapped in a premium-feeling interior can’t be beat.
It’s no wonder the Golf’s rivals are scrambling to adopt this recipe.
The best value is the base model, which is just ridiculously inexpensive for a car that feels this special – but the middle-pack models most people buy are worth the extra coin.
Look, it’s not perfect – the Golf’s DSG automatic can be a bit unpredictable at town speeds, and these cars are a little more expensive to buy than the competition.
Forgive those things, and it is genuinely hard to name faults. The diesel emissions affair? This generation of Golf was never called into question, and the petrols are the pick anyway.
By now it’ll be pretty obvious that we recommend the Golf if you’re looking to spend between $20,000 and $30,000 on a small car. To find out why, watch the video above – and then read on.
Every Golf, from the base model to the very fast Golf R, uses a turbocharged four-cylinder. This review focusses on the everyday Golfs: the 92TSI and 110TSI petrols and 110TDI diesel.
Most people go for the 92kW 1.4-litre petrol. That’s no bad thing, because the 92TSI is a properly sweet engine.
Its small capacity is deceptive – the 92TSI is willing and punchy, and it never loses its composure. There’s no thrashing around that you get in some other small four-cylinders.
That’s because Golfs build their speed through torque. The 92TSI has 200Nm available from just above idle, making it feel more powerful than the numbers suggest.
So there’s probably no need to go beyond the 92TSI: it’s zippy in town but can still hold its own on the freeway, with decent hustle throughout the rev range.
The bigger engines are only available with the Golf Highline package, in the mid-$30,000s. This adds leather and other goodies – plus more power, and the option of a diesel.
Unless you’re planning to cover really long distances, the $2,500 diesel option is overkill.
But the Highline’s standard 110TSI petrol is quite impressive. Most of the time it feels like a 92TSI but on a country road, the extra 18kW and 50Nm are noticeable – it’s pretty quick.
Both petrols are economical on fuel. You should expect in the 7L/100km range in town, or the 5L/100km range in the country. The diesel is even more frugal.
So, the automatic transmission. This is one of the only points of contention when buying a Golf – the DSG automatic, though much improved here, is still not totally smooth.
However it is easy to master the DSG’s character and it is worth optioning it up ($2,500) on entry-level models.
What makes the Golf feel really premium is the combination of those turbo engines, with a great ride and handling balance.
The handling is crisp and agile, with steering that is light and easy in town before weighting up at higher speeds. The Golf feels enthusiastic and natural when driven fast – the solid chassis loves to be pushed and you can feel the spirit of the GTI in every model.
Parking it is easy because it’s a squared-off hatch with plenty of glass. The visibility is well above average for the class.
A comfortable suspension setup manages to even out most bumps without feeling floaty – only the roughest Sydney roads managed to disrupt the serenity inside the quiet cabin.
Autonomous safety technology has started to seep into the Golf range. An optional $1,500 suite – including active cruise control, low-speed autonomous emergency braking, blind spot warnings, rear cross traffic alert, and automated parking – is available on most models. We look forward to seeing it standard on every trim in the future.
The Golf’s interior isn’t adventurously designed, but it leaves you in no doubt that this is a quality product.
Every Golf model gets a supple, stitched leather steering wheel and shifter, plus soft-touch materials almost everywhere else. It’s impressive that the base model doesn’t skimp.
The doors are heavier than on most rivals, because that feels right – and when they close, they close with a dull thunk, because that sounds right.
And it doesn’t matter if you go for the base model or the Golf R – every car has the same 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, which are the easiest ways to play your music and get navigation.
With all the basic materials and technology being shared, the differences in the base, Trendline, Comfortline and Highline grades come down to things like the seats.
The leather seats on the Highline are great. They are well-bolstered and supportive, and the leather looks and feels expensive.
And the Comfortline’s cloth pews aren’t bad either – they are a step up from the flatter seat designs on the more basic models. For many drivers, that will justify going up the range.
The driving position sits somewhere between acceptable and good. Long-legged drivers will miss a seat base that has control over its horizontal angle.
Dual climate control and built-in satellite navigation are also Comfortline-and-up inclusions – but the range-wide smartphone mirroring software does a better job anyway.
An upgrade to the information screen between the gauges is expected soon, and it will be a welcome upgrade from the black-and-white version in the current model.
Rivals like the Honda Civic have grown quite massive – they should really be thought of as medium-sized – but the Golf has stayed true to the small car formula.
That means the back seat isn’t massive. It’s comfortable enough, with good headroom and with a reclined angle on the backrest, but legroom will challenge really tall people.
Passengers in the back will appreciate Volkswagen’s decision to include rear air vents on each model – something not even the most expensive Mazda 3 can manage.
We’re glad that Volkswagen have resisted the temptation to make the Golf bigger. The current size is small enough for the city, but big enough to hold its own.
Instead of enlarging the car, VW have made smarter use of the space they have. The upright tailgate and deep boot space give the Golf good carrying capacity.
With a capacity of 380 litres, the Golf’s boot is 20% larger than a Ford Focus, 24% larger than a Mazda 3, and 36% bigger than that in a Toyota Corolla.
Improvements in packaging over the old Golf include the fact that, when folded, the back seats sit flat against the boot floor, making it easy to slide long objects in.
