Freshly redesigned, the Volkswagen Golf is enjoyable to drive, smooth and fuel efficient. The front seats are comfortable and the cabin is austere but roomy, functional and of better quality than pre-2010 models.
The Volkswagen Golf is a front-wheel-drive compact car that comes in two-door and four-door body styles. Both seat five. The Golf offers a choice of a 2.5-liter five-cylinder gasoline engine or a 2.0-liter TDI diesel engine. The diesel offers much better fuel efficiency but the purchase price is much higher.
The Golf was completely redesigned for 2010, making this the sixth generation. The 2011 Volkswagen Golf carries over unchanged except for some updated technology. The 2011 Golf offers voice-controlled Bluetooth and comes standard with a single-CD RCD310 stereo.
Though freshly redesigned, the Golf looks like it always has. Inside is an austere cabin with comfortable seats. The Golf is roomier than it looks, and the trunk is large for the class. Audio and air conditioning controls are simple and easy to use. Driver visibility is excellent.
We found the Golf cruises quietly and easily with either engine. Handling and ride quality are better than that of the competition, and the brakes work well and hold up without overheating to repeated hard use.
The 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that comes standard puts out a very usable 170 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. It offers a choice of Tiptronic 6-speed automatic or, on the 2-door, a 5-speed manual. This inline-5 gets an EPA-estimated 23/30 mpg with the 6-speed Tiptronic, or 22/30 mpg City/Highway with the manual. The manual offers better performance, able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, compared with an 8.1 second run for the automatic. It feels brisk from a standstill and responds readily to the gas pedal at highway speeds. The 5-speed manual gearbox is easy to shift, with a smooth, easy clutch pedal. The Tiptronic automatic shifts smoothly in automatic or manual mode.
The Volkswagen Golf TDI comes with a 2.0-liter diesel engine. TDI stands for turbocharged direct injection. The TDI model offers a choice of a 6 speed manual or a 6 speed dual clutch, automated manual, called the Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG. This alphabet soup of technology results in superb fuel economy: The TDI gets an EPA-estimated 30/41 mpg City/Highway with the manual transmission, 30/42 mpg with the DSG. The TDI turbodiesel engine produces 140 horsepower at 4000 rpm, and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque between 1750 and 2500 rpm. Note the diesel offers substantially more torque (236 foot-pounds) than does the gas engine (177), and the TDI delivers its peak torque at much lower rpm. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills. This suggests responsive performance around town from the TDI, the kind of driving most of us do most of the time, and that's exactly what we experienced. However, the gas engine propels the Golf off the line more quickly. The Golf TDI can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds (with either transmission), which is substantially slower performance than the 8.1 seconds offered by the standard Golf 2.5-liter gas model with automatic.
Redesigned for 2010, this is the sixth-generation Golf. Over the years, body proportions have remained stoically the same, making the Golf instantly recognizable.
The stylists did a good job of giving the C pillar (the body panel behind the rearmost side window) a consistent shape and proportion on the 2 door and 4 door, given the reality of both cars sharing the same wheelbase and being equal in overall length. A clearly defined character line tracks rearward from the top of the front fender blister all the way to the upper taillight element, giving the rear fenders a hint of a shoulder. Wheelwells encircle the tires leaving the barest of gaps, visually pulling the car down onto the pavement. Minimalist door handles are snug for hands wearing anything larger than medium size gloves. Gaps between body panels are pencil thin, which suggest high-quality construction.
Taillight housings mirror the ovoid shape of the headlights, boosting the rear fenders' shoulder look the aforementioned side body panel character line establishes. The wraparound rear window glass fills the top of the lift gate. An outsized, round VW logo parked in the middle between the taillights doubles as the lever for opening the liftgate.
The TDI is distinguished from the 2.5-liter gas model by an eponymous chrome logo beneath the right taillight, balancing the chrome GOLF logo both cars wear below the left taillight.
Inside, the Volkswagen Golf shows a Teutonic dedication to austere functionality. Brightwork is confined to touches on steering wheel spokes, around air registers, door handles and tasteful outlines on various knobs and the shifting gear. Textures give good touch. A contrasting silver ish strip separates top and bottom dash sections and dresses the uppermost element of the door trim panels. Completing the Bauhaus-ian theme is the cloth upholstery, to which the Golf offers no option.
The Golf feels roomier than it looks, and it is, actually, equaling or at least competitive with the other major players in its niche. This includes the Chevrolet Cobalt, which it betters everywhere, including trunk space by 1 cubic foot. About the same holds true for the Focus, while the Civic's trunk holds three fewer foot-square boxes. However, the Ford Focus offers a half inch more rear-seat legroom than the Golf. The Honda Civic coupe trails the Golf 2-door in rear-seat headroom by more than three inches, a huge difference.
