2019 Volkswagen Golf S: Base Isn’t A Dirty Word

Everyone complains about the death of the sedan at the hands of SUVs and crossovers, but hatchbacks are the real victims. Now that crossovers come in all shapes and sizes, who the heck wants a compact hatchback that doesn’t have all-wheel drive when automakers offer tiny CUVs with rugged body cladding, all-terrain tires, an extra inch of ground clearance, and — most importantly — all-wheel drive? Cue the sad violin and let’s all take a moment to pour out some Oktoberfest for good, cheap, small hatchbacks.

VW Golf

Out of all of the hatchbacks on the market, few have been offered for as long as the Volkswagen Golf. Beyond the Golf’s rich history and its importance to Volkswagen, the 2019 Volkswagen Golf S is one of the more affordable new cars on the market that’s actually worth buying. But all good things must come to an end. And reports indicate that the Mk8 Golf won’t be offered in the U.S. – only the Golf GTI and R are, supposedly, coming.

That’s a bad thing. A very bad thing. Because performance isn’t everything for everyone. Sure, the Golf GTI and R are great machines, but they’re pricey and make trade-offs in the name of athleticism. If pushing yourself to find that extra tenth around a curvy road sounds like a less interesting thing that saving an extra $10 bucks at the pump, you’ll soon find yourself with one less option. It’s sad, because the regular Golf is a great hatch, especially for consumers with no speed monkey on their back.

Volkswagen dropped off a base S trim with absolutely no optional features for us to test for a week. Pricing for the S starts at $22,740 (including destination), which is just absurd considering the average price of a new car is hovering around $30,000. The Golf S we tested also came with a six-speed manual transmission, earning the little hatchback extra brownie points and some immediate affection.

Performance

The Mk7 Golf may be getting old, it came out for the 2015 model year four years ago, but Volkswagen believes that it’s never too late to update the hatchback. So, the 2019 Golf benefits from a substantial change in the form of a new 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. At first glance, the change may seem like a step in the wrong direction.

VW Golf

You see, the previous Golf came with a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four. So, it now comes with a smaller engine. Smaller engines usually have less power, which is the case here. The old 1.8-liter engine made 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. The new 1.4-liter motor that’s borrowed from the new Volkswagen Jetta makes 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.

Updating a vehicle with an engine that makes less power may not make much sense. Somehow, it does in the context of the Golf and its lineup.

With less power than before, the Golf now has a larger gap to the GTI and R. It also helps the little hatchback get excellent fuel economy. The Golf is now rated to get up to 29 mpg city/37 mpg hwy/32 mpg combined. Those figures are a lot better than last year’s Golf, which was rated at 25 mpg city/34 mpg hwy/29 mpg combined. Real-world figures are even better, as we saw roughly 40 mpg after a week of driving. For comparison’s sake, the GTI can get up to 27 mpg combined, while the R is rated at 26 mpg combined.

Cutting engine size by nearly half a liter and dropping power by 23 hp has dramatically improved fuel economy. But what has it done for performance? Here’s the thing, it’s fine 90 percent of the time. The 1.4-liter engine is a torquey thing and it provides the right amount of grunt to get off the line when you’re trying to get away from a city bus. Stomp the throttle, drop the clutch, and you’ll even get some wheel spin. For the daily commute, this thing’s got enough power. 

VW Golf

If there’s one area where the engine feels like it could use more power, it’s on the highway. You’re going to have to downshift a few gears to get the Golf up to speed and even then, there’s not a whole lot of power to pass or merge.

The rest of the package is still very much Golf. Thanks to 15-inch alloy wheels that have a decent amount of sidewall, the Golf provides a smooth ride. Even city bumps can’t throw the hatchback’s soft suspension out of whack, while it truly smooths out on the highway. The ride might not be as jarring as the GTI or the R’s, but handling does suffer. The Golf isn’t wallowy around corners, but there’s a fair amount of body roll.

That doesn’t mean the Golf sucks around corners, it’s far from it. There’s a feeling that the Golf could be something much, much track focused with a few parts. It’s agile, capable of handling a windy road a lot better than other cars at this price point. You won’t be going particularly quickly, and there’s not a whole bunch of grip, but it’s a ball of fun. The current Golf is the perfect representation of the kind of joy you can get from driving a slow car quickly. 

VW Golf

The quick steering might have something to do with how enjoyable the hatchback is, but the grainy clutch and vague shifter aren’t the best. VW still has some ways to go in the transmission department before it catches up to Honda. Anyone that will use the Golf for commuting, which the majority of consumers will, won’t complain about the clutch and the lack of definition with the manual gearbox’s throws, but people cross-shopping the Golf with a GTI or R will.

Exterior

The Golf is an affordable, fuel-efficient compact hatchback. That’s something that’s hard to ignore with the vehicle’s humble exterior design. Volkswagen’s done little to gussy up the hatchback’s exterior, leaving that job up to the GTI with its red trim pieces and the R with its juiced-up stance.

