Payne: Riding the last VW Golf into the sunset

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 11, 2021

Gaylord — Farewell, Volkswagen Golf, I’ll miss you.

Well, kind of. I mean, the GTI hot hatch is my favorite Golf model and that’s not going away. But the standard Golf is, and without that … well, there wouldn’t have been a GTI or all-wheel-drive Golf R, now would there? Or even a New Beetle built on the same platform, which VW doesn’t make any more either. So, my last 500-mile dance with the Golf through northern Michigan was bittersweet. Except I can’t wait to drive the new Golf GTI later this year.

Confused? You’re not alone. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the VW model changes these days.

Volkswagen’s lineup is dramatically different than when the Golf debuted (as a Rabbit, just to confuse you more) way back in 1974. Since then, it has become the best-selling V-dub ever. It even surpassed the iconic Beetle globally: 30 million units to 23.5 million for the Bug.

In the ’70s, Golf sold alongside the Beetle, Scirocco and Passat (Dasher in the U.S.). None of those badges exist today, save for Passat, which will bow out in the U.S. after the 2022 model year. Synonymous with the brand, Golf has grown out of touch with the mainstream, SUV-crazed U.S. consumer. Golf is gone, long live the Golf.

In my ride north in the 2021 tester, the clever hatchback reminded why its DNA carries on across the lineup.

The styling is timeless. Simple and sophisticated, it has changed little over the years — the most dramatic change being the big, swept headlights versus the round, owlish eyes of the early days. With its sharp body stampings and thin grille, my Golf was easy on the eyes.

That styling informs Golf siblings — a model line chock full of SUVs that no one dreamed of back in the ’70s: Taos, Tiguan, Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport.

2021 VW Golf packs it in under the hatch.

Indeed, Golf’s practical hatchback is the inspiration for today’s sport ute. Leaving my house in Oakland County, I simply lifted Golf’s hatch (tugging the rear VW logo like a piece of furniture that opens a secret bookcase) and stuffed my weekend luggage inside: bag, tennis bag, shoes. If I needed more room, I could simply have pushed over the backseats to create a longer load floor. Just like an SUV.

Exiting I-75 at Gaylord, I got sucked into the twisties of M-32 — flowing west fast like a river emptying into Lake Michigan. My Golf was in its element here — the tight chassis, suspension and four-wheel disc brakes working together to make the car wonderfully tossable. It has ever been such.

So wonderful that Golf inspired a new segment of performance compacts with its 1984 GTI. The Honda Civic Si, Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed 3, Hyundai Elantra N, et al have followed in its footsteps. I owned the first generation GTI. My 29-year-old son owns the sixth. The eighth-gen coming later this year promises to be the best yet.

With unique wheels and blood red trim, the GTI’s exterior hints at the steroid enhancements beneath: a 2.0-liter turbo 4 making 220 horsepower and a gob-smacking 310 pound feet of torque. With a limited slip diff up front, the GTI rotates like a rear-wheel driver at the autocross course.

My standard Golf tester sported the standard 147 horse turbo-4, which is surprisingly peppy despite its smaller 1.4-liter displacement. The GTI will live on as inspiration to the rest of the VW lineup — like the Miata spirit that inhabits every Mazda SUV.

Take the new VW ID.4 electric car. With its 77-kWh battery stowed below decks, the new SUV has a lower center of gravity than most SUVs and wants to boogie. The battery may be heavy, but ID.4 channels the Golf’s excellent dynamics. On a recent test drive in the Tennessee mountains, I put ID.4 in SPORT mode and flogged it like a Golf through the twisties.

Inside, my 2021 Golf was simple, with lots of right angles like the exterior. It’s a style that continues across the lineup — from the compact Taos SUV to the giant three-row Atlas.

The interior of the 2021 VW Golf is tidy - but lacks the digital upgrades of newer competitors.

But technology was notably lacking in my V-dub. Its competition (Civic, Elantra, Impreza, Mazda 3) have upgraded to all-digital instrument displays, adaptive cruise control and head-up displays. Rather than invest in a declining segment, VW is bringing that tech instead to the compact Taos SUV (as well as the more premium GTI and Golf R). Taos is already killing it, selling 7,000 units a month.

Golf stacks up nicely against its competition in interior size and utility. Its 35.7 inches of rear leg room match the Civic and Elantra. It even tried to offer all-wheel drive with the 2018 Alltrack wagon to appeal to SUV buyers.

But Alltrack was pricey compared to, say, the AWD Subaru Impreza and never got traction. Indeed, my wife tried both and chose the ’Ru. Maybe it was the Subaru Love. Maybe it was the $2,000 cheaper price tag. Maybe it was the Golf’s **%!!& lack of a mute knob so that you have to turn the volume knob all the way down every time you want to silence the screen.

It’s a rare hiccup in VW’s otherwise nicely appointed interior.

2021 VW Golf hatch inspired a new gen of big V-dub SUVs.

That tradition continues in the SUVs. Different as the ID.4 interior is (think screen-focused Tesla-simple), it continues the Golf tradition of offering intuitive controls for everyday driving. The ID.4’s liquid-smooth electric drivetrain also seems the perfect sequel to my Golf’s smooth automatic tranny. No droning continuously-variable tranny here. The eight-speed is one of the segment’s smoothest — never getting a step wrong during my long journey. A manual is also available, though I’d leave that to GTI motorheads.

Even as it opened manufacturing plants in my West Virginia and Pennsylvania backyards in the 1970s, VW was slow to learn Americans’ driving habits. Wolfsburg was tardy to the SUV market, and then offered too-small segment entries.

It’s determined not to make that mistake again, so it’s ditching Golf for the hatchback Taos SUV. On my way back from Up North, my wife packed the Golf to the roof with goodies. Taos will hold even more. If you still want a compact car, VW offers the Jetta sedan.

And if you still want a Golf, there’s the 2022 GTI. I can’t wait.

2021 Volkswagen Golf

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback car

Price: $24,190, including $995 destination fee ($24,990 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 147 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque

Transmissions: eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (7.6 sec., Car and Driver); top speed, 122 mph

Weight: 3,012 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 29 mpg city/36 highway/32 combined

Report card

Highs: Sharp looks; fun-to-drive

Lows: Dated screens; no mute button

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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