The 2018 Volkswagen Golf is something of a throwback, and we mean that in a good way. Fundamentally unchanged since 2015, it seeks the sweet spot between European-style refinement and luxury, and pricing competitive with that of comparable Asian and American models. Yet it clings tightly to body sizes, shapes and configurations of past years, and it still can be had with a 5-speed manual transmission. Most of today’s compact sedans and hatchbacks offer a 6-speed stick or automatic gearbox only.
Most of today’s compact cars are on the tall side, but the Golf retains a low-slung look. Yet it provides sufficient head room front and back, and respectable luggage and cargo-carrying capacity.
Our test car, a 2018 Golf TSI SE hatchback with the 5-speed stick shift, was priced on the high end of what most people would consider acceptable for a compact hatchback: $24,970. The base Golf has a minimum sticker price of $20,910. That’s almost $5,000 more than the base price of a Hyundai Elantra SE with a 6-speed manual shifter.
Fairer comparisons would be with the Honda Civic LX ($19,450) and Mazda3 Sport ($19,145). Both models have acquired reputations for crisp handling, strong performance and refinement — qualities that define the Golf as well.
Among the attributes we came to like about our Golf during a trip from western Connecticut to Boston were its overall performance, fuel economy and comfort. The interior was roomy, front and back, and there were was ample room for luggage as well. And it was fun to drive, with quick acceleration, exceptional road feel, and a sense of control and security around corners.
The Golf’s fuel-economy rating is ordinary at best: 25 mpg city, 34 highway, but our car’s gauge told a different story. For long highway stretches, it read as high as 40 mpg and seldom dropped below 36, even in city driving. With fuel capacity of just 13.2 gallons, however, the Golf needed a refill on the way back from Boston after four days of commuting and travel.
While we enjoyed using a manual gearbox after a fairly long hiatus, we noticed the 5-speed isn’t quite as forgiving as 6-speeds we’ve used. It seemed to require more RPMs from a dead stop and between gears.
The VW’s audio and climate controls are commendably simple and well marked. But if you recharge phones and other devices via the UBS port, you’ll want to find someone with long, nimble fingers to plug in the wire — and leave it there permanently. The port is recessed deeply into a tray for small items under the dashboard.
Another strong point for the 2018 Golf is its crash-test record. It received an overall 5-star rating in government tests, and the similar 2017 model was rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
In addition to the Civic, Elantra and Mazda3, popular compacts include the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza and Kia Forte.
2018 Volkswagen Golf TSI SE
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged inline Four, 170 horsepower, 199 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Weight: 2,945 lb.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Wheels: 16×6.5-in. alloy
Tires: 205/55R16 H all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 22.8 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 52.7 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons
Fuel economy: 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline
Steven Macoy (email@example.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.