Table of Contents
The VW Golf Overview
The VW Golf was introduced in 1974 as a replacement for the VW Beetle. By the seventies, it became clear that Volkswagen had built its success on the Beetle, and consumers were turning away from the German automaker in droves. Volkswagen needed more uniform styling to attract customers to the brand, so it modeled the Golf as a two-door hot hatch. The Golf was marketed in international markets in 1974 and less than a year later, it came to the US, and received the moniker of the “VW Rabbit.”
The US version of the Golf (Rabbit) suffered an identity crisis for much of its production. The original Rabbit lasted about ten years before VW switched the name back to the Golf (as it was known in every other country). In 2006, VW switched the name back to the “New Rabbit” for a couple of years before correcting its mistake and changing its name back the “Golf.”
During its production cycle, the Golf (Rabbit) when through eight generations, changing about every 5 - 8 years. New models like the GTI were introduced, new technologies were added, and the model’s popularity grew. It quickly became VW’s leading seller and would become the third most selling car in the world (right behind the Toyota Corolla and Ford F-Series).
Over the years, the VW Golf has been one of the world’s maligned cars, developing reliability issues throughout its tenure. Much of the pre-MK7 versions are riddled with inconsistencies, (including being made with Takata airbags - 2005 - 2014). Customers began to get frustrated with the German automaker, and when the news broke of an emission scandal in late 2015, the cheating only further alienated consumers.
However, the Golf was about to get a mid-generation facelift, and from 2016 MY on, Volkswagen corrected many of the issues and seemed to be on the right track to win back customers. In addition, these are the best years for safety features, as VW made many of the features standard equipment on the Golf and Golf GTI SE and Autobahn models.
Recently, VW announced that the base Golf Hatchback would not be returning to the US market, although the GTI badge would continue in a new MK8 model in 2022. The new vehicles are receiving good praise as a driver’s car, with many early reviews being quite positive.
What Are The Best Years For The VW Golf?
There are many reasons to be cautious when considering the purchase of a VW Golf (particularly if you are considering a model before 2016). Several years have reliability issues and have suffered from mechanical problems. However, there are a couple of model years that are worth checking out, and most Golfs are reasonably priced, which makes them a popular choice for teenage drivers.
The best years for the VW Golf are the late model MK7 years (especially the 2020 - ‘21 model). About midway into the seventh generation, VW facelifted the Golf Hatchbacks, GTI, and GTE as well as developing the R line (a sports performance model). The updated cars also offered more modern technologies, like large TFT screens and enhanced safety features. Since most of the older year MK7s will be close to ten years old, we recommend that you focus your attention on the later model seventh-generation models built after 2016.
2020 - ‘21 VW Golf Review
If we had to land on a model year, we would choose the 2020 - ‘21 model year. The Golf models are dependable for the cars for the most part, have adequate safety features, and are fun to drive. The 2021 model received high ratings from US News and World Reports review, with a 7.9 overall rating, while the ‘20 model had an 8.6 rating. Edmunds ranks the models with a 7.4 rating, while KBB.com offers a 4.3 consumer rating out of five stars (3.6 expert rating). JD Powers rates the Golf as average with a 76 rating out of 100.
The 2020 and 2021 VW Golf is offered in only one trim level: TSI. While the GTI model was offered in three trim levels, S, SE, and Autobahn.
The Golf has an economical 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 147 hp, and decent fuel economy (29 city, or 39 highway and 33 mph combined based on fueleconomy.gov. This rating compares to the 2021 Accord (34 mpg combined) and the ‘21 Corolla Hatchback at 35 mpg). The Golf had a 436 total mile range on each tankful of gasoline. While the ‘21 model was a rehash of the ‘20 model, the engine was a solid performer with similar pep to other 2.0L engines in other carmaker’s models. The Golf has 16-inch striking alloy wheels.
GTI models are powered by the 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 228 hp and 256 lb-ft of torque. The fuel efficiency for the GTI version is significantly less than the base Golf, offering 24 city and 32 highway for 27 mpg combined (EPA estimates). The GTI and R versions sport 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
The VW Golf only comes in one trim level: TSI. The VW Golf GTI has three trim levels, S, SE, and Autobahn. There are plenty of standard features on the 2021 VW Golf, which include a panoramic sunroof, push-button ignition, proximity keyless entry, leatherette upholstery, and 16-inch wheels. The car has a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment center, Apple Car Play, Android Auto, and a WiFi hotspot. A full complement of safety features are standard, which gives the Golf high marks for helping your teen avoid an accident.
