VW goes for value with Golf, GTI

Hatchbacks' interiors, rides are smooth

Volkswagen is hoping the Golf family will take off in the United States. It invested in smooth powertrains and classy interiors.

SAN FRANCISCO -- America has never fallen in love with the hatchback the way Europe has. Volkswagen wants to change that.

With its seventh-generation Golf and Golf GTI, now made for the United States in Puebla, Mexico, rather than Germany, VW had a chance to drive down costs and lower sticker prices in pursuit of market share. But instead, VW reinvested in smooth powertrains and practical-yet-refined interiors that outclass most rivals.

The exception is the diesel-fueled variant, with a roughly $3,000 price cut. A four-door Golf TDI with an automatic transmission will start at $23,915, including shipping; the sticker price was around $27,000 each of the past three years.

The GTI goes on sale in June, followed by the Golf and Golf TDI in August.

The basics: Along with the new Audi A3, the Golf and GTI use VW's new modular architecture for front-wheel-drive cars with transverse-mounted engines. Both models come in two-door and four-door variants, with a choice of manual and automatic transmissions.

The basic Golf gets the same 1.8-liter turbocharged gasoline engine used in the Jetta, Passat and Beetle, or VW's new 2-liter EA288 diesel engine, which gets an estimated fuel economy of 32 mpg in the city, 44 mpg on the highway.

The GTI offers only a 2-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, with an optional $1,495 Performance Package that boosts horsepower to 220 from 210. But even the base engine packs a wallop with 258 pounds-feet of torque -- a 25 percent increase over the previous engine.

During a mix of driving on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., and the hilly country roads to the city's east, the GTI proved versatile. Purists might balk at a fwd sports car, but the GTI took curves with none of the fuss or squealing they might expect. Even the basic Golf, which lacks the GTI's sport suspension, felt composed in the corners.

Golf partners
2015 GOLF2014 GOLF
Wheelbase103.8 in.101.5 in.
Length167.5 in.165.4 in
Width70.8 in.70.3 in.
Height57.2 in.58.2 in.
Curb weight3,023 lbs.3,102 lbs.
Base engine1.8-liter turbo I-42.5-liter I-5
Horsepower170 @ 4,500 rpm170 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque, lbs.-ft.200 @ 1,600 rpm177 @ 4,250 rpm
EPA mpg26 city/36 hwy.23 city/30 hwy.
Base price*$21,515$20,815
Wheelbase103.6 in.101.5 in.
Length168 in.165.9 in
Width70.8 in.70 in.
Height56.8 in.57.8 in.
Curb weight3,031 lbs.3,113 lbs.
Base engine2-liter turbo I-42-liter turbo I-4
Horsepower210 @ 4,500 rpm200 @ 5,100 rpm
Torque, lbs.-ft.258 @ 1,500 rpm207 @ 1,700 rpm
EPA mpg25 city/34 hwy.21 city/31 hwy.
Base price**$25,815$25,915
*For four-door with automatic transmission and gasoline engine; includes shipping
**For four-door with a manual transmission; includes shipping

Notable features: Both the Golf and GTI have classy interiors that punch above their price points, thanks to aluminum and piano-black accents and a streamlined center console. Bluetooth is now a standard feature across all trim levels, while the mid-level SE and top-of-the-line SEL trims get a backup camera and a Fender audio system.

What VW says: "This platform brings economy of scale for designing derivatives, for designing alternative powertrains into the Golf family," Kevin Joostema, general manager for product marketing and strategy at Volkswagen of America, said at a media event this month. "And it's designed from the start with the flexibility to accommodate all the things we'll need for the next five, six, seven years -- for a decade."

Shortcomings: All models come standard with a 5.8-inch touch screen for navigation, phone calls and entertainment. But compared with the best systems, the processor is slow, the screen is tiny and the lack of a USB port is baffling. Marc Trahan, quality head at Volkswagen Group of America, said a newer system, with a USB port and an 8-inch screen, will go into 2016 models.

The market: VW has historically sold 30,000 or 40,000 units per year of the Golf family in the United States and sees room to improve on that number. Joostema said he expects U.S. sales of compact hatchbacks to grow to 742,000 units in 2020, from 571,000 units in 2013.

The skinny: This isn't Europe. Nevertheless, the Golf and GTI should remain cult favorites. And the Golf TDI's reduced price could make it a big hit with cost-conscious buyers who don't want to sacrifice torque for efficiency.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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