Test Drive: 2019 VW Golf knows big things come in small packages

Anyone who remembers driving a 1960s or ’70s Volkswagen Beetle may be surprised to learn the 2019 VW Golf actually has a smaller engine than its revered predecessor. The air-cooled engine that powered the Beetle ranged from 1 liter in pre-war models to 1.6 liters in 1970s. The standard engine in today’s Golf is just 1.4 liters, with a turbocharger. But the experience of driving it is dramatically different.

In fact, the 2019 Golf’s engine is significantly smaller than the 1.8-liter power plant housed under the hood of the 2018 model. Horsepower is significantly lower as well — 147, compared with 170 in the 2018 Golf we test-drove last fall. (Much more powerful 2.0-liter engine choices are available in GTI and R trim levels.)

The smaller engine in Golf S and SE versions brings two notable advantages. First, it heightens the compact car’s already impressive handling qualities by reducing its weight; second, it raises fuel economy from 25 city, 34 highway, to 29/37.

And we’ve found these little Volkswagens exceed their highway ratings. Our 2018 Golf reached 40 mpg, while the 2019 model’s fuel economy was better than 39 mpg during an 80-mile, mostly highway trip. Since the car had just 1,500 miles on its odometer, its engine was not fully broken in, so 40-plus mpg is a distinct possibility over time.

The base Golf S starts at $21,845, plus destination charge. Our test car, a Golf SE, had a sticker price of $25,045.

We were surprised to discover this Golf was quite well-equipped despite having no options. Its standard features included one of the sharpest, clearest rear-view cameras we’ve seen; 16-inch alloy wheels; power sunroof; front seat heaters; V-Tex leatherette upholstery; forward collision warning and pedestrian monitoring with autonomous braking; blind-spot monitor; hill-start assist; eight-inch touchscreen; satellite radio; and push-button start. A number of desirable features, including adaptive cruise control and automatic transmission, cost extra. Automatic climate control and power seats are unavailable.

The Golf’s pricing, features and refinement are comparable with those of the Honda Civic and Mazda3 hatchbacks. The latter models also are available as sedans with enclosed trunks, as are the Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. The Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte hatchbacks have lower price points, but lack the Golf’s European refinement and sparkling handling qualities. While there is no Golf sedan, VW also builds a SportWagen and all-wheel-drive AllTrack wagon.

While the Golf isn’t as tall as some of its competitors, it manages to provide sufficient headroom for tall passengers, front and rear. Knee room also is adequate in back, assuming drivers and front-seat passengers are willing to move forward a bit.

Two of VW’s stronger suits are its warranty and safety. VW’s People First warranty extends bumper-to-bumper coverage to six years and 72,000 miles, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, the Golf earned five-star ratings in government crash tests in almost every category, including overall vehicle score.

2019 Volkswagen Golf 1.4T SE

Price: $25,040

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline Four, 147 horsepower, 184 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 2,873 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 16×6.5-in. alloy

Tires: 205/55R16 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 22.8 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 52.7 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons

Fuel economy: 29 mpg city, 37 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel.