Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TSI DSG

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In addition to the GTI, the base Golf is limited to one well-equipped trim for 2021 that now comes standard with 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, keyless start, synthetic leather seats, heated fronts, and a panoramic sunroof. The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI remains one of the best affordable sports cars, but the expensive Autobahn trim leads us astray.

The 2021 Volkswagen Golf hatchback takes its final spin before the redesigned eighth-generation model launches for 2022. When it returns, it’ll only come in five-door GTI and Golf R performance-oriented models, whereas for 2021 it can be had as a Golf TSI or Golf GTI. The Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza wagon and Toyota Corolla remain compelling hatchbacks.   

The classic hatchback has aged well, especially the GTI and its 18-inch wheels and red trim flourishes. The nose dips low into a wide lower lip for an athletic stance with a swole rear end that’s ready to pounce. Plaid seats or synthetic leather aside, the interior is uninspired. 

A choice of turbo-4s distinguish the basic Golf TSI from the endearing Golf GTI. The 147-hp 1.4-liter on the TSI tops out pretty quickly, but the standard 6-speed manual and good steering and handling keep it fun. The GTI fuels better fantasies with its 228-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 that’s a benchmark for the class, even though a 0-60 mph time of about six seconds may no longer impress. The specs don’t reflect the sum of its parts, but once you add up the steering, handling, and quickness, the GTI remains one of the most fun cars to drive at this price. 

The two-box shape lends itself to good headroom and enough comfortable space for four, though there are five seatbelts. Cargo volume is as good as many small crossovers. 

Good value and good features are par for the course on the 2021 Golf. Its standard automatic emergency braking supplements mostly good crash-test ratings. An outdated 6.5-inch touchscreen comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. 

Volkswagen design errs on the conservative side, but the Golf hatchback’s exterior has aged better than its interior, despite the quirky plaid seats and golf-ball shifter on the GTI. The classic hatch still earns a point on our scale to a 6.

A low-rising hood, short overhangs, and a relatively compact wheelbase stretches between 16-inch wheels on the Golf TSI or aluminum-alloy 18s on the GTI. LED daytime running lights create a visual line that rings around the five doors to the LED taillights at the rear, and the lower grille spans the breadth of the face for a low, wide look. GTI adds all the badging, subtle red trim pieces, a mesh grille, an integrated rear spoiler, and dual exhaust pipes on its boxy rear end.

Inside, the wide, spartan dashboard leans into the driver, but the center stack feels a generation old because it is. The Golf’s analog cluster doesn’t feel out of date or place, but the overwhelming dark plastic all over the cabin can’t be offset by standard synthetic leather seats that are heated.

The composed ride of the front-wheel-drive hatchback earns it a point, while the punchier turbo-4 on the more popular GTI models earn it another point here for a 7.

For 2021, the Golf is offered in base TSI and uprated GTI versions. The 6-speed manual transmission standard on either model should be used in Driver’s Ed programs, with a clutch pedal neither too firm nor soft, and a shifter that unifies the gap between driver and machine. Be at one, grasshopper.

If teachable moments are no longer in style, like the manual, the Golf TSI can be had with an 8-speed automatic routing the 1.4-liter turbo-4’s 147 hp to the front wheels. It’s brisk off the line, hustling to 60 mph in the mid-seven second range, but it loses its punch at higher speeds. The front struts and multilink rear suspension combine with a low center of gravity for good handling but with a ride that is comfy enough for long hauls. 

VW’s progressive steering system is one of the best out there, especially at this price, getting more sensitive the more it’s turned for easier parallel parking moves, for example, then having more resistance on center to respond quickly and directly on turns. 

The variable-ratio on the GTI is even tighter overall for more precision, which is key for the GTI’s superlative 228-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4. It’s quick and ever ready, sprinting from 0-60 mph in about six seconds, and if you opted for the 7-speed dual clutch automatic for the ultimate combo of affordable precision, we would honor you. The GTI sits 0.6 inches lower than the Golf, and adds an electronically-controlled limited-slip front differential that redirects up to 100% of the torque to the front wheel with the most grip. It’s a Golf in name and shape only. 

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