Two Volkswagen Golfs have passed under my hands recently, and they were as different from each other as they could be.
The first was a roaring R32, a limited-edition pocket rocket with 240-horsepower, all-wheel drive, rock-hard suspension and a cocky attitude. The unassuming VW compact was transformed by the performance treatment and turned heads with both its shocking acceleration and its equally shocking price tag: $30,000.
The other VW hit a little closer to home, a four-door TDI turbo-diesel with automatic transmission at $10,000 less. But don't turn up your nose so fast at diesel. This turned out to be a sweetly enjoyable car that was fun to drive and achieved outstanding fuel mileage.
As much as the R32 was about fantasy, the TDI was about the real world.
The R32 made just a brief appearance as a 2004 model, and despite the significant price tag, has pretty much sold out. With that in mind, I'll concentrate this review on the car that will appeal to most people, not to mention still being available.
For those of us at a certain age, VW diesels evoke the gas crisis of the 1970s, the first time we faced widespread fuel shortages and soaring prices. Of course, we blamed OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries.
So everyone started looking at ways to conserve fuel, including absurd electric minicars that looked like phone booths and sundry gas-saving devices that you could hook up to the family sedan. None of which worked.
One of the less-absurd alternatives was diesel, already in wide use by overland tractor-trailers and other heavy-duty trucks. Mercedes-Benz was a long-standing proponent of diesel, so that was a good way for the wealthy to conserve. General Motors tried its hand at diesel V-8 engines, with less-than-stellar results.
VW diesels made their appearance, giving hip conservationists an opportunity to drive a groovy Rabbit powered by a durable and fuel-saving diesel. But they also were slow, noisy, smelly and left a hanging trail of black smoke everywhere they went.
No more. The new diesels use turbochargers and direct fuel injection (thus the TDI label) that give them decent performance while cleaning up the smell and smoke.
Diesel is the thing in Europe where gasoline is wildly expensive and diesel significantly less so. Here, diesel is about the same price as a gallon of gas, but there still are advantages.
Not the least of which is getting 40-plus miles per gallon.
What it is Volkswagen keeps the faith with its thoroughly modern diesel, found here in a nicely trimmed compact four-door hatchback. The test car was a GLS, the fancier of two versions over the base GL.
Performance An occasional whiff of diesel fuel and engine rattle are small prices to pay for the economy and durability of a modern diesel engine.
Although the 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine produces just 100 horsepower, it also churns up 177 pound-feet of torque starting at a low 1,800 rpm. That's plenty of immediate pulling power for a 3,091-pound car.
As well as accelerating sharply, the TDI cruises nicely at highway speeds, without the strident roar of older diesels.
The latest VW diesels include new fuel-injection technology called Pumpe Düse, which in America is called unit injection. This refers to high-pressure, electronically controlled fuel injectors that deliver fuel directly to each cylinder to increase power and efficiency.
The test car came with a five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual control. It worked well with this low-revving engine, although sometimes downshifts under acceleration were jarring. The Golf comes standard with five-speed manual transmission.
Drivability Though not nearly as sharp handling as the R32, the TDI corners like a proper little sport sedan and with a more compliant suspension. The steering is responsive if a bit numb, and the four-wheel disc brakes with standard antilock are strong.
Styling I like the looks of this compact box, especially in four-door configuration. Although some people think Golfs look dull compared with such competition as Mazda3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus hatchbacks, I like the low, sporty, understated style.
The test TDI came in a rich-looking blue metallic with sporty spoke alloy wheels and low-profile performance tires.
Interior Surprisingly roomy considering the exterior dimensions, with enough space behind the wheel for a tall guy, fairly good legroom in the back seat and a broad cargo area in back.
Volkswagen interiors are typically sturdy and up to date, with attractive blue-lit gauges and switches that are well laid out. The seats are comfortable and supportive.
The GLS comes with all the goodies, including power doors, locks, windows, mirrors and sunroof, remote locking; cruise control, Monsoon sound system with CD, height adjustable front seats and a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, always appreciated by tall drivers.
Side air-bag safety curtains come standard. Pricing The GL version of TDI starts at just over $17,000, while the upgraded test GLS had a base price of $19,320.
Options on the test car were automatic transmission with Tiptronic, $1,075; electronic stability program, $280; cold-weather package of heated seats and washer nozzles, $150; shipping, $575.
The total of $21,400 comes in a couple of thousand more than the gas-powered Golf GLS, but the extra initial cost should be compensated by the fuel-mileage boost and low-maintenance diesel engine. Bottom line Forty miles per gallon, quick acceleration, reasonable price. What's not to like?
Well, diesels are available in only 45 states, with California and other states with similar air-quality rules banning them because of high particulate and sulfur emissions. That could change in 2006 when federal law sharply restricts the amount of sulfur allowed in diesel fuel, similar to European law.
Diesel cars should become increasingly popular in the United States in coming years, with more models being offered across the board than the handful available today.