Unlike some rivals, though, the back seats can’t be folded through levers in the boot itself.
There are handy shopping bag hooks, though, to stop your milk and eggs from flying around.
And you won’t scrape it on the way to get that milk. The Golf’s dimensions are so tight, with no frivolous styling outside, so you feel like you know exactly where the car is around you.
Each one comes with a reversing camera standard, too.
Back in the cabin, there are plenty of nooks and crannies for storing everyday crap. There adjustable armrest between the front seats houses a deep bin, and the Golf’s felt-lined door bins stop things sliding around.
Just one USB port for the whole car feels a bit stingy, but I guess we should be thankful – until recently, Volkswagen didn’t include one at all.
It’s hardly a tow car, but if push comes to shove, the Golf will tow 620kg of unbraked trailer, or 1.4 tonnes unbraked.
RELIABILITY & RUNNING COSTS
While Volkswagen has a stellar reputation for perceived quality, the image of Volkswagen reliability is a bit patchy.
With four years of personal ownership under my belt, I’ve had no problem – but not everybody could say that.
My biggest problem has been the cost of maintenance, which is excessive on my old Golf. Volkswagen have brought this under control now with a capped price servicing programme.
The biggest Golf grumble people have historically had has been DSG automatic clutch trouble. This seem to be improving, but internet forums are still peppered with references. Volkswagen generally repair this for free under warranty – so it’s not a major concern for us.
The brand’s middling quality score on JD Power is nothing to complain about.
The three year, unlimited kilometre warranty helps to allay some of our concerns about the Golf’s decidedly average JD Power model reliability rating.
The complexity of small-displacement turbo engines require regular maintenance, so sticking to the service plan will be crucial.
Luckily Volkswagen have been dedicating major attention to their service quality, introducing a transparent, online rating system for each VW service centre. Rude service departments won’t be able to get away with it.
Perceived quality is very high. Materials used throughout feel excellent and this car gives the impression of being solid and safe.
Predicted Golf depreciation is better than many rivals. After three years and 42,000km—the average—Glass’s Guide indicates that the Golf Highline will retain about 62% of its value. That’s the same as a Hyundai i30 Premium, and quite a bit better than the Ford Focus Titanium at 57%.
VALUE FOR MONEY
One of the Golf’s advantages is that you have so much choice – in performance, kit levels, and even body styles: a wagon is available if the hatch isn’t big enough.
The standout of the range in terms of value is the base model 92TSI ($22,840) – in fact, we don’t think you can find better value for money in any car.
The 92TSI doesn’t skimp on equipment – quite the opposite. It couples a refined, punchy turbo engine with the incredible refinement levels standard in every Golf. Many cars three times the price do not approach how good the 92TSI is.
Standard fare from the base model upwards includes the 6.5-inch touchscreen with CarPlay and Android Auto; a reversing camera; a classy leather steering wheel; cruise control; Bluetooth; and 7 airbags.
If you’re after more power, more luxury, or more space, Volkswagen can cater for that.
Lots of people buy the mid-range Golf – the 92TSI Comfortline ($28,340), which adds navigation; automatic wipers, better speakers, parking sensors, 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate – and a set of more supportive front seats. That’s what we would buy.
We also like the 110TSI Highline ($33,340), which adds a suite of luxury features – and, all round, feels more like an Audi than a Volkswagen.
Go for the Highline, and you’ll score genuinely nice leather seats, keyless entry and go, front fog lights, and more handsome, larger wheels.
The autonomous safety feature package is a $1,500 option and is a box worth ticking.
Wagons are available for most models and add $1,500 in exchange for a big boot.
Then the range pushes into the performance space with fast Golf GTI, and really fast all-wheel-drive Golf R models. But we’ll reserve judgment on these models until we drive them.
Volkswagen’s Golf competes in a crowded small car market, where brands compete both on price and quality.
While Volkswagen recently told us that the Golf will never be the cheapest small car, we feel that you get what you pay for – and it’s not as if the Golf is priced well above the rest of the field. It’s competitive.
It’s worth driving the Golf’s rivals to find out which car best suits your lifestyle – but if what you are after is a genuine feeling of quality, nothing currently beats the Volkswagen.
Keep in mind that a new-generation Hyundai i30 is due in Australia early next year, using similar turbo engines to the Golf – and that should be a very strong contender.
The Mazda 3, also, is a perennial favourite of buyers and is particularly worthy of a drive.
Our field of competitors is based on the Volkswagen Golf 92TSI Comfortline, which is automatic only ($28,340).
- Honda Civic VTi-L ($27,790)
- Ford Focus Sport ($27,490)
- Hyundai i30 SR ($28,850)
- Kia Cerato Si Hatch ($28,990)
- Mazda 3 SP25 Hatch ($27,690)
- Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S Hatch ($27,900)
- Toyota Corolla SX ($26,000)
|Power to weight ratio||87kW / tonne|
|Fuel consumption (combined)||5.4L/100km|
|Average range||926 kilometres|
Transmission and Drivetrain
|Drivetrain||Front wheel drive|
Dimensions and Weights
|Unoccupied weight||1.27 tonnes|
|Cargo space (seats up)||380 litres|
|Cargo space (seats down)||1270 litres|