One of the Germans summoned to San Francisco for the U.S. launch of the 2015 Volkswagen Golf – the seventh generation celebrating the 40th anniversary of the nameplate – laughed a little with me about how it's the car for VW everywhere but here. Then the laugh turned into a sigh.
Since the Jetta became VW's best-selling car in the U.S. with the Mk2 almost 30 years ago, the Golf has been relegated to that-other-small-car status in the lineup. And it's constantly arriving in the U.S. at least a year after its European launch. That's still the case with the 2015 VW Golf, which comes more than a year after it arrived pretty much everywhere else in the world – where it's an extremely relevant car.
But because VW is suffering from a pretty significant product drought in the U.S. now, the Mexican-made Golf Mk7 suddenly has much more responsibility to recover any sort of sales momentum for the brand here. And driving the Golf Mk7 makes you think people should get over their silly hatchback prejudice and buy more of these. There's no time like the present.
(Full disclosure: VW flew me to San Francisco to drive the 2015 Golf lineup during the most perfect week of weather I've ever seen in the Bay Area. They also provided a constant loop of vintage Golf footage that I can still see in my sleep.)
Leave it to VW to make an all-new car look basically the same as the old one, but it's a recipe that's apparently worked for them. The Mk7 continues with the basic design themes introduced roughly a decade ago with the Mk5. This time around, everything is made to look slightly sharper. The C-pillar takes some significant cues from the Mk1 and Mk2. The sides are more chiseled, less blobby than before.
The Mk7 Golf is bigger, longer, lower than the Mk6, reaping the benefits of the MQB modular platform making its U.S. debut in this car and becoming the basis for pretty much all future VW brand cars. Yet the tighter design makes it look a little more trim than the some of the more recent generations.
The extra space provided by MQB is most evident in a slightly wider rear seat and more room for cargo. But those familiar with the outgoing car probably won't notice it much. Headroom is abundant, but legroom front and rear is just on par with other compacts in the class. The rear seats seem to fold flatter than before, which is a big win in my book.
Most noticeable inside is a suite of electrics that finally get the Golf up-to-date. Gone are the days of all Golfs getting the same gray cloth interior, regardless of trim. Leatherette seating is the most common upholstery, but it feels typically nice. Seats in S and SE cars are a touch flat for enthusiastic driving, but the powered sport seats in SEL models are fantastic. Oh yeah, and stuff like a full-power seat adjuster for the driver and automatic climate control are finally available in a U.S.-market Golf.
All cars are equipped with a 5.8-inch color touchscreen, replacing a truly dated trio of radios offered in the old car. However, the screen in the 2015 car isn't nearly as good as the system offered in something like a Dodge Dart. Not all of the menus scroll the same way. For example, you can swipe through things like radio presets, but you have to use a zoom button to move the navigation map around.
Frustratingly, the U.S. is deprived of the more lavish 8-inch screen offered in other markets. That screen would make the nav system more useful, because it looks hopefully cramped on the 5.8-inch screen. At least the directions are mimicked in the small monochromatic screen between the gauges. But the whole infotainment system is a letdown and a source of irritation. Upgrades can't come soon enough.
While the steering wheel is one of the best in the business, the manual HVAC knobs are unimpressive, and the blank switches scattered around the gear lever are just another reminder of the cool stuff like self-parking that we can't have on a Golf in this country.
There's great news on the powertrain front for 2015. I spent significant time in the new base trim, a Golf TSI S with the 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower turbo four that's been phased in this year to replace the 2.5-liter five in the Jetta, Passat and Beetle. Frankly, it's a sweet motor. It responds so sweetly to the five-speed manual, although the six-speed auto will be the most common pairing. But in fourth gear cruising up to 65 mph on the freeway, it was quiet and relaxed. That's due in part to the 200 ft.-lbs. of torque available.
Originally, I was disappointed to get saddled with the base TSI and its 15-inch wheels on some of the twisty roads outside Berkeley. A GTI, or even a better-tired Golf, would've been absolutely fantastic. So I was rather stunned to find out how well even this car handles the twisty bits. On its soft suspension, it doesn't wallow around. Best of all, this lower version deals with potholes and broken pavement really well, especially for a small car.
The Golf TDI supposedly benefits from the new 2.0-liter turbodiesel four with an added 10 horses over the outgoing motor that was the same size, now to 150. In one equipped with a six-speed manual, our mixed driving economy was somewhere around 37 MPG. In heavy San Francisco traffic, it dropped to 33 MPG. Still, the TDI remains reasonably gutsy and hugely refined. It's only at idle are you reminded it's a diesel.
My driving partner also proved that even the TDI is a competent autocross machine, if you ever happen to drive by a parking lot full of cones on your daily commute.
VW says it anticipates the mix between Golf TSI and TDI sales to mimic the rather even split on the Mk6 between gas and diesel. In fact, VW USA's CEO Michael Horn sees TDI sales increasing with the new car. But given the price advantages and the newfound economy offered with the 1.8TSI, the TDI may be a harder sell for those not doing major highway miles that the diesel could really flex its efficiency on.
Thanks to Golfs coming from Puebla instead of Germany, pricing is much more realistic than it was with the Mk6. While the 2-door Launch Edition will start at about $18,000 when the Golf and Golf TDI go on sale in August, the more popular 4-door versions will kick off around $20,000. Still, that's basically on top of a Focus, which even for 2015 does not look as slick as the VW in non-ST trim.
Pricing, of course, is a little strange. If you want a 1.8TSI with four doors and a manual, it only comes in "S with Sunroof" trim, bringing the price to $21,815. The TDI SEL manual I drove, which comes fully loaded, was $28,815. Not cheap, but then at that price and level of equipment is starts to make a great case against "premium" selections like a Lexus CT200h and Audi A3, and especially the Acura ILX and Mercedes CLA.
The Mk7 will give the Golf more traction in the U.S., but it doesn't need to be approaching the Jetta's sales anytime soon. And VW knows it, because they're proud of the fact the Golf transcends ages and income brackets.
They would like more hipsters buying Golfs, though. So watch out.