2018 Volkswagen Golf Family First Drive - Stick With What VW Does Best

Adam Tonge
by Adam Tonge

The Volkswagen Golf is one of the best-selling vehicles of all time, in the top three in many global markets, but is somehow a niche vehicle in the United States. With consumer tastes shifting to crossovers and SUVs, Volkswagen has continued to differentiate the Golf from its peers by offering six unique versions. The most notable addition to the seventh-generation Golf is the off-road focused Golf Alltrack. Volkswagen accomplished this by lifting the Golf Sportwagen, adding standard all-wheel drive, and slapping on some body cladding.

The result is an attractive and viable crossover alternative. However, it may give up something car buyers love about the Golf: how it drives. After driving the Golf, Golf Sportwagen, and Golf Alltrack, it was obvious that significant driving fun is lost in making the Alltrack a crossover competitor. In its basic hatchback form, the Golf is an excellent driving vehicle. The Sportwagen retains most of that fun-to-drive character. The Alltrack however, doesn’t feel nimble or precise.

Volkswagen used the slogan “Drivers Wanted” for a number of years, but the Alltrack isn’t what someone who prioritizes driving actually wants.

Disclaimer: Volkswagen provided the test vehicle as well as lunch in picturesque Livingston County, MI.

Refreshed for 2018, the Golf family looks like another evolution of the same styling theme that has worked for decades. Compared to the competition, they are downright conservative in style. New LED taillights and daytime running lights freshen the exteriors, while an updated infotainment system improves the user interface behind the wheel. Some other standard features have been added, but all are still seventh-generation Golfs.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rival models have been introduced or updated since 2015, but none of these products feel old or out of date.

Driving the 2018 Golf S was an excellent way to establish a driving standard among the Golf family. At a starting (and as-tested) MSRP of $20,910 (plus an $850 delivery fee), this is the cheapest way to get into a Golf. It, as well as the Sportwagen and Alltrack, features a compact turbocharged and direct-injected 1.8-liter four-cylinder TSI gasoline engine. The engine produces 170 horsepower and torque peaks at 184 lb-ft (199 lb-ft with the automatic). In this variant, it’s mated to a traditional five-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic is available as a $1,100 option.

The 1.8 TSI and five-speed transmission is an almost perfect combination. The engine is responsive, powerful, and smooth, while the transmission is engaging, direct, and competent. In typical Volkswagen fashion, the engine feels like it has more than 170 horsepower. At the same time, the transmission never feels overwhelmed. During my drive, I never felt like the Golf needed a sixth gear. The engine and transmission brought out the best in each other through rural Southeast Michigan’s backroads. It is a very eager and engaging car to drive.

Inside the cabin, there’s very few updates. Most notably, a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system now comes standard. The Composition Color unit offers SD card and USB multimedia interfaces, as well as a rearview camera and Bluetooth. Both Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto are compatible with the system, and CarPlay worked flawlessly during my drive.

The interior of the Golf continues to be a simple yet upscale cabin. All buttons and knobs feel substantial, soft touch materials coat the interior, and the seats are comfortable. The seats are bolstered, but not aggressively so. Like so much of this car, it strikes an excellent balance. My 6’4” frame had ample leg, shoulder, and head room. While this version of the Golf doesn’t have automatic temperature control, the old-school knobs work like they should. These front seats are someplace a driver or passenger can enjoy spending time.

Next up is the 2018 Golf Sportwagen S. With an MSRP of $21,685, minus delivery, the additional $775 cost over the standard (but mechanically identical) Golf gives you an extra foot of length behind the rear wheels. This increases the cargo space from 17.4 cu ft in the Golf to 30.4 cu ft in the Sportwagen, making the Sportwagen’s cargo capacity competitive with many compact crossovers.

The Sportwagen does have a few options that are unavailable on the Golf. Starting at an MSRP of $23,935, the Sportwagen comes equipped with Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system and six-speed manual. For $1,100 more, the AWD Sportwagen vehicle can be equipped with Volkswagen’s ubiquitous six-speed DSG transmission. Currently, only the S trim is available with all-wheel drive. The interior is largely the same, and the 6.5-inch infotainment display carries over. Buyers of SEL-trim models receive an upgraded 8-inch Discovery Media display that adds Navigation.

Unsurprisingly, the front-drive Sportwagen feels almost exactly like its hatchback sibling. More competent in the corners than compact crossovers, the Sportwagen still offers the storage space Americans so desire. Still, despite an identical powertrain, the Sportwagen does feel a bit slower than the Golf. The additional body length also makes corning slightly less enjoyable. While still an excellent driving vehicle, if my primary reason for purchasing a Golf was enjoyment behind the wheel, the Sportwagen wouldn’t top my list. However, if I needed a compromise between family-friendly and fun-to-drive, this is where I would start.

