The 2017 Volkswagen Golf SEL is a clean, graceful theme on a variation

2017 Golf SEL

  • Base price: $27,995.
  • As tested: $30,810.
  • Standard equipment: 1.8-liter engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-drive, and an extensive menu of electronic safety gear and amenities ranging from heated front seats to Bluetooth mobile-phone connectivity and a premium sound system.
  • Options: A package including parking assist, lane departure warning, blind spot alert, and bi-xenon headlights.
  • Fuel economy: 25 mpg city and 35 highway.
  • Engine performance: Sufficiently lively.
  • Handling: Very capable.
  • Ride comfort: Good.
  • Styling: Clean, restrained.
  • Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.
  • Three Bens: Good.

Commonality is a buzz word automakers employ to save significant bucks on design and manufacture. Essentially, it means employing the same architecture and mechanicals on a multiplicity of vehicles.

And as long as you satisfactorily differentiate the automobiles using the same platforms and components — and don’t field look-alike sedans like GM did in the 90s — the customer really doesn’t care.

The Volkswagen Group is quite a fan of commonality, and very good at utilizing it. Consider, for example, the subject of today’s sermon: the VW Golf compact hatchback. The Golf hatch uses VW’s MQB platform, the same structure found in the Audi A3 compact sedan, the Audi TT sports car, and the imminent 2018 redesign of the VW Tiguan compact crossover.

As the Golf suggests, VW is also adept at fielding variations on the same theme. In addition to the regular hatchback model that I drove, there are two wagon models, the SportWagen and a recently introduced all-wheel-drive crossover variant called the Alltrack. In addition, there are two sporting versions of the Golf, the GTI and the even higher performing R model. While the standard hatches and the wagons are powered by a 1.8-liter, 170 horsepower turbo, the GTI and R get their motivation from 2-liter turbos. The GTI engines are rated at 210 and 220 horses depending on trim level, while the R develops a hefty 292.

The Golf hatch starts at $18,895 for the base model with a manual gearbox. That’s a bit pricier than most of its competition, but a lot cheaper than the top-of-the-line SEL model I tested. That car opened at $27,995 and achieved a finish price of $30,810 when shipping and a $1,995 Driver Assistance and Lighting Package were tacked on.

In fairness, the SEL is a very nicely equipped car, with standard features ranging from heated mirrors and washer nozzles to autonomous emergency braking, a blind spot alert and adaptive cruise control.

I found the SEL aesthetically pleasing, its design clean, tasteful and engaging both inside and out. The interior struck me as particularly graceful, with a generous amount of soft-touch surfaces. The leather-look seats, with their black surrounds and quilted, perforated gray inserts, were as attractive as they were comfortable. I wasn’t quite as comfortable with the Monroney’s announcement that there would be no charge for this “Quartz Gray Leatherette Interior.” Think about it: free plastic seats in a $30,000+ car. We’ll need extra bottles for all that milk of human kindness.

The Golf’s interior proved quiet, comfortable, and reasonably roomy, the exception to the latter being if someone in the front seat is over six feet and you seat someone the same height behind that person. In that case, the rear seat passenger gets to play kneesies with the seat back.

Cargo space in the Golf is decent enough: 22.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 53 with them folded.

Driving the SEL was pleasant business. Visibility and instrument/control accessibility were good. The engineers negotiated a good handling/ride quality compromise, although the suspension tautness that serves the car’s athletic intentions are noticeable on rough surfaces.

The car does handle well, keeping body lean to a minimum and getting a good bite in the corners from its meaty, 18-inch tires. The engine is peppy enough, the steering is responsive, and the braking quite adequate.

The test car had EPA mileage ratings of 25 city and 35 highway, which are pretty ordinary numbers for this segment. It does better in the safety department. It gets an overall score of five stars in the government safety ratings, which is the highest mark. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave it its Top Safety Pick+ award.

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