VW Golf

That’s not to say the Golf is an ugly machine, but it’s far from pretty or as exciting as its brothers. It’s just bleh. It’s easy to lose this thing in a parking lot and it’s not the kind of car you’ll look back at after you’re done driving it. It’s oddly bulbous, too, like somehow its proportions just aren’t quite right – like someone that’s been hitting the gym for a few months in that strange in-between period where the hard work is just starting to show.

If there’s one strength about the Golf’s exterior, it’s that it’s hard to see that this is the entry-level model from the outside. Sure it’s got small 15-inch wheels, but they’re alloys, and the hatchback has LED headlights and taillights, along with shiny chrome exhaust outlets that all help lift the Golf’s entry-level price tag. 

Interior

Technology is a double-headed sword. In one corner, it’s great to have a massive touchscreen, hundreds of buttons that control all sorts of things, and more screens than an average home, but on the other side, it’s just so infuriating to come to terms with. I still find myself helping my parents delete emails over the phone. So for me, the simplistic interior of the Golf is just fine.

VW Golf

The simplicity goes beyond the large dials for the HVAC system, but also include having to turn a physical key – remember when you had to do that? – to start the car. You also get these crisp, clear gauges that are just the best reminder of how things used to be.

When it comes to interior materials, the majority of things you touch have that over-engineered feel to them. The steering wheel’s a good size, the shift knob fits ever so perfectly in the palm of your hand, and materials feel better than what one would expect to see from a vehicle that this price point. Aesthetically, it is a little drab in here, everything’s a certain shade of gray, but that’s the price you pay for simplicity.

It’s odd, despite lacking things like heated seats, a sunroof, and automatic climate control, the Golf doesn’t feel like a bargain-basement car. The cloth seats, I’m a sucker for good cloth seats, are comfortable, if lacking a modicum of bolstering, and get you nice and low in the car. The back seats are super spacious, too, as two Midwestern adults will be able to sit in the back without complaining. Then there’s the spacious cargo area, which offers 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and a total of 52.7 cubic feet of cargo space. Those are compact SUV levels of cargo.

VW Golf

You’re even getting a good amount of safety features with the base Golf, as it comes with things like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and pedestrian detection. All super helpful things to have in a modern car.

What really dates the base Golf is its 6.5-inch touchscreen. Mercifully the infotainment system has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, because the other most exciting thing to toggle through is an “Energy Consumers” page that displays all of the things that are stopping you from getting excellent fuel economy. The graphics aren’t all that crisp and the quality for the rearview camera is disappointing. Hilariously, you can adjust the rearview camera’s color scale while you’re reversing the car. I don’t know why that’s a function, but it is.

Another gripe is the location of the USB port, which is nuzzled into a cubby directly in front of the gear knob. If you have a modern sized phone with a case, there’s no way you’ll be able to have your phone plugged in and have it fit into that tiny storage compartment. Instead, you’ll have to route the cord to have your phone sit in the cup holder, which is far from ideal.

VW Golf

The SE trim adds a lot more goodies, including an 8-inch touchscreen, a panoramic sunroof, push-button start with keyless entry, leatherette upholstery, and heated front seats as standard. The trim also has an available package that brings 17-inch alloy wheels, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist.

Conclusion

The 2019 Golf S is a great package. It’s affordable, efficient, fun to drive, packed with the necessary features, and spacious. It’s easy to see why everyone raves about the little hatchback. The changes for the 2019 model year make the Golf more geared toward efficiency, which is a smart place to be when you’re sharing a showroom floor with the GTI and R.

But, and this is kind of a big one, there’s another, more modern option for the average consumer in VW’s lineup: the all-new Jetta. Take driving enjoyment out of the equation and the Jetta is the better option in nearly every single way. It’s much cheaper, costing $3,100 less than the base Golf, is slightly more efficient, and can be fitted with a lot more tech, including VW Digital Cockpit. Hatchbacks are doing worse off than sedans in the U.S. And VW’s plans to not bring the base version of the Mk8 Golf to America could have a lot to do with the Jetta.

VW Golf

It’s a sad thing. The Golf has been one of VW’s main models, having a spot in the brand’s lineup since the ‘70s. With more technology, a new look, and a revised interior, the Golf could stay competitive against the horde of new compact vehicles coming out. The question, though, is how many people would buy a base version of an updated Golf?

There’s an honesty to the Golf that you can’t find with other compact vehicles. It’s the Motorola Razr in a sea of iPhones and you have to love it for that. But up against newer, better competitors – including options that also carry a VW badge – it’s holding on by appealing to two groups: enthusiasts that want something enjoyable to drive, but don’t want to sacrifice their pennies or cargo space and consumers that find Cricket Wireless to be a viable option.

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