The Volkswagen Golf is available as the bigger Golf Plus and the practical Golf Estate, but here we’re interested in its most familiar shape: the three and five-door hatchback. This model has been around for seven generations and is the car against which all family hatchbacks – such as the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Peugeot 308 – are judged. We've reviewed the performance models – the VW Golf GTD, VW Golf GTI and VW Golf R – elsewhere.
Traditionally, the Golf has scored highly for build quality, performance and refinement, while dropping a mark or two in the fun and pricing department. This latest version is still not the cheapest car of its kind, but it's actually more fun to drive than ever before, making it one of the most rounded and complete cars on the market. As for its price, below-average depreciation (especially with the diesel versions), means a Golf will return more of your money than its competitors.
The Golf is available with a choice of three 1.6-litre diesel engines and one powerful 2.0-litre. The most frugal is the 1.6-litre TDI in the Golf BlueMotion. It returns 88mpg and costs nothing to tax. However, for its more rounded blend of performance and economy, our pick is the 148bhp 2.0-litre, which manages to achieve an impressive 68mpg.
Of course, the diesels carry a price premium and if yo do less than 12,000 miles a year, you may be better off with one of the petrol-powered models. They're not quite as economical as the diesels, but not so off the pace as to rule them out. In fact, the 146bhp 1.4-litre TSI with cylinder-deactivation technology (half the engine shuts down when you're cruising gently) can do 60mpg. It's worth pointing out that all Golfs feature elements of Volkswagen's BlueMotion technology that aims to improve their efficiency.
Even so, neither the diesels nor the petrols can come close to the petrol-electric Golf GTE hybrid, which manages 166mpg, or the purely electric e-Golf, which burns no fuel at all. However, both are expensive.
Depending on the version you choose, Golfs come with a choice of five or six-speed manual gearboxes, and a six or seven-speed automatic, called DSG. This clever gearbox is smooth, responsive and nothing like as inefficient as a conventional auto, so if you do a lot of urban driving or just like the relaxed style of an automatic, a DSG Golf should be on your shopping list.
There are five trim levels: basic S, mid-range Match, ultra-efficient BlueMotion (1.6-litre TDI only), sporty GT and stylish R-Line. Our pick is the decently equipped Match, which has adaptive cruise control, alloy wheels and parking sensors, in addition to the media system with display screen that all Golfs have. Other features common to all Golfs are a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating and a good reliability record.