SAN FRANCISCO – Volkswagen is putting significant effort into trying to make its Golf C-car  a bigger player in the U.S. market by offering a number of derivatives, including a hatchback, diesel and wagon, as well as building on the German automaker’s fun-to-drive characteristics.

But many top competitors in the segment, particularly the Ford Focus, also have made strides, making VW’s objective that much more difficult to achieve.

The Golf truly shines in its handling characteristics. Try as they might, most players in this segment have yet to develop a car that is as fun and rewarding to throw through the curves as a VW.

The base Golf hatch, powered by a 1.8L turbocharged, direct-injected 4-cyl. gas engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission demonstrates brisk acceleration off the line, but not more so than most competitors in the segment.

A 2014 Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner, the 1.8L replaces the 2.5L 5-cyl. in the last-gen model and does so well, boasting comparable power and torque to the outgoing mill (170 hp and 200 lb.-ft [271 Nm) of torque] and a 6 mpg (2.5 km/L) fuel-economy gain.

Torque delivery is smooth, with peak twist available at 1,600 rpm-4,400 rpm. It also is 72 lbs. (33 kg) lighter than the outgoing engine thanks to a compact design, streamlined componentry and widespread use of lightweight materials.

The 2.0L turbodiesel makes 150 hp, 10 hp more than the outgoing mill, and 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque at just 1,750 rpm. The torque comes on like a jackhammer, mitigating any turbo lag.

Torque is plentiful at most speeds, but drops off a bit when accelerating to pass on the freeway. All in all, the diesel is the more impressive of the two mills, despite slight knock at idle.

Steering feedback is spot-on, increasing confidence on some of the more twisty roads surrounding San Francisco. And when it’s time to stop, the Golf’s 11.3-in. (28.7-cm) vented front and 10.7-in. (27.1-cm) rear disc brakes grab tight, bringing the car to a quick halt.

Helping stabilize the front-wheel-drive car is VW’s XDS Cross Differential System, previously available only on the pricier GTI model. VW says the technology works as an electronic substitute for a traditional mechanical limited-slip differential. Monitoring data from each wheel sensor, XDS detects if the suspension becomes unloaded at one corner and automatically applies braking to the driven inside wheel to reduce understeer.

The system works flawlessly and produces noticeably improved handling over the outgoing model.

VW declines to reveal how much, if any, weight XDS adds to the Golf. Its likely more than offset by the Golf’s body-in-white that is 51 lbs. (23.1 kg) lighter than its predecessor due to increased use of high-strength, hot-formed steel that allows for parts to be made thinner without sacrificing strength.