Small cars generally fall into two categories now. There are the cheap ones and the cool ones. Vehicles like a Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla are practical. The Mini Cooper, on the other hand, is adorable and known for sparkling performance, but it sacrifices plenty in terms of practicality and value.
And then there’s the Volkswagen Golf. It’s the one of the best small cars at combining practicality and desirability, and it has a reputation of having more class than compact rivals usually manage. But its upright styling leads to a spacious interior and its stoic personality gives it a solid character. And with a reputation for strong safety results, it’s no wonder that the Golf makes a good first car, family car and last car.
In honor of spring and Easter, we’re starting with the fifth-generation Golf, sold here as the Rabbit. Introduced in 2006, almost three years after it went on sale pretty much everywhere else in the world, the VW Rabbit picked up a name last used in 1984 for the first Golf. Like that car, the Rabbit presented German class and quality to the compact hatch segment.
The Rabbit was pitched as a budget offering for urban twenty-somethings, a plan that usually worked for VW. It didn’t this time, though, and the Rabbit was just a small portion of the company’s U.S. sales from 2006 until 2009. Still, you can find a clean, no-accident example for less than $10,000.
As far as cheap wheels go, the Rabbit makes its case by not looking that cheap. Sure, the base model has plastic wheel covers and a good amount of blank plastic switches, but it has a solid feel of a car costing much more. It’s not flashy, but it makes a lot of sense.
After 2009, VW reverted to the Golf nameplate for North America again to stop confusing matters. What the sixth-generation car also brought us was a new Golf TDI, with a turbodiesel four-cylinder boasting great fuel economy and enhancing the Golf’s virtues.
Stop doing the math about how much diesel fuel will cost and understand the benefits of being able to drive long distances without stopping to fill up. The Golf TDI, with its quality interior and comfortable seats, is an even better road trip car with a turbodiesel engine returning more than 40 mpg.
For less than $20,000, you can find a 2010-2014 Golf TDI that can be your long-distance friend. That may sound expensive, but consider that a good thing because the TDI models hold their value well. Many have high mileage because they can last well past 200,000 miles. And they’re so much nicer to drive than a Toyota Prius.
But what about a Golf with more go? That’s the Volkswagen GTI, and one of the most well-rounded cars at any price. It’s all the practicality and sensibility of a Golf, but with a responsive turbo engine and upgraded suspension tuning to bring out the sparkling performance. But hey, what do I know, I just own one myself.
The hot hatch variant of the Golf has a reputation of its own as one of the best-driving cars you can buy without winning the lottery. That could be why it often outsells the standard Golf in the U.S. For less than $20,000, there’s a strong selection of clean GTIs from the last generation, ones that haven’t even been modified to within an inch of their lives.
Which is good, because while you can do a lot to make a GTI faster or more stylish, there’s very little you can do that’s worth it. It’s a car with enough power, enough grip and enough looks to let it fly under the radar. Right out of the box, it’s a car for grownups who can appreciate the refinement every day, and the performance when they want to. And best of all, it doesn’t come with a ride or a noisy cabin that beats you up. For cheap fun, the GTI is a great way to go.
But between these Golfs (OK, two Golfs and a Rabbit), this is the proof that it’s a car for everyone and every occasion. And something that should be on your list of cars to consider.