The 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI gets expressive new styling (Photo: Volkswagen)

The 2015 Golf GTI gets expressive new styling (Photo: )

Worldwide, Volkswagen Golf is by far the biggest selling car in Europe and gaining fast in Asian and South American markets. In the U.S., not so much. Here, most drivers hold a grudging dislike for compact hatchbacks, equating them with the late and unlamented econoboxes of past decades.

Which explains why the U.S. launch of the impressive new seventh-generation Golf and performance GTI models comes a full year later than their introduction overseas, where they have succeeded in boosting sales amid critical acclaim. The U.S. intro is important to VW, though, because it wants to raise the profile of what the automaker calls “the heart of the brand.”

Golf is just a bit player in this country compared with the domestic and Asian competition. VW has found much better success here with the more-traditional Jetta compact sedan.

Yet the all-new Golf could go a long way in helping American drivers rediscover the joys of the compact, roomy, fuel-efficient and fun-to-drive hatchback. This year, VW celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Rabbit, as the Golf was originally named in North America when it debuted in 1974 as a replacement for the ubiquitous Beetle.

VW designers made the effort to maintain the styling lineage for the 2015 Golf, channeling the touchstones of the earliest models. Yet they also managed to energize the new look with a sharper and broad-shouldered appearance that is considerably more distinctive than the softly rounded styling of the previous generation.

With the back seat folded, Golf has impressive cargo space (Photo: Volkswagen)

With the back seat folded, Golf has impressive cargo space (Photo: Volkswagen)

Golf grows slightly in the transition, gaining two inches in length and a little more than an inch in width, although the use of lighter high-strength steel and other advances results in a slight weight reduction. The headlight and taillight arrays are bolder, especially on the GTI version, while the interior steps up VW’s typically sophisticated styling and materials.

Notably, the Golf and GTI are the first VW products built on the company’s new MQB global chassis architecture, which eventually will provide the underpinnings for all its front-wheel-drive products. As well as providing engineering efficiency of scale, the platform is stiffened and permits designers to do such things as move the Golf’s wheels closer to the corners.

With a yearlong launch continuing through 2015, VW will introduce its full lineup of basic Golf TSI in various levels of trim, now with a more fuel-efficient 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder gas engine; the TDI with an all-new diesel engine, also in a number of trim levels; the sporty GTI, which will be introduced with a World Cup soccer marketing connection; the high-performance Golf R; a new long-wheelbase SportWagon; and the all-electric e-Golf, VW’s first battery-powered car.

The hatchback Golf has grown slightly for 2015. (Photo: Volkswagen)

The hatchback Golf has grown slightly for 2015. (Photo: Volkswagen)

VW begins its 2015 assault with the GTI instead of the regular Golf, which might seem counterintuitive unless you consider that 40 to 50 percent of Golf sales in the U.S. are GTIs. In VW’s words, the GTI is now “the faster, most-powerful GTI ever,” boasting 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from its 2.0-liter turbo four. Add 10 horsepower with the optional Performance package.

During the recent media introduction in and around San Francisco, we were able to sample the new TSI, TDI and GTI models in a variety of driving environments, from urban streets to winding back roads. My driving partner and I were fortunate enough to have the tight and speedy GTI for the first long drive on the rural two lanes that course through the hills outside SF.

The new GTI feels gutsier than the outgoing model, pulling hard with a stimulating rush, although sport-compact enthusiasts might find the engine roar more subdued than before. Handling is nimble on its taut suspension, with a good feeling of balance and solid steering response from both the wheel and throttle.

The GTI’s ride is quite firm, which is great for driving excitement, but it can get buffeting over rough surfaces. The car felt launched into the air when it hit some road heaves at brisk speed. So rebound control could be better.

The  Golf's interior was updated for 2015. (Photo: Volkswagen)

The Golf’s interior was updated for 2015. (Photo: Volkswagen)

The quick shifts of the double-clutch DSG automatic transmission fit right in, with immediate response to the paddle shifters. Fun stuff. TSI and TDI Golfs get traditional automatic transmissions because, the VW folks said, it is a more-mainstream application for drivers who might find the DSG too abrupt. Most of the Golfs and the GTI can be had with stickshift, which would be my personal choice.

GTI’s target audience is drivers in their 20s and 30s, but the performance Golf is perfect for anyone of any age who wants a sports car but really needs a small wagon. With slightly larger interior space and bigger cargo area, the 2015 models provide the space for SUV-like duties, with the flat-folding rear seat creating a fairly big cargo area.

I wanted to get a shot at the GTI Performance version, but there was always a line of car writers who wanted to sample it, so I never got the opportunity. Though I did hear raves from those who did. Beside the power bump, this option adds an electronically controlled torque-sensing limited-slip differential to improve traction and handling performance.

The regular-duty Golf TSI felt more sedate than the GTI, but it still cranked out decent power and response, definitely more sporting than most in this entry-level class. The curves of an unusually twisting off-ramp provide an opportunity to try out the balance and cornering prowess. The Golf passed the test with gusto.

The TSI’s ride is softer and more compliant than that of the GTI, so it would probably be more acceptable to most drivers. Still, it felt firm enough for speedy maneuvers, though without the occasional skyward launch of the GTI.

I drove the stickshift version of TSI, which added to the experience and liberated the most power from the 170-horsepower, 2-liter turbo four. Shifting is smooth and precise. Golf TSI and TDI get five-speed manuals, while the GTI gets six speeds.

The TDI boasts an all-new turbocharged diesel engine for 2015, which VW says will serve as a basis for its full lineup of diesel products, similar to how the MQB chassis architecture will underpin all future VWs. Horsepower is up to 150 and torque hits 236 pound-feet at 1,750 rpm.

The TDI felt surprisingly lively, jumping off the line and roaring quickly up hills. As usual, the diesel had plenty of acceleration backbone at low RPM, although you don’t wind it out as you would a gas engine because it runs out of breathe in the upper rpm. Shift early and keep it in its low range of high-torque happiness.

Just prior to the media launch of the 2015 Golf and GTI, VW announced pricing, which includes a limited-edition Launch Edition TSI priced at $17,995, plus shipping. The first-year-only special version comes solely with two doors and stickshift, but is otherwise well-equipped.

The regular TSI base model starts at $1,000 more and includes a few embellishments, such as alloy wheels. Automatic TSI models start at $20,095. Higher trim levels include the S, SE and SEL.

TDI models come only in S trim with four doors and start at $21,995, plus shipping, with automatic transmission costing $1,100 more. SE and SEL models go up from there.

Pricing for the GTI starts off at $24,495, plus shipping, which seems like something of a bargain for a hot hatch that looks cool and runs strong. Add $1,100 for the six-speed DSG automatic.

The 2015 Golf and GTI will be built for North and South America at VW’s plant in Puebla, Mexico.

Forty years and seven generations later, VW has kept the faith in redesigning the Golf and GTI, retaining the style and substance while raising the bar in versatility and performance. Now, if only U.S. drivers can get past their phobia about hatchbacks.

Tags: ,