Mountain Wheels: Award-winning Volkswagen Golf changes with the times |

Mountain Wheels: Award-winning Volkswagen Golf changes with the times

2015 VW Golf TSI SE

MSRP: $24,495; as tested, $25,315

Powertrain: 170-HP 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission

EPA mpg figures: 29 combined; 25 city, 36 highway

I don’t normally spend much time aping the results of the glossy magazines’ annual car comparisons, but the news that Motor Trend dubbed the 2015 Volkswagen Golf as its car of the year is certainly worth a few words.

First of all, that’s a bold move, in a world full of large, ambiguously styled four-door sedans and 700-HP muscle cars. But it reflects the mostly positive series of changes that VW has made to help thoroughly modernize its beloved, no-frills and very global automobile, seen in the U.S. for some four decades. It’s still the hatchback you buy when you get your first job out of college — if you didn’t go to college to become a lobbyist — available for as little as $18,000 in a basic, manual-transmission-equipped model. And still as Germanic as they come, with resoundingly solid clunks as you close the doors.

It’s still not what I would call a typical car for the typical American, despite growing larger and wider and just a little shorter than it was in models past. But it’s been pleasantly modernized; it’s lighter and more fuel efficient, and best of all, it can still be a lot of fun to drive, though not quite as rambunctious as its GTI or R variants.

A new 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine adds about 20 percent extra efficiency to the older, 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas engine, pushing highway mileage upwards of 36 mpg.

“He puts a smile on everyone’s face because he’s got the biggest smile from ear-to-ear you’ve ever seen.”
Bernard Blake

If you want torque and a comfortable ride that can travel nearly 600 miles on a tank of gas, consider the 2.0-liter diesel version — available for $22,000, about $3,000 less than it used to cost to get into the 42-mpg diesel game.

For 2015, Golf has got a more squared-off looking roofline, cool wrap-around headlamps and dimpled curves and a nose that shares the Jetta and Passat design aesthetic. Body-colored side mirrors with signal repeaters and the very striking 17-inch alloy wheels on my SE model also add a bit of flash to the package.

Inside, it’s purely VW austerity with loads of stippled black plastic everywhere, but things are brightened up a tad with some brushed aluminum-looking console, instrument, door and dash trim. Stylized stitching on the leatherette seating surfaces also tarts up the look.

Heating and air conditioning controls are super-basic; a new almost-but-not-quite-navigation-equipped entertainment system is nicely designed, and the touchscreen magically senses when you place your fingers near it and brings up more options, though not navigational ones. In SE guise, you get a full Fender audio system, with eight speakers and a subwoofer and all the whallop of a Clapton guitar solo.

I was not a fan of the pop-up eco reminders VW opts to send you via the mid-instrument display panel — kind of like being told to remember to brush your teeth or be nice to old people — but maybe that will work for some folks.

Despite not being either of the performance-model variants, the standard Golf TSI turns out to be a pretty decent machine to bomb around in. You get 170 horsepower to play with, not so bad considering the four-door car’s 3,023-pound curb weight, and the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission does a pretty intuitive job of reappointing power when you most need it. You can also crack off gear shifts with wheel-mounted paddles.

That sporty-esque feeling is enhanced by seating that’s just a little too stiff for its own good, plus a flat-bottomed steering wheel that gives you an impressive amount of road feel, given the electro-mechanical steering setup.

In the rear, there’s adequate room for three more passengers and a cargo area that’s good for 22.8 cubic feet on its own, or 52.7 cubic feet when required for those big-box-store supply trips.

Is it indeed the right car for everyone? No. But as a basic machine that’s got plenty of style and some nice driving dynamics, it’s a good choice — especially when you’re considering competition such as a Ford Focus, a Mazda3 or the Subaru Impreza.

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