Top Gear’s guide to buying a used Volkswagen Golf
It’s been ‘all the car you need’ for decades now. So we’d better fill you in on why – and how to get a good one second-hand
What is it?
A taipan snake. What did you think it is?
Yes, it’s the Volkswagen Golf, the ‘hear hooves, think horses’ of family hatchbacks. It’s an industry benchmark. A vanguard in the battle against the overdone, overblown and ostentatious. An easy (and possibly lazy) recommendation given by all car people to non-car people when they simply need ‘a car’.
Case in point: when something as enduring – and enduringly brilliant – as the Focus has always been ‘a Golf rival’ from its origin to its imminent demise, you know the Vee Dub is something special.Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s so good about the Volkswagen Golf?
You mean, apart from the perfectly judged size that somehow works just as well in Los Angeles as it does in London or Lisbon? Or the expert packaging, spaciousness, refinement, cabin quality, perhaps, or just the well-judged balance of comfort, handling and stability?
Well, there’s always the fact that a Golf just looks right somehow, particularly in the Mk5 and Mk7 generations. A bit conservative, sure, but also a perfect foil to all things overt and overegged. Consider the Golf R, the ne plus ultra of the Golf range, compared to a Honda Civic Type R. You see what we (and VW) are driving at.
What’s so bad about the Volkswagen Golf?
Well, apart from the mildly infuriating way our fingers continually type ‘Gold’ when we’re trying to write ‘Golf’, not a great deal.
More modern iterations have given up useful buttons for a touch-sensitive setup that’s diabolical enough to spontaneously create new Slayer albums (Diabolus in Tactio, perhaps?), but most Golfs from the Mk5 to Mk7.5 – that is, the ones you want – are generally free from such faff.Advertisement - Page continues below
What are the common problems?
Earlier cars had recalls for DSG issues (due to a loss in transmission fluid pressure, apparently), but the manual gearboxes are conspicuously free from complaints or recalls. Diesels are paradoxically less reliable than the petrol versions, which does invite some serious speculation about the point of diesel at all.
Like so many Volkswagens, the Golf was caught up in a bit of dishonesty on VW’s part, which later became known as ‘Dieselgate’. We’ll just say that expecting a diesel to be clean is like expecting a boxing match to be gentle. Caveat emptor and all that.
In any case, find a manual petrol Golf with an unimpeachable service history, regularly check the oil level and top off as needed (especially in the performance versions, which can use more than you’d expect) and you’ll be in good stead.
What engines and trims are available?
Oh good grief. We’re going to be here all day.
In the Mk5 (and depending on the market), you can find the last vestiges of the naturally aspirated petrol engine, from a 1.4-litre four-cylinder in the misery-spec version (complete with a 0–60... er, ‘dash’ of nearly 15 seconds), all the way up to the silly-in-all-the-best-ways 3.2-litre VR6 in the R32.
As we move to newer Golfs, the engines become increasingly turbocharged (as well as a brief dalliance with super- and turbocharging), generally reducing in displacement at the same time. So you can find turbo 1.2-litre Mk6 Golfs, for instance, or diminutive 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbos in the Mk7.
The diesels are... diesels, and – aside from their place in one of the biggest automotive scandals ever – are about as interesting as a symposium on navel lint. They’re also somehow less reliable, sound like a yak trying to gargle a set of castanets and are barred from/charged for entering city centres to a much greater extent than the petrol-powered Golfs.
For the city-slicker, there is the e-Golf, which is a wonderful foot in the door of electric car ownership – given that it’s a Golf in every way you remember, apart from not having to worry about the DSG blowing up. And if you insist on falling between two stools, there’s always the hybrid GTE version.
As for trims? There are many. They’re generally confusing, they change frequently and most aren’t standardised across countries, let alone continents. The good news is that the GTI does seem to be (even if the base car is often called a Rabbit), so there’s a safe bet.
Is it safe?
Yes. Yes it is.
Should you drive off the Cliffs of Dover, Thelma and Louise style, it’s still not going to end particularly well. But for regular road driving, you should be OK.
Euro NCAP, less willing to convey crash safety in terms of Ridley Scott films, routinely awarded five-star ratings for the Golf. Not as lyrical perhaps, but certainly more useful in comparative assessments. Although, come to think of it, we would love to see a car’s grip measured in facehuggers... this might be something to explore another time. Let’s move on.
How economical is the Volkswagen Golf?
Probably about 40 per cent less than VW says, right?
OK, obvious joke out of the way, the answer is generally ‘pretty economical’.
Obviously enough, the Golf R32 will never be accused of parsimony, and getting after it in any car will tank the fuel economy. If you think of a small-displacement turbocharged setup as a kind of ‘two engines in one’ scenario, this might help explain it.
