Volkswagen's compact Golf hatchback has a little something for everyone. It's nimble for city use, but it's poised at high speeds, making it good for interstate treks. Its small exterior size is an advantage on congested urban roads, but it offers a surprising amount of interior room. To top it off, it's efficient — especially the TDI diesel version I tested — but not at the expense of driving fun. It wholeheartedly lives up to Volkswagen's "people's car" heritage.
The two-door TDI hatchback starts at around $22,000. With options, the as-tested price of the version I drove was $27,490. The Golf TDI is eligible for a federal tax credit — $1,300 for the manual transmission and $1,700 for the automatic.
The base Golf with an inline-five-cylinder gas engine starts at $17,620 for the two-door and $19,335 for the four-door, which puts it in competition with hatchback versions of the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer. To see a side-by-side comparison of all Golf variants, click here.
New Year, New Name, New Face
Volkswagen's hatchback has gone by the name "Rabbit" for the past few years, but the well-known "Golf" name — which is what Volkswagen will use globally for the car going forward — returns for 2010, along with updated styling. The most noticeable changes are centered on the car's face, which is all-new and has more emphasis on horizontal lines, thanks to wide upper and lower grilles.
The hatchback's profile is essentially unchanged, but when you get to the rear you see new taillights that, like the new front end, make the car seem wider. The prior Rabbit had a pedestrian look about it, and you had to step up to the GTI hatchback to get a sportier design. The new Golf, in comparison, looks aggressive — especially the two-door model.
Diesel Efficiency, Performance
There's no question that some hybrids get better fuel economy than the Golf TDI, but I haven't found one that's more fun to drive. The TDI is rated 30/41 mpg city/highway when equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission and 30/42 mpg with the optional DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) dual-clutch automatic, which costs an extra $1,100. My test car was equipped with the automatic transmission.
I logged approximately 200 miles in the TDI. The majority were spent commuting in city traffic, but there were also some stretches of open highway cruising. At the end of my week in the car, the trip computer's average fuel economy readout indicated 34 mpg, reflecting the fact that the majority of my time was spent driving in the city. It's worth noting that we've recorded much higher fuel economy figures with this engine and transmission combination under different circumstances: On a recent mileage drive that included a lot of highway cruising, a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI averaged 47 mpg. If that's the type of driving you usually do, you might get significantly better fuel economy than the EPA estimates. If you own a diesel Volkswagen, send us an email and let us know what kind of fuel economy you get.
The TDI's turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine makes 140 horsepower, which may sound a bit wimpy, but the reality is that most drivers appreciate torque when it comes to everyday driving, and this engine has loads of it. It makes 236 pounds-feet of torque at just 1,750 rpm, and it doesn't take long before you get hooked on the low-rpm thrust.
There are many advantages to having a high-torque engine. For one, it helps you scoot through city traffic, as you'll notice in the Golf TDI. Even when you press down moderately on the gas pedal, the diesel pushes you back in your seat. The sensation is even more pronounced because it isn't accompanied by the typical engine-revving sounds of a gas engine. Instead, there's a quiet drone.
There are similar benefits on the highway. The TDI cruises easily and quietly, without any excessive diesel clatter. When you need to accelerate at highway speeds, the diesel pulls smartly and quickly.
Some of the credit for this acceleration aplomb is owed to the available DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, which knocks off incredibly quick upshifts during hard acceleration; they're much swifter than what you'd experience from a traditional automatic. However, not everything is rosy with this gearbox.
One of the problems with the dual-clutch automatic is that its shifts feel a little sluggish at slow speeds. They're not nearly as quick as when you accelerate urgently, and I suspect that's the result of an effort to make gear changes smooth, which they are. The more significant issue, however, is that the transmission is overzealous with its upshifts, which results in lower engine rpm that saps the diesel of some of its performance. Granted, it's not as detrimental here as it is in the Volkswagen GTI, which we recently tested, but it's there nonetheless.
Volkswagen gives you a few ways to control the automatic, which helps mitigate the transmission's tendency to upshift, but they introduce their own issues. The gear selector includes a Sport mode that holds gears longer before upshifting, but in everyday driving I think most people will find that it holds them too long, letting the engine rev unnecessarily high. What the transmission needs is a middle ground between the shift characteristics of Drive and Sport.
