Pros: Excellent ride/handling compromise; premium cabin; peppy engines; adult-friendly back seat; confident high-speed demeanor

Cons: No iPod or Bluetooth integration on base 2.5L model; inefficient five-cylinder engine; seriously expensive TDI turbo-diesel engine

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf is a car that stubbornly defies expectations. Technically, the Golf is a compact hatchback, a category known for cramped interiors, basic materials and indifferent driving dynamics. But the Golf is guilty of none of the above. On the contrary, this VW is a genuine driver's car, and it has a roomy, high-quality cabin that could almost get away with an Audi badge on the steering wheel. It's basically everything you thought a compact hatchback couldn't be.

Lest you conclude that the Golf is unassailable, we should point out that the standard engine, a 2.5-liter inline-5, delivers disappointing fuel economy. It's another way in which the Golf defies expectations, but we'd rather see it blend in with the crowd on this count. Of course, the available 2.0-liter turbo-diesel inline-4 is exceptionally frugal with fuel, but it drives the Golf's price up considerably, so it's no silver-bullet solution. We'll also ding the Golf for being stingy with the technology features; a premium compact car in 2012 should come standard with iPod and Bluetooth integration.

But we're inclined to forgive the Golf for these transgressions, because otherwise it's one of the most well-rounded cars on the market. Indeed, we see the four-door Golf as an intriguing alternative to family sedans, which have become the default choice for Americans who need space for people and stuff. Compared to big barges like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, the Golf delivers extra cargo capacity along with a surprisingly accommodating back seat in a much smaller, nimbler package. Compact hatchback qua mid-size sedan substitute? Why not? Expect the unexpected when the 2012 Volkswagen Golf is in the mix.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf hatchback comes with two or four doors and in two trim levels defined by engine: 2.5L and TDI. The entry-level 2.5L features 15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, full power accessories (including auto up/down power windows), a trip computer, cloth upholstery, a height-adjustable driver's seat, manual lumbar adjustment for both front seats and an eight-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input.

The 2.5L with the Convenience package adds a front center armrest, heated front seats and Bluetooth connectivity. The 2.5L with Convenience and Sunroof adds, that's right, a sunroof, plus an iPod cable and a touchscreen audio interface with a six-CD changer and satellite radio.

The base TDI boasts 17-inch alloy wheels, heated windshield washer nozzles, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, ambient interior lighting, a rear seat cargo pass-through and all of the top-of-the-line 2.5L's features except the sunroof.

The TDI with Sunroof and Navigation adds, bingo, the sunroof and an SD-based navigation system, while the TDI with the Tech package tacks on xenon headlights with LED accents, a Dynaudio premium sound system and keyless entry with push-button ignition.

The Golf's front seats offer a bit more lateral support than the VW norm, and we appreciate the unusual standard adjustable lumbar support for both seats. As we expect in a Volkswagen, the firm cushions provide excellent long-distance cruising comfort. Thanks to the tilting and telescoping steering wheel and the height-adjustable driver's seat, the Golf can accommodate a wide range of physiques.

A close inspection of the Golf's interior reveals top-quality materials that are leaps and bounds ahead of the Jetta's cut-rate plastics. Unlike the Jetta, the U.S.-market Golf still shares its cabin with the premium European model, and it shows.

When it's time to host a couple of rear passengers (the middle position is for short trips only), you'll be amazed by how adult-friendly the back seat can be, even in the two-door Golf. Legroom isn't exactly ample, but the Golf's high rear bench provides good thigh support while minimizing the amount of space required. Thanks to the car's breadbox-shaped cabin, headroom is virtually as generous in back as it is in front. The Golf is considered a bona fide family vehicle in Europe, and it's easy to see why.

Cargo capacity in the Golf is just 15.2 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks, but that figure expands to a healthy 46.0 cubic feet when the seatbacks are folded down. If you're keeping score at home, that's about three times as large as the average family sedan's trunk.

Technology

Volkswagen is generally a technology-forward company, so we're surprised that the base Golf 2.5L offers neither iPod integration nor Bluetooth connectivity. You're looking at the Convenience and Sunroof model if you want both, and that one will run you at least $20,655 ($22,455 with four doors). For context, take a look at all the standard tech you get in a Hyundai or Scion.

The Golf does have some welcome technology features on tap, including an intuitive touchscreen audio system. But we can't give the Golf much credit for its optional navigation system, because it's only available starting with a TDI model that costs nearly $26,000. No question, the Golf could use a technological make-over to compete better against more affordable rivals.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Golf 2.5L is motivated by a normally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-5 that makes 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. The transmission options are a five-speed manual and a six-speed automatic. This engine is almost universally panned by American critics, but we beg to differ. The inline-5 cranks out some healthy midrange torque, and we can't get enough of its distinctive five-cylinder growl. Shame about the fuel economy, though, which would be subpar even for those mid-size sedans we've been talking about. The EPA rates the Golf 2.5L at 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway with the manual and 24/31 mpg with the automatic.

The TDI model swaps out the inline-5 for a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel inline-4 rated at 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual and a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual with shift paddles. The Golf is the smallest car in which the TDI engine is offered, so strong low-end torque is quite apparent when you squeeze the throttle. Diesel cars are rarely quick, but the Golf TDI approaches that status. Fuel economy is outstanding at 30/42 mpg with either transmission.

Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, and full-length side curtain).

The government hasn't crash tested the Golf using its new testing methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the four-door Golf its highest rating of Good in every crash-test category.

Driving Impressions

The Golf's compact dimensions, firm suspension and responsive steering add up to an unusually engaging drive through tight corners. On the highway, the Golf's proverbial autobahn breeding gives it an unerring sense of the straight ahead. Road and wind noise are subdued by compact-hatch standards, and that firm suspension has a remarkable ability to smooth out rough roads without ever feeling floaty. You might not get a ton of features for your money with the Golf, but you do get a heck of a car.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Focus hatchback - Ford has weathered some criticism of the Focus's dual-clutch automatic, but if you're considering the Golf, perhaps you don't mind driving a manual. If so, the Focus hatchback with the stick shift is one of the most entertaining and fuel-efficient cars at this price point.

Mazda3 hatchback - Provided you find the 3's grinning face endearing, try one with the new SkyActiv four-cylinder engine. It gets great fuel economy while retaining Mazda's fun-to-drive edge.

Mitsubishi Lancer SportBack - Everyone seems to forget about the Lancer, but we're here to tell you that it's a pretty solid car all around, and the SportBack hatchback version is quite attractive.

AutoTrader Recommends

The base Golf 2.5L with the five-speed manual transmission is a great option for folks who prioritize a premium driving experience over the latest high-tech gewgaws. At about $18,000 for the two-door model, it's one of the best deals going.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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