The front seats are comfortable. Getting in and out of the car is easy, in spite of sporty seat bolstering. That bolstering is welcome when exploring the Golf's relatively high handling limits, as is the grippy cloth upholstery. The eight way adjustable driver's seat works well with the tilt and telescope steering wheel to allow all but the tallest and the most stout drivers a nearly perfect triangulation with steering wheel, pedals and shift lever. Even the front seat passenger gets eight way adjustability for the seat.
Air conditioning and sound system controls are comfortably basic in shape, size and duty. Knobs and buttons handle the essential operations.
Selections the navigation system's touch screen permits while the car is in motion appear in large, finger friendly, virtual buttons that require only a glance by the driver to identify their assigned duties and then can be manipulated in the driver's peripheral field of vision. Or better yet, the passenger can press them.
Outward visibility is excellent, unimpeded except for the large C-pillars (the rearmost roof supports).
For a car this size, and with these powertrains, the Golf excels, easily cruising for kilometer after kilometer with the speedometer needle solidly in the low three digits. Wind noise, even at those seriously elevated speeds, was well muted; the most remarkable road-sourced sound, in fact, was the hiss of rainwater on the interior of the wheelwells.
We found the Golf accelerates briskly with the standard 2.5-liter. Volkswagen claims a 0 60 mph time of 7.8 seconds for the 5 speed manual, 8.1 seconds for the 6 speed automatic. At highway speeds, the engine readily answered the gas pedal, even including at Autobahn rates until it ran out of steam around an indicated 122 mph (it's electronically limited to 125 mph). The manual transmission's five speeds are really all that's needed for everyday driving. Clutch engagement is smooth. Shift throws are comfortable, the linkage certain in its gear selection.
The Tiptronic delivers smooth transitions between gears whether left to its own or rowed by the driver.
Steering response is confident, if not markedly crisp. Handling in corners was mostly neutral, with understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to run) the dominant at the limit mode. The only shortfall in the ride will be a tendency, associated with all cars with a relative short wheelbase like the Golf, of the suspension to lope over pavement heaves common to the U.S.'s concrete roadways.
For people who've missed the opportunity to drive a car with a diesel engine operating with today's sophisticated technology, the TDI with its 2.0-liter diesel engine will be a pleasant surprise. It takes about a second longer to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, a significant difference. Performance is comparable with either the standard six speed manual or the optional 6 speed DSG transmission. On urban freeways, throttle response was quick and linear, with little hint of turbo lag and the engine pulling strongly well past legal U.S. speeds, thanks to the diesel's hefty torque curve, although not as lively as the 2.5 liter much beyond 110 mph. The manual has two or three more gears than the diesel needs, thanks to its hefty torque curve. The DSG, however, is more than merely an automated manual. With one or the other of its dual clutches always engaged, it almost instantaneous shifts as slick as, or even slicker than a full automatic, making full use of its six speeds to produce a seamless delivery of optimized power to the front tires. The TDI model's 17 inch wheels wear lower profile tires and deliver more certain turn in. While handling is basically neutral, understeer appears in the TDI at the limit, which again is a bit higher than the limit of the 2.5-liter model.
Given the different worlds for which the Golf and its competition have been designed, the latter don't always feel as confidant at the absolute extremes of their respective performance envelops. The Cobalt's suspension, for example, is less sophisticated and not as balanced; where the Golf's thumps over broken pavement, the Cobalt's thuds and sometimes clunks. The Civic's ride and handling is comparable, if not showing quite the same confidence when pushed as hard. The Focus has more body lean in hard cornering, in part due to the narrower track (the distance between the tires side to side), by as much as two inches.
The new Golf splits the difference in fuel economy. The TDI, no surprise, tops them all, by as much as 9 miles per gallon in EPA's city test, against the Civic, and 13 mpg in the highway estimate, also against the Civic. The Golf's 2.5 liter gas engine betters the Civic in the EPA City rating but trails the Cobalt and Focus in fuel economy.
The brakes work well. We used them repeatedly on Germany's Autobahn to drag the Golf down from triple-digit speeds to 60 mph with no drama. Pedal feel was solid throughout, as was the Golf's directional stability.
The Volkswagen Golf is enjoyable to drive. The standard Golf offers Volkswagen quality and refinement at Honda prices. The Golf TDI gets excellent fuel economy, but its diesel engine isn't cheap.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Wolfsburg, Germany; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.