The GTI version has the following standard features, including cloth seating surfaces (base model), heated seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The model does not have push-button start or a panoramic sunroof (but it does have a tilt-and-slide sunroof). It should be noted that the upper trim levels provided some of the amenities as optional equipment.
The Golf was a Top Safety Pick for the ‘21 model by the IIHS, (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), and the NHTSA gave both years ‘20 and ‘21 five-star ratings. Standard safety features include a front crash warning system, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, rear parking assist, and a backup camera.
With ample interior space, the Golf exudes good headroom, legroom, and shoulder room for both driver and passenger. There is plenty of room in the back seat for adult passengers, although squeezing three adults is tight. Cargo space is with 53.7 cubic feet of cargo space (with rear seats folded), and there is plenty of room for cargo. (This is significantly more than its competitors like the Toyota Corolla Hatch, (23 ft), or the Hyundai Kona (45.8 cu ft).
The 6.5 infotainment screen could have been bigger, but it functions well, just like a smartphone with swipe and pinch-to-zoom functions. While there have been some concerns about the voice interface, the Golf gives the feel of a solid, comfortable performer with amenities found more on entry-level luxury models.
The GTI S model has cloth interiors and can feel a little sparse. However, the controls are within easy reach, and the sports-tuned cockpit provides good instrumentation. While there are options for the upper trim levels, we prefer the SE trim level, which has leather seating, panoramic sunroof, and other amenities). The Autobahn trim is top-of-the-line with 12-way power leather seats, navigation with an 8-inch screen, and an upgraded sound system. The Autobahn trim is very nice, reminiscent of luxury vehicles, but the SE offers nearly the same features, and for considerably less money.
The downside of the standard Golf is that with its 1.4L four-cylinder engine, it doesn’t have the power or oomph, (compared to the 2.0L in the GTI). What that means is that you may putter off the red light, while the GTI models will leave you in a cloud of dust. (Many fathers would prefer that their teenage driver isn’t zooming anywhere in any car they buy, so in that case, the base Golf will suffice just fine, thank you very much).
VW changed the warranty for their vehicles to a 4-year - 50,000-mile protection. (We wish they had kept the 6-year/72,000-mile warranty). If you are purchasing a used Golf, the chances are that you won’t have much warranty left on the car.
How Reliable Is The VW Golf?
The 2020-21 model has a 4.0 overall rating from Repairpal.com, ranking it 25th out of 36 models. JD Powers offers an average rating for the 2020 and ‘21 model-year Golf. The Volkswagen Golf GTI has similar marks for dependability. Car and Driver listed the 2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI as part of their 10 Best lists for 2020 and ‘21. It should be noted that Consumer Reports did have a reliability concern for the 2021 GTI and forecasted it to have a less-than-average dependability rating than other hatchback models.
What Are Some Of Issues With The 2020 - ‘21 VW Golf?
Volkswagen has issued one recall for the 2021 Golf concerning the backup camera. While it is still too early to determine whether the Golf will have long-term issues, owners should have confidence in purchasing the vehicle as a used car.
How Long Will a 2020/21 VW Golf Last?
Generally speaking, the VW Golf is a well-rounded hatchback with much to offer. With nicer interiors than most compact hatches, and safety equipment becoming more standard by the year, the Golf is a reliable used car choice. Most buyers will find that the car is easy to drive, that it handles well around corners (The GTI is a sports car), and has excellent braking power (a quality that Consumer Reports gave it high marks for). The engines are efficient but need better gas mileage, and the fact that the GTI takes premium gasoline is a drawback.
The interior room is a definite plus, with ample room for passengers inside. With updated features like navigation and new driver interface systems, the company is headed in the right direction.
With regular maintenance, a Volkswagen Golf should last for ten years or 150,000 miles before any major repairs are needed While it is still too early to tell what the long-term reliability scores will be, owners should have confidence that the Golf will supply their transportation needs effectively.
About The Author
Matt is a VW Master Technician since 2009 after proceeding through the ranks as a Team Leader and Shop Foreman. He has developed software to increase car dealership efficiency, managed 10+ techs, and instructed students at multiple high-performance driving events since 2011. He is also the lead mechanic, engineer, and driver for Blue Goose Racing.Read More About Matt Meurer