Base Golf with a manual: Lots of fun, nice to be inThe first car we tried out was something fairly rare for auto journalists: a roughly base-trim car. In this case, a Golf SportWagen with next to no options and a manual transmission. Car companies typically send us optioned-up cars, so this was a nice change. And as it turns out, the base car is still really good. It's even fun, like Civic Sport fun.
Despite little wheels with tall tires, this Golf was great to drive on backroads. There's only mild body roll, it turns in eagerly, and the car feels very planted and communicative through turns. Its 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque are plenty, allowing for quick acceleration even in the middle of the rev band, and the engine sheds and gains rpm with ease, making for smooth rev-matched shifts. The five-speed itself is just adequate, though, with slightly rubbery gates. The ratios aren't closely spaced, either, but at least they're tall enough that the engine isn't screaming at highway speed.
We also tried out a Golf with an automatic, and it definitely isn't as much fun as the manual. Shifts are on the slow side, but it is a very smooth transmission that picks gears pretty smartly.
Besides the way the car drives, the interior is a pleasant place to be. Even though there are signs the Golf we drove was minimally spec'ed, such as blank buttons, a smaller infotainment screen and monochrome instrument screen, everything still feels and looks good. The plastics are high-quality and fit well, the seats are still comfortable and have attractive cloth, and the infotainment system looks and functions exactly like the larger units, just with the smaller display. In some ways the interior is almost better, since the manual climate control allows you to adjust which vents are active with more variation and with an easy-to-use knob, rather than buttons.
Golf Alltrack: Not as fun, but more comfortableNext we hopped into the SportWagen's taller, hipper cousin, the Alltrack. At its heart, it's a Golf wagon with a higher ride height and plastic body cladding. It also comes standard with all-wheel drive (which is available on the Golf SportWagen), and it has a higher base price. The Alltrack starts at $26,805, while an all-wheel-drive SportWagen starts at $24,785.
It also isn't as fun to drive. It rolls a bit more in corners, and the steering doesn't feel quite as sharp, nor does it have as much feedback. It does have one advantage over the regular Golf, though, and that's an available six-speed manual. It doesn't feel especially slicker or more precise than the five-speed, but the closer ratios make it easier to match revs for downshifts, and you don't lose so much rpm when upshifting.
And yet, despite the less-inspiring driving experience and higher price, Volkswagen representatives told us that the Alltrack makes up about 75 percent of Golf wagon sales. But before you chalk all of that up to the power of pseudo-crossover looks, there's one other thing that might sway buyers: It's more comfortable than the regular Golf. The same suspension that makes it a little less dynamic does a better job of filtering out little bumps and cracks to provide a very smooth ride.
The Alltrack was also fitted with additional features, including the larger touchscreen display. This functioned almost exactly like the smaller one, though the shortcut buttons on the sides were now touch-activated, too. One other interesting difference is that it can sense your hand approaching. Though we won't yet get the full gesture control system offered in Europe, the American infotainment system still features some small sensors that detect when your finger nears the screen, and brings up minimized touch functions on the screen. It's slightly magical, and quite responsive. The screen itself is responsive and fast to load, too.
GTI is for driving fun, Golf R is for conquering your foesWe also sampled everyone's favorite Golfs, the GTI and Golf R. Neither disappointed, but we did realize they're for different buyers. The GTI is for those who just want to enjoy the driving experience, whereas the Golf R is for someone who is only concerned about going as fast as possible.
We'll start by talking about the Golf R. It is seriously impressive. Its 292 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque have since been eclipsed by the Focus RS, Civic Type R, and Mercedes-AMG CLA/GLA 45, but that doesn't mean it's slow. It rockets away, and there's hardly any lag from the turbo, meaning you feel all that power almost immediately. It has tremendous grip, in part thanks to the all-wheel-drive system, and it allows you to hustle the thing through corners at a remarkable pace. It's also plenty of fun with either the six-speed manual or the new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the latter of which does some nice downshifting in the Sport automatic setting.
But the whole car feels a bit numb, almost like you're just inputting some commands and letting the car sort out the rest. The steering has virtually no feel, and the suspension, while quite compliant, also feels like it's leaving out a bit of information from the road.
The GTI fixes all of those issues of feeling. The steering is much more talkative, especially as the front tires load up. The suspension isn't as comfortable, but it lets you know the conditions of the pavement better. These tweaks make it much more enjoyable for bombing down back roads. It makes you more involved, more able to enjoy the experience. It definitely is slower, with 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, but still more than quick enough on public roads. And it's less expensive, starting at $27,265, rather than the Golf R's base price of $40,635.