2021 Volkswagen Golf

By March 12, 2021

The 2021 Volkswagen Golf marks the end of an era this year. When the next generation debuts for 2022, we’ll only be able to buy the spicy GTI and Golf R variants.

With its future sealed, the 2021 Golf has been whittled down to a single trim that gets lots of standard features and few options. The GTI also remains available for those seeking a sportier experience; it’s offered in three distinct trim levels.

Powering the base Golf is a 1.4-liter turbo-4 making 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. It pairs up to either a 6-speed manual or, for a few more dollars, an 8-speed automatic. The EPA says this flavor of Golf is good for 27 mpg city, 37 highway, and 32 combined.

The GTI also features a 2.0-liter turbo-4, but total output is a meatier 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Like the base Golf, front-wheel drive is mandatory and the standard transmission is a 6-speed manual. A dual-clutch 7-speed automatic is available for those who’d rather not shift for themselves.

Both the Golf and GTI come standard with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitors, and rear cross-traffic alerts. The Golf ends its list of safety equipment there, but the GTI goes further with available adaptive headlights on the mid-grade SE.

The government has issued the Golf five stars out of five overall crashworthiness. The IIHS awarded the Golf their highest rating of “Good” on all but the front-passenger overlap test, which earned an “Acceptable” rating.

Model Lineup

The base Golf has been reduced to a single trim priced at $24,190. It gets standard 16-inch wheels, keyless start, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, heated front seats, synthetic leather upholstery, and a power sunroof.

The $29,690 GTI S is almost identically equipped to the Golf. It doesn’t get the sunroof, but gains a leather-wrapped steering wheel and iconic plaid upholstery.

The GTI SE begins at $33,660. For the extra few thousand over an S, the SE brings leather upholstery, adaptive headlights, and the sunroof that was deleted from the base GTI.

At $37,940, the GTI Autobahn is the priciest GTI. To justify its price, VW loads it up with a 12-way power driver seat, adaptive dampers, Fender audio, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with navigation.


The design of the 2021 Golf is now six years old, but there’s little to give away its age. Rather than aim for trendy motifs, VW styled this generation of its legendary compact with the same sort of graceful restraint that has earmarked every Golf since the groundbreaking 1975 original. A few well-drawn character lines are about the extent of the stylistic flourishes. Everything else is simple but effective, from the basic body design to the spare use of trim.

The Golf doesn’t pretend to be sporty, but the GTI rightfully plays things up with more aggressive bumpers and wheels and a lower ride height. Its big windows, tall roof, and friendly two-box shape are still practical before all else.


The Golf’s cabin has aged as well as the styling, with a low, clean dash featuring easy-to-read analog gauges and a nicely-integrated touchscreen. The ergonomics are as good as the build quality.

The touchscreen is on the smaller side, with most models receiving a 6.5-inch unit. An 8.0-inch system with navigation is limited to the expensive GTI Autobahn trim, but we’d stick with the smaller screen, which comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The base seats in the regular Golf are firm and supportive enough to support any length of driving, but the sportier thrones in the GTI feature more bolstering without any sacrifice in comfort.

Heated seats are standard across the board. GTIs come standard with plaid cloth upholstery that’s still as unexpectedly stylish as ever; more serious leather upholstery is found on the upper two trims of the GTI. Up to 12 ways of adjustment can be had on the GTI, but base Golfs get manual-adjusting seats.

The back seat gets a decent 35 inches of leg room, and the practical design carves out lots of head room and shoulder room. Despite measuring a pert 168 inches long, the Golf manages to offer 23 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and up to 57 cubic feet with the second row folded. That’s more than many crossovers of similar size.

Driving Impressions

From behind the wheel, the base Golf is modestly competent. The GTI? Less modest, just as competent, and certainly remarkable. The one to get depends on how much value you ascribe to speed and performance. City dwellers indifferent to thrills will want the Golf; those who enjoy spirited driving should go right for the GTI.

First off, the Golf. Its 147 horsepower isn’t much, but it delivers 184 lb-ft of torque by 1,500 rpm—not bad for a 1.4-liter turbo-4. That torque pushes it around town with pleasant zippiness, making easy work of jackrabbiting from stoplight to stoplight. Only interstate speeds betray its modest roots and lack of horsepower.

Buyers have a choice between a 6-speed manual and an 8-speed automatic. The 6-speed snicks gracefully from gear to gear. Of course, the vast majority of buyers will prefer the 8-speed. It works just as well as the manual, only without the work—or the fun.

The GTI trades off the Golf’s smaller engine for a 2.0-liter turbo-4 making 228 horsepower. With it, the GTI remains a benchmark for the segment for its adept chassis, nimble handling, and great steering. It’s Germanic in the best way: always engaging yet forever unperturbed.

It too gets a slick 6-speed manual as standard, but buyers can upgrade to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. We’d stick with the manual for driver involvement, but the 7-speed delivers fast shifts without any of the low-speed stumbling endemic to these gearboxes.

The suspension on both the Golf and GTI strikes a nice balance between firm and comfortable. It doesn’t ring hollow some cheap compacts and nor does it punish over weathered roads. The GTI Autobahn gets adaptive dampers for even more sophisticated behavior, but the lesser models work just fine.

Final Word

The 2021 VW Golf and the GTI remain a testament to how good a compact car can be. Practical and fun, they prove you don’t need to sacrifice refined manners in order to have fun on a budget.

While we’re eager to drive the next-gen GTI, this generation of Golf will be missed—by us and many others. Get one while you can.


—by Anthony Sophinos, with driving impressions from The Car Connection

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