GENEVA – Volkswagen’s U.S. sales this year set a positive note as the German auto maker reported a combined 60,474 units for January-February, its best start since 1974.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Golf, in the last year of its current production run, so far has logged a 34.3% gain, compared with the still-fresh Jetta, which outsold the Golf in 2012 more than 4-to-1 but was down 8.3% in the past two months.

Americans generally have preferred the Jetta sedan by a wide margin, but the recent trend line favoring the Golf hatchback suggests the timing is right for VW to deliver its new Golf to the U.S. in second-quarter 2014.

Within nine months afterward, the redesigned GTI should arrive as well, says Jonathan Browning, president and CEO-Volkswagen Group of America. He expects big things for the new Golf in the U.S.

“We see the step to the next generation of the Golf as a key moment for people to really understand a little more about what VW is today, not just our past with the Beetle and Microbus, but really understand what (the) Golf can deliver in that compact segment,” he tells WardsAuto at the auto show here.

The all-new seventh-generation Golf is in the European market now, and VW uses the Geneva stage to debut the new GTI and larger Golf Variant wagon, both arriving on the continent in May and August, respectively.

Another Golf debuting is the diesel-powered GTD, which reaches European customers in June, motivated by VW’s new EA288 TDI 4-cyl., rated at 184 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque.

With a 6-speed manual transmission, VW says the car achieves 56 mpg (4.1 L/100 km) based on the combined European driving cycle. The auto maker first delivered a Golf GTD in 1982.

The diesel is not yet confirmed for the U.S. market, but its arrival is inevitable given VW’s deep roots with oil-burners and a passionate fan base demanding them. VW has promised diesels for every vehicle it sells in the U.S. in the future.

Mazda, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Chrysler’s Jeep also will bring new diesels to the U.S. this year, a development Browning calls exciting.

“VW could never conduct a public education program to convert everybody to diesel in the U.S., but I think the time is right to see diesel grow,” Browning says. “I think people really appreciate not just the fuel economy, but the convenience of less-frequent fuel stops.”

He refers to the Passat and the success of its diesel offering as a key differentiator in the midsize- sedan segment. “It’s frankly remarkable and has exceeded our expectations.”

The Passat’s U.S. take-rate for the 2.0L TDI was 22% last year, but it climbed to 29.5% in February. VW expects it to hover near 25% for the rest of the year.

The same TDI 4-cyl. is even more popular in the current Golf, representing 50% of the U.S. mix.

On the sporty end of the range, the all-new GTI is unveiled here with a gasoline 2.0L turbo I-4 that makes 220 hp, an increase of 20 hp over the current model.

“You just need to look at vehicles here like GTI,” Browning says, motioning toward the stand. “It’s a very mature, very sophisticated, very technology-rich vehicle that I think will definitely appeal to a U.S. customer.”

Eighteen months ago, VW launched the high-performance Golf R, which “has really exceeded expectations with the enthusiasm of the customer base,” he says. “We see a lot of interest in the Golf, and the segment is strong in the U.S.”

WardsAuto places the Golf and Jetta in its Upper Small car segment, which is led by the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze. The Jetta placed No.5 within the segment based on 2012 sales, while the Golf was near the bottom.

Sales in the Upper Small segment grew 34.5% in 2012, compared with the previous year.

Potentially boosting the Golf’s North American prospects is VW’s recent decision to move assembly from Europe to Puebla, Mexico, in time for the 2014 launch.

“I think there are opportunities for expansion, particularly now that we are transitioning production from Europe to Puebla,” Browning says. “It’s a very important step in terms of the investment strategy for the U.S. That gives us shorter supply lines and more flexibility in what we offer for the U.S. market.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com