The Volkswagen Golf is a really well put together and great handling small car let down by a clunky dual-clutch gearbox. We purchased this basest of base model 92TSI Golfs as an ex-demo with around 4k on the odometer for $22,000 dollars - pricing that seems pretty competitive with other small cars on the market, discounting what will probably be higher servicing costs.
It's been almost 6 months since we made the purchase, and the build quality and design of the Golf still continues to impress me. It may sound cliched and done to death, but the doors really do have a reassuringly solid clunk when you close them. The cabin, while a little on the dull and dark side, feels really well put together. The quality of materials, the lack of flex in any of the door linings and dashboard, and the solid actions of the dials and controls presented to the driver, all contribute to the feeling of a really well put together product. I also test drove a Mazda 3 before deciding to buy a Golf, and while I thought the Mazda 3 looked a lot spunkier on the inside, especially the piano black plastic highlights, the build quality was not quite as good, with scratchier plastics and more general flex and poor fitting in the panels. The Golf interior just feels solid in the way it's been put together, with classy design touches like hiding the aux and USB inputs in the glovebox. The seats are about as comfortable as you'd expect for the class, and the legroom is respectable. I'm able to sit behind the driver's seat set in my position comfortably (I'm 188cm).
The quality of the infotainment system also really impressed me, keeping in mind that this car is a base model. The inclusion of a rear-view camera is very welcome, especially for my wife who has more trouble reverse-parking than me. The camera display is clear on the 5-inch (I think?) touchscreen. The slickness and responsiveness of the touchscreen is also great, with no lag in the touch response, which was something that has frustrated me about aftermarket touchscreen head units I've used in the past. The screen also has some kind of sensor which can detect when your finger is close to the screen, so it displays more information on all the on-screen buttons. Very flash. The infotainment also has knobs for volume and tuning, which are things that I think are essential. You should not have to look away from driving at a touchscreen just to change the volume or radio channel. The base model sound system has reasonable audio quality, and blows the base Mazda 3's terrible speakers out of the water (although it predictably lacks in bass).
The car handles and rides very well. The steering is very light and yet very accurate. You'll have no problems placing the car on the road. The car turns in very eagerly with little body roll and the suspension makes it feel like the car is glued to the road. The ride strikes a great balance between body control and comfort. You can feel bumps, but they don't thunk or really penetrate the cabin in any meaningful way, making for a drive that feels connected and involved and yet somehow manages to be comfortable at the same time. Penetration of road and wind noise is minimal. It's a quieter drive on the highway than the old Camry, which is something that I think is worthy of praise at this low price point.
Where I feel a wonderful experience is really let down is the drivetrain. The 1.4TSI engine is a great little engine, with great low-down torque from the punchy small turbo, and great economy figures to boot. Urban consumption is around 6L/100km or less, and I managed about 4.3L/100km in a trip from Sydney to Canberra and back. Note however that the engine does take premium fuel, somewhat negating this consumption advantage. The real problem here is the 7-speed DSG. When it gets going, it shifts quickly and seamlessly, but the problem is its sluggishness off the line. When I try to floor it in conventional mode, it feels like there's a couple of seconds of lag before the engine gets to go whole hog. This is really irritating (and bordering on dangerous) in tight urban situations where catching a gap is important, like at a crowded roundabout. More troubling is how jerky the box is at low speed. When coming to a stop, if you're a little hesitant with the brake pedal, the box sometimes thinks you're trying to speed up again, and the car will jerk forward as the box tries to slip the clutch. This is really annoying, especially in stop-start traffic where you are speeding up and slowing down all the time. It's something you get used to and can work around, but on an otherwise premium and great product, I'd rather not have to work around something that seems like such a fundamental design flaw. It also creates worries about long term durability of the transmission.
Overall, I still like the Golf. It has a really nice and well put together interior that punches above its class, combined with great NVH, ride and handling prowess that puts it near the front of the class. The only real downside is the jerky nature of the 7-speed dual clutch that VW has fitted (assuming most prospective buyers will be looking at an auto) and the questionable anecdotal long-term reliability proposition that VW presents. However, if you can live with these two problems, then I would definitely recommend the Golf. It's great value for money and feels like a much more premium offering than its price point suggests.