You can also shove the gear selector to the right to use the transmission's Tiptronic mode. Tiptronic lets you control shifts by nudging the gear selector up or down, or by using paddles on the steering wheel. It works just fine, but I wouldn't want to use it all the time — it's an automatic transmission, for crying out loud. I haven't driven a Golf TDI with the manual transmission, but after sampling the so-so performance of the dual-clutch automatic, I want to.
A Firm Ride
What struck me initially about the TDI was its ride quality, which is GTI-firm. It felt so firm, in fact, that I thought someone had put too much air in the tires; I even pulled out the tire gauge once they had cooled down to check. They were set correctly to 38 pounds of pressure, but the wheels and tires definitely contributed to the car's stiff ride.
While the regular Golf comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, the TDI has 17-inch alloy wheels shod with low-profile P225/45R17 all-season tires. That's the same size tire the GTI has standard.
What's more, the Golf TDI features a lowered sport suspension. It seems VW views the diesel model as the choice for enthusiast buyers, but I'm not convinced that's why average consumers will be attracted to it; I think the diesel's efficiency will hold more sway. There's a risk that the Golf's firm ride could be a negative for buyers despite any handling benefits it provides.
The TDI does handle well. It's quick to change its path, which is helpful when making your way through urban traffic, and it also feels planted when pushing through tight corners. There's definitely something there for the enthusiast buyer who likes the concept of the GTI or Subaru Impreza WRX but is looking for greater efficiency than what those cars offer.
A Premium, Spacious Cabin
One of the things Volkswagen has done better than most other mainstream brands is create interiors with exceptional attention to detail and premium materials, and that legacy lives on in the Golf. The interior's overall design isn't all that different from the outgoing Rabbit's, but it's nicer, with tasteful details like silver-ringed dash vents. Overall, the materials are on par with what you'd find in some luxury brands, like Acura and Lincoln. You do pay for it, though, as Volkswagens tend to be more expensive than their mainstream competitors.
I really like the TDI's front seats, which goes to show that sometimes you don't need fancy features to be comfortable. The ones in my test car were finished in a woven cloth and had manual adjustments, but their long cushions offered good thigh support, and both the driver's and passenger's seats were height-adjustable, which is something you seldom see with manual seats. My test car also had the optional heated front seats, which is rare with cloth upholstery.
My only quibble with the seats is the knob used to recline them. It's not a problem if you're the only one driving the car, but if you share it with someone who likes the backrest at a different angle, you'll quickly learn that a twist knob takes a lot more effort than a lever, which is what most manual seats use.
One of the more surprising characteristics of the Golf is how roomy it is inside. It looks small when you compare it with the many large vehicles that travel U.S. roads, but get into the backseat and that impression is turned on its head.
After setting the driver's seat for my 6-foot, 1-inch frame, I climbed into the backseat to sit behind it. To my amazement, the backseat was comfortable, though there wasn't much legroom to spare.
More than one passenger commented on the great views the two-door's large side windows offer. However, if you plan on regularly using the backseat to carry people or pets, I'd recommend the four-door version, as it's a bit of a pain to climb back there in the two-door. Whether you get the two- or four-door Golf, passenger volume is constant at 93 cubic feet, which is just a few cubic feet less than the midsize Chevrolet Malibu sedan.
The hatchback shape makes the Golf pretty versatile, too, with 15 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row that can easily be expanded by folding the 60/40-split backseat, which includes a center pass-through.
The Golf has the distinction of being an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick for 2010. It received Good overall ratings — the highest possible score — in the Institute's four crash tests, including the new roof-crush test, and also has an electronic stability system standard. Other standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-door models can have optional side-impact airbags for backseat passengers.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
Golf TDI in the Market
Whether it's a lingering image problem, fluctuating diesel fuel prices or diesel fuel scarcity — which is still an issue in some places — diesels have yet to catch on with the American public. One car like the Golf TDI won't turn the tide by itself, but it's another in a line of models that buck the notion that diesels are smelly, loud and smoky. The Golf TDI goes beyond putting down that stereotype, delivering a driving experience many hybrids would envy while returning markedly better fuel economy than some subcompact gas cars.
Diesel technology commands a price premium, and when you combine that with Volkswagen's already-premium pricing, it's not difficult to face a $25,000 Golf TDI — albeit a well-equipped one — by selecting a few options. Uncle Sam helps soften the blow a bit with the available tax credit, but the premium price remains. There are any number of cars you can buy for that kind of money, but I doubt you'll find one as efficient and fun to drive as the Golf TDI. That makes it a winner in my mind.
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