It's not perfect, but it's a lot of car for under $25,000. Hatchbacks for the win!
A review of the 2021 Volkswagen Golf 1.4T TSI by The Road Beat.
Volkswagen has decided to kill the entry-level Golf hatchback in the United States. What a shame. The GTI and R models will live on, but the TSI, as tested here, is the last of the breed in America. The Golf 1.4T TSI isn't affordable perfection, but it's pretty dang close. The venerable hatchback that has inspired so many over the decades is still here in an age where crossovers (fake SUVs) have seemingly taken over due to consumer's distorted perspectives. Better and more fun to drive than its stilted and ungainly crossover counterparts, the Golf is here to show just how practical and effective a hatchback still is in 2021. Yes, it has its problems, but for the attractive entry price, it's hard to do better.
What is it?
Volkswagen's Golf hatchback, a vehicle that started life many many decades ago. Through various generations, we are now at our eighth-generation of flavor, long renowned for their style, practicality, and fun-to-drive road manners. The Golf also spawned the feisty GTI along the way, a legendary hot hatchback. This Golf, the 1.4T, represents the entry Golf, doing with much less power and finesse compared to the genre-defining Golf GTI. No bother, though, as the GTI gets its fun from the roots that stem from base Golfs such as this.
A dinky little 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder might not sound like much on paper with its measly 147 horsepower, but it's 184 pounds of torque mean it's a flexible little motor with usable horsepower that's ready to motivate surprisingly well. 0-60 MPH does take 7.6 seconds, but its midrange grunt makes it feel swifter. Unfortunately, this example had an eight-speed automatic instead of the grin-generating six-speed manual, but the core values of the Golf still make for a fun car. Fun fact, I took this Golf to Monterey Car Week, where it was constantly surrounded by expensive supercars. Yet, even around such royalty that you see during Car Week, the Golf was an enthusiastic ride no less. It's all relative, of course, but you'll understand shortly.
As has already become obvious, the main draw to the Golf is its joyful driving nature. While the steering effort might seem too light at first, and without dignifying feedback, once you aim the nose at a twisting stretch of road, the modest Golf comes alive and does, well, Golf things. It might be light, but the steering is accurate, with direction changes coming with an honest and earnest response. Tossable is a great way to describe this platform, allowing you as the driver to just will the car towards apexes and rely on the impeccable balance.
Yes, there's a noticeable degree of body roll, but it allows you really lean on the outside corners as the suspension loads up. This also brings the gift of knowing what the car is doing under you, instilling confidence to tackle endless bends. Understeer is tough to come by, and I only found it when torturing the front tires; There's a very approachable limit and you have to make mistakes to go past it. What's quite incredible, and something I've noticed on other Volkswagen's, is its ability to generate traction out of corners even with the throttle firmly on the floor. Being front-wheel drive, it ought to be easy to overwhelm the front tires - especially when cornering hard - but ask and you shall receive, with the Golf putting power to the asphalt and pulling you out of corners. Torquesteer is also irrelevant because it doesn't exist here. Volkswagen really knows how to make a front-drive chassis work.
Some chassis technology that certainly lends some help is the so-called XDS cross differential system, which is responsible for being able to effectively distribute power across the two front wheels. Instead of sending power to only the overworked outside front corner, this allows a spread that puts power where it's needed. Also of note is the independent suspension at each wheel. While you might not know, many front-wheel drive economy cars do not have independent rear suspensions, but according to VW's press kit, the TSI like this even has an advanced multilink rear setup.
On a brilliant section of Highway 68 that runs from the famous Highway 1 and into Pacific Grove, I was able to hustle the Golf hard enough to chase a Cayman S. Sure, the Cayman could have run away, but if you know what you're doing behind the wheel, it's good fun annoying people that don't know how to use their quicker cars on tight, challenging roads. You've probably heard the phrase slow car fast and, while I prefer a fast car driven fast, the Golf does its duty to epitomize its place as one of the ultimate steers due to its ability to achieve loads of fun at more attainable speeds.
I definitely can't gloss over the gas mileage because it's, well, amazing. At 70 MPH on level freeway, the little Golf stretches a single gallon over 50 miles. 50! On the fast paced Interstate 5, that number fell to about 44 at 77, which is still fantastic work. During the 600 miles I spent with the Golf overall, I recorded 35 MPG, but that also included hours of super slow city driving and stop and go traffic. If mileage is something you're after, the Golf delivers. For what it's worth, a Jetta with the same engine, but with a six-speed manual, in my stead also recorded 50 MPG on the freeway at 70 MPH whilst averaging 37 MPG. This engine delivers the economy.
Being a hatchback, space inside is generous due to the practical nature of the design. Open the rear, and you're greeted with a large volume of cargo storage despite the small 168" length. Front and rear seats are similarly spacious, maximizing possible cubic feet from the simple, boxy shape. Hatchbacks are practical and they always will be.
Like I said, it's not perfect unfortunately, despite being practical and great fun to drive. Granted, this has to be taken into perspective given the car's cheap $24,990 asking price as-tested. However, I did find myself disappointed with the quality of the interior, with a few too many hard plastics. Other new cars now with similar prices have an interior put together both nicer and with high quality materials, too. Some examples of cheap build quality include a reflector mounted on the inside bottom of the door that fell off more than once when closing the passenger door. The roof-mounted grab handle for the driver was also loose and it drooped constantly rather than staying flush on the roof. Pushing it back up was merely met with a slow sag back south, being uncomfortably close to my head. I will say the steering wheel feels great in the hands at least.
The seats are fine, but I did find them too flat and lacking adjustment. They didn't cause particular grief during a long, four hour drive, but more shape would be welcome, not to mention lateral support when cornering with purpose. There was a lever on the side bolster to actually present some manual lumbar adjustment, but the edge of this handle was quite sharp from a pronounced edge courtesy of cheap manufacturing process. This lever, when left in certain positions, literally cut my elbow several times from rubbing against it when getting out of the Golf. I decided to leave it in the no lumbar setting which cured that odd issue as it moved the edge out of the way. Maybe it's just how I get out of cars? But that's just how I get out of pretty much every single car ever.
And this isn't a criticism so much as a suggestion, but get the manual. This a fun car, so make the most fun possible by grabbing one with a stick shift. The automatic is fine, really, but VW's manual is delightfully easy to control and is a great first stick shift for newbies to learn on.
It's still basically great
Yeah, the interior issues bugged me, but those can likely be easily sorted. I was just disappointed to see issues like that on such a new car with low miles, though. Apart from those niggles, the Golf is an attractive-looking, attractively priced, and attractive-to-drive hatchback that is easy to enjoy. I can only wonder why Golfs have been so popular through the years? Either way, there are alternatives, such as Hyundai's funky Veloster. Honda did make a popular (yet ugly) Civic Hatchback, but the redesigned Civic is yet to spawn its own hatchback version, so you'll have to wait for that one if it comes or not.
All things considered, for practicality and fun on the cheap, the Golf is tough to beat. What a shame the suits have decided to send it to the chopping block at the end of this year in the States. Oh well, at least the speedy GTI and R models will continue to live on. So, if you want a new Golf at this price, you better hurry.
2021 Volkswagen Golf TSI 1.4T
As-tested price: $24,990
Pros: Fun to drive; practical hatchback; 50 MPG
Cons: Some teething build quality issues
Verdict: The VW Golf is widely loved for a reason