A few weeks ago, the SUV I was supposed to review became unavailable at the last moment. In its stead, I received about the last car I would expect to be in a press fleet: a simple 2020 Mk7 Volkswagen Golf with a six-speed manual.
The Golf is a VW icon. It remains Europe’s best-selling vehicle, but in America, the base Golf has withered — indeed, it's all but died on the vine. VW sold just 5,644 of them Stateside in 2019. For perspective, VW sold 20 times as many Tiguans. For an even better perspective, VW sold three times as many Beetles — and even the short-range e-Golf nipped at the base model’s heels.
The result: the all-new Mk8 Golf has since been revealed, and the base model isn’t coming to the U.S. due to those low sales. The Mk7 is down to one trim (excluding the GTI), and it's soon to depart.
Why did VW have this base Golf in the press fleet? I can’t say. But I’m glad they did. While it may have fallen out of favor, the Golf remains the best cheap car on sale in America today. And I’m happy I got to drive one before our collective terrible taste in cars makes it go away.
The Golf Is Fun to Drive
The Golf is a driver’s car on a sub-$25,000 budget. It only has 147 horsepower, ut it has a fluid-shifting manual transmission (or a decent eight-speed auto, if you’re into that sort of thing). It puts out 184 lb-ft of torque, which comes on strong enough to make it quick at low speeds. The Golf is not as laser-like as a GTI, but it handles precisely for a cheap car. As far as 1.4-liter four-pots go, it even gives you some decent engine growl.
While driving it, I rolled up to a car media event, parked it next to the line of Mercs and Maseratis — and realized I probably had the most fun getting there. I’d even venture to say the base Golf reminded me of the 1984 GTI I drove this year more than the current GTI.
The Golf Is Refined
The Golf is like the Honda Accord, in that Volkswagen started with a great car and has spent nearly years softening the edges and making gradual improvements.
It’s a more elevated driving experience than the price tag would suggest. No, the Golf doesn’t deliver auditory solitude, and you do feel the bumps. But it’s also a $24,000 compact car that can cruise comfortably at 90 mph without you realizing you’re going that fast.
The Golf Is Practical and Efficient
The Golf offers up to 53.7 cubic feet of cargo space. That's not CR-V level, but it’s on par with popular crossovers like the Jeep Cherokee, Audi Q5 and Porsche Macan. I’ve moved in one (albeit with help from movers). And, if you needed more space, the Golf Sportwagen used to be around with 66 cubic feet.
It’s also reasonably fuel-efficient without any fancy hybrid tech (just annoying eco-friendly reminders on the dash). The EPA rates the Golf at 28 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 31 mpg combined. And as any VW owner could tell you, it may beat that significantly in real driving.
The Golf Has Not Been Outmoded
Buyers are still looking for fun, affordable small cars. It’s why every automaker wants a Hyundai Kona/Kia Seltos/Mazda CX-30 in the lineup. Those cars are — in function if not in form — small hatchbacks trying to fill the Golf’s niche. And the Golf drives better than any of them, probably at a cheaper price point.
Why do they succeed where the Golf fails? It’s down to ride height, cladding, and, perhaps, all-wheel-drive.
Speaking of which, do you know what car converts well to lifting and cladding? The VW Golf, whether it’s an officially sanctioned Steyer-Daimler Puch built concept or a home-built job with a 2000s VW Rabbit. Just saying.