Let’s say you got a Mk7 with the 1.5-litre four-cylinder and six-speed manual. Good job – it’s a fine machine. The official miles-per-gallon figure is in the mid-50s, thanks to the low-displacement, high-efficiency nature of the beast. But when that turbocharger is on full blast, the engine needs a requisite amount of fuel to go with all that air. So while the 1.5 turbo can offer the power of a 2.5 atmo, it’ll need about the same amount of fuel to do so.Advertisement - Page continues below
How does the Volkswagen Golf drive?
In a nutshell, very well. It’s a solid, planted and comfortable machine, regardless of the grade, engine or trim level. Or even absence of engine altogether. Higher-spec versions get more advanced suspension in the rear (this is quite common in the hatchback class, so don’t dock any points from VW in this regard), and it’s a worthwhile consideration if you’re interested in driving for the joy of it. If not, we should probably note that you’re reading Top Gear, which has generally had something of a focus in that direction. But welcome nonetheless.
Logically enough, the ride will firm up in more performance-oriented Golfs, with the hottest R version really being a case of whether your local roads are in good enough nick to consider it as a daily driver. If you are Australian and live anywhere outside a metropolitan area, the answer is generally no. But that’s OK; the GTI has always been the sweet spot in that regard, with the smaller, lighter and simpler Mk5 being the sweetest spot, in our experience. That said, there’s no way we’d hand back a Mk7.5 if one arrived in the driveway tomorrow with our name on it.
How fast is the Volkswagen Golf?
Oh, about 10 fast. Such much? Yes, liebchen.
OK, so references to films so old that our grandfathers were too young to see in the cinema aside, the Golf is exactly as fast as you require.
Should you actually need 10 fast, you’ll want to find a DSG-equipped Golf R – with the pauses between hard-charging assaults on the horizon measured in mere milliseconds, it’s the gearbox of choice for pace above any other consideration. As are the 300-odd horsepower 2.0-litre turbo and all-wheel-drive system that come standard with the Golf R.
Anything above a 1.5T (or the old 158bhp 1.4T and 1.8T) can be mentioned in the same breath as ‘brisk’, while the GTI moves things up a notch to ‘plenty fast enough for our blood, thank you very much'.Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s the interior of the Volkswagen Golf like?
Unless something has gone horribly awry, it will be a lot like a medium-sized hatchback. Should you find Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, the set of Mrs Brown’s Boys or Narnia itself, there may be sufficient reason to panic.
Generally speaking, the Golf is the one to beat in terms of its interior quality and cabin feel. Sister company Seat may have more interesting shapes, and the later models of Mazda3 might best it for luxurious-feeling curves and materials, but for logic, amenity and quality, the Golf takes some beating. Unless, of course, it has VW’s touchscreen option, which was so derided that one of the muckety mucks at Volkswagen had to publicly promise that future Vee Dubs would have buttons again soon.
How reliable is the Volkswagen Golf?
Well, we’ll preface the whole thing by saying that almost all modern cars are reliable in a way that would astound and astonish someone transplanted from the 1970s – like in some kind of reverse Life on Mars scenario – and that even among such reliability, Golfs are at least comparatively dependable and at best comparatively better. Manual petrols, as we’ve mentioned, are the best ticket to reliability, but a full service history is paramount.
Given the tech-heavy way that Golfs go about making power – direct injection, turbocharging, relatively high compression and so on – prompt, regular and thorough servicing is vital. This is something we’re more used to here in the UK, but it has caught out Americans and Australians in the past, who were used to unstressed, big-displacement engines. But for absolute, unimpeachable reliability, going from hundreds of moving parts to a handful surely seems a step in the right direction, no?
How much does the Volkswagen Golf cost to insure and tax?
Well, at the risk of a complete non-answer, that depends.
It depends on the Golf’s trim level, engine, fuel type, and age, as well as who you are, where you’re from, what you do and very possibly how much you enjoy Backstreet Boys references.
Helpfully enough, the UK uses specific insurance groups for cars to give you some idea of the insurance costs. It starts at 1 and runs to 50, where 1 is the cheapest and 50 the most expensive. So if you buy a Ford GT, you can expect to lavish money on group 50 insurance, while an old base-model Fiat Panda luxuriates in the group 1 cheap seats.
A good Golf – the 1.5T manual we mentioned earlier – comes in somewhere around group 20, depending on the trim level. That means if you’re 20, it’ll still cost an arm and a leg (yes, young people, actuaries really do think next to nothing of you), but if you’re 40, it’ll be £715 a year for comprehensive insurance. Something a bit more fun, like a GTI, will cost an arm, leg and your three favourite teeth as a 20-year-old, but will only be another £79 a year for a 40-year-old.