The process of redesigning a car is typically straightforward; as newer competitors tend to come along and raise the bar, the trick becomes to simply do them one better. But that wasn't the case with the all-new 2015 Volkswagen Golf. Its predecessor was a class leader to its dying day, offering dynamic refinement and upscale appointments that other small hatchbacks just couldn't match. For the most part, the only car the Golf had to improve upon was itself.

So, does the 2015 Golf raise its own bar? In terms of fuel economy, absolutely; this was one of the old Golf's few weaknesses, and thanks to the new turbo-4 base engine, it's now a strength. In other respects, however, it's not immediately clear whether the latest Golf -- produced for the first time in Mexico rather than Germany -- is really a significant step forward. We attended VW's official American press launch in San Francisco to find out for ourselves.

Better Base-Engine Fuel Economy

For most shoppers, the headlining news about the 2015 Golf is its turbocharged 4-cylinder base engine, known as the TSI, which replaces the ancient 5-cylinder motor. Rated at 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, the 1.8-liter TSI packs a healthy punch for an entry-level motor; more importantly, it returns an estimated 36 miles per gallon on the highway. That's a full six mpg better than the last Golf.

As before, you can go with the standard 5-speed manual transmission or an optional 6-speed automatic. After testing both transmissions, we came away with a preference for the automatic. The manual offers perky performance in the lower three gears, but fourth and fifth feel electronically neutered; even when you floor the throttle, there's hardly any acceleration. The smooth automatic doesn't draw attention to itself in the same way, although it does add four figures to the bottom line.

Tweaks for the Turbodiesel TDI

Unlike the base Golf, the popular TDI largely stays the course under the hood. The 2.0-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder gains just 10 hp, for a total of 150, and maintains the previous TDI's 236 lb-ft of torque. The biggest difference from an ownership perspective is that the 2015 Golf TDI employs a urea solution called AdBlue to purify the exhaust stream, which means you'll need to refill the urea tank every time you get the oil changed.

Interestingly, the rearward location of the urea tank necessitates the installation of a compact but relatively unsophisticated torsion-beam rear suspension (along with slightly smaller rear brake discs), whereas the TSI range gets a modern multi-link independent rear setup. The previous Golf TDI shared its independent rear suspension with the rest of the line. On the bright side, the TDI can now be purchased in base S trim, which drops its starting price by about $3,000.

Evolutionary Changes Inside and Out

If you liked the look of the last Golf, Volkswagen is pleased to offer you more of the same. The 2015 Golf is a bit crisper and tauter than its predecessor, with sharp taillights that are particularly eye-catching, but only Golf aficionados will instantly recognize the 2015 model as a fresh design. A visibly longer wheelbase and wider track affords fractionally more space for rear passengers and cargo, though the outgoing model was already generous in this regard.

Inside, there's a little extra flash on the dash, and the whole central control stack is angled toward the driver for a more immersive experience. The standard 5.8-in touchscreen is significantly larger and slicker than the old Golf's optional touchscreen, while an attractive color information screen spices up the gauge cluster. Quality of materials remains absolutely top-notch for this price range. Notably, Fender premium audio is available for the first time, bringing the Golf into line with other U.S.-market VW products.

Familiar Feel on the Road

With the exception of its revamped dashboard, the 2015 Golf is almost a carbon copy of its predecessor from behind the wheel. You get the same firm-yet-supple ride and stellar high-speed stability that Golf drivers have enjoyed for years. On corners, the TDI's torsion beam puts it at a disadvantage, but only if you're driving much harder than most folks do on public roads. If you drive sanely, in other words, you likely won't know the difference. For a friskier feel, try the Mazda3 or Ford Focus, but for all-around dynamic excellence, the Golf still rules the roost.

Does New Mean Better?

Overall, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf is more like a familiar latte with a shot of espresso than a whole new drink. But let's be honest -- that's all the Golf really needed to get up to speed in this segment. The car may have changed, but our shopping advice hasn't: Don't buy a compact hatchback without first driving a Golf.

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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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