Last, we get a look at the refreshed Golf Alltrack. Introduced for the 2017 model year, this version of the Golf is geared towards those looking for a crossover or a Subaru alternative. It comes with standard 4Motion AWD, 1.5 inches of increased ground clearance, body cladding, and exclusive “Off Road Mode.” Sharing its underpinnings with the Golf and Sportwagen, the Alltrack retains the 1.8-liter 170 horsepower engine, and is available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG automatic transmission. MSRP starts at $25,955.

At an MSRP of $35,660, the Alltrack SEL was, by a significant margin, the most expensive vehicle tested. The SEL trim adds a more sophisticated infotainment system, dual-zone climate control, 12-way power seats, the Fender Premium Audio system, adaptive cruise control, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. It also comes in a rather fetching shade of dark green with tan leather. Still, it’s the worst driving vehicle in the Golf family.

With the Alltrack, Volkswagen aims for a lifestyle sort of vehicle that would compete with Subaru Outbacks and crossovers. In doing this, it lifted a Sportwagen while retaining the same front and rear suspension, brakes, and chassis. The Alltrack weighs 350 pounds more than the front-wheel-drive Sportwagen, while boasting a higher center of gravity and the same amount of power. It’s impossible it could ever drive as well as its siblings.

In the corners, the Alltrack doesn’t feel as planted or accurate as the Golf or Sportwagen. It feels more like a crossover, exhibiting noticeable wallow and body roll. It feels this way because that’s the segment it’s competing with — a lifted AWD wagon with body cladding is a crossover by any other name.

Down straight roads, the Alltrack is composed and comfortable. It should be a comfortable vehicle for longer highway drives. It isn’t meant to be a canyon carver. And, as long as it’s more enjoyable to drive than a compact crossover, that should be more than sufficient. In terms of road manners, the Alltrack feels similar to a Mazda CX-5 or Ford Escape.

It’s an appealing vehicle on paper — it has a reasonable starting price, unique styling, and standard all-wheel drive. It should be a hit in the snow belt. I’m just not convinced it is a better vehicle than the cheaper Golfs.

After spending significant time behind the wheel of all three vehicles, I’m convinced the Golf is still one of the best-driving cars in the $20,000 price range. The Sportwagen continues to be an excellent compromise of fun and functionality, and the Alltrack is a good vehicle that’s outshined by cheaper vehicles in Volkswagen’s own showrooms.

[Images: ©2017 Adam Tonge/The Truth About Cars]

Adam Tonge
Adam Tonge

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  • JackWatts JackWatts on Dec 04, 2017

    I'm going to bet the psychological effect of seeing body cladding had the biggest impact on ride and handling characteristics... The Alltrack is 15mm higher than the standard Golf Sportwagan--and the dampers are about 10% bigger in diameter (no, unlike the article states, suspension and brakes are not the same). I've driven the wagon and own the Alltrack, and I'd noticed no perceptible difference. I've also rented an Escape and CX-5, and while I don't hate either of them, the comparison seems ridiculous to me. At the end of the day, it's a wagon, not crossover. 15mm of added spring height doesn't change that fact--unless the look of plastic cladding gets in your head...

  • CecilSaxon CecilSaxon on Apr 21, 2023

    Bought my SEL Sportwagen in 2018 and it has been a great vehicle, except for the Panoramic moon/rain roof. But hey- character. Dropping Golf's and Wagons was a painful event- nothing VW makes interests me today in 2023.

  • Cprescott This is what happens when you are an early adopter. You are a test subject. Why do Toyoduh (and Honduh) owners feel so entitled?
  • Kosmo Love it. Can I get one with something other than Subaru's flat four?
  • M B When the NorthStar happened, it was a part of GM's "rebuilding" of the Cadillac brand. Money to finance it was shuffled from Oldsmobile, which resulted in Olds having to only facelift its products, which BEGAN its slide down the mountain. Olds stagnated in product and appearances.First time I looked at the GM Parts illustration of a NorthStar V-8, I was impressed AND immediately saw the many things that were expensive, costly to produce, and could have been done less expensively. I saw it as an expensive disaster getting ready to happen. Way too much over-kill for the typical Cadillac owner of the time.Even so, there were a few areas where cost-cutting seemed to exist. The production gasket/seal between the main bearing plate and the block was not substantial enough to prevent seeps. At the time, about $1500.00 to fix.In many ways, the NS engine was designed to make far more power than it did. I ran across an article on a man who was building kits to put the NS in Chevy S-10 pickups. With his home-built 4bbl intake and a 600cfm Holley 4bbl, suddenly . . . 400 horsepower resulted. Seems the low hood line resulted in manifolding compromises which decreased the production power levels.GM was seeking to out-do its foreign competitors with the NS design and execution. In many ways they did, just that FEW people noticed.
  • Redapple2 Do Hybrids and be done with it.
  • Redapple2 Panamera = road porn.