Volkswagen Golf — A rose by any other name

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

First it’s the Rabbit. Then it’s the Golf. Then it’s the Rabbit again. And then, egad, it’s back to Golf.

The Volkswagen Rabbit of many years ago eventually became the Golf as the vehicle was known in Europe from inception. Then came along the marketing genius de jour and Golf was changed back into a Rabbit from 2006 through 2009, and now it has once again been re-christened the Golf, and hopefully this time for good.

Volkswagen officials had hoped the nostalgic Rabbit name would win over more customers, but apparently the change did not have the expected results. So now we return to the name the car goes by around the world and the name that won World Car of the Year honors in 2009. Whatever you choose to call it, Volkswagen’s bread and butter small car has been restyled inside and out for 2010 and has never been better. And that’s a very good thing.

In addition to the upgraded styling, the one thing that makes the Golf jump to the forefront for 2010 is the addition of the award-winning clean-diesel engine with a new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo-diesel that also powers the popular Jetta TDI sedan. Fun to drive and frugal at the pump, the TDI is an affordable and entertaining alternative to many larger gasoline engines and hybrid-electric powertrains.

Named one of Ward’s top ten engines for 2010, the all-new TDI — now certified in all 50 states — returns 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway with either the manual or the optional 6-speed DSG automatic transmission.

Don’t be put off by the diesel’s rather modest 140 horsepower output. Its 236 foot-pounds of torque make it a stop-light to stop-light juggernaut. If you have never driven a Volkswagen diesel, a test drive will leave you impressed with all phases of performance including merging and passing. We pushed it up and down coastal mountains and our Golf TDI never stopped to take a breath.
And don’t let old diesel perceptions stop you from considering the TDI. The modern diesel is quiet, so quiet in fact it is nearly devoid of the typical diesel chatter. And the noxious smell; it’s gone.

The TDI runs as much as $4,000 more than a comparable 2.5-liter Golf, but the difference isn’t as great as it might seem when you add in generous standard equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels and sport-tuned suspension. There is a modest government tax credit available (check with your dealer) to offset the extra cost. And don’t forget the 30 percent improved fuel mileage.

If the diesel is out of your price range the standard 5-cylinder gas engine developing 170 healthy horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque is more than adequate. We drove the coupe version with a 2.5-liter engine mated to a six-speed automatic for a week after our week with the TDI with no complaints over performance or mileage. The engine is rated at 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

Other than the fuel and engine differences we found the suspension tighter and the handling sharper on the TDI than on the standard Golf. But again we have no complaints over the handling and family-tuned ride of the standard Golf. It is engineered to suit the family, and Volkswagen has done a good job reaching the middle ground.

If you like the Volkswagen and the cargo-friendly hatchback design, but desire more performance check out the GTI version of the Golf with a stiff made-for-cornering suspension and a 200-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. It may be just what you are looking for.

The standard Golf comes in two-door and four-door hatchback variants starting at $18,370 including destination for the coupe and $20,085 for the four-door. Our test car with a handful of options listed for $20,764. Our TDI carried a base price of $23,340 and listed at $27,614 including options of navigation (with a new 6.5-inch LCD touch-screen system with 10-gig hard-drive that also includes premium audio with a 20-gig hard drive), the 6-speed automatic, a power sunroof, heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity.

While these prices may seem a bit higher than some of the competition, the Golf delivers more premium feature content and is designed with higher grade materials.

The Golf exterior has been reworked and now sports cleaner-looking quarter panels, a more refined sculpted look that has instant eye appeal. The front grille has been restyled, but still features the large VW logo in the middle. VW designers did a neat job giving the two-door and four-door versions nearly identical looks.

The interior has also been revised with a new gauge cluster and center stack. Volkswagen’s dashboard layouts have always leaned toward the conservative side, and the new design does not vary from this long-standing trend while evoking a handsome, quality appearance.

We found the front seats very comfortable for long-distance driving, and the driving position, with the help of the standard eight-way manually adjustable driver’s seat and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, proved excellent.

We would opt for the four-door because it is to us simply more practical. But if you want the two-door, you will find decent leg room and good head room for two adult riders in the back seat. It’s just that the getting in and climbing out can be tedious.

Safety has not been overlooked with the new Golf. Standard on all models are four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side-curtain airbags. For even more protection, rear-seat side airbags are optional on the four-door model.

No matter what name VW calls it the new Golf should be noted for its hatchback versatility, its upscale look and feel, and its drivability; and for us the diesel engine is a must.

Base price: $18,379 (gas); $23,340 (diesel)
Engine: 2.5-liter 5-cylinder/2-liter 4-cyl. TDI
Horsepower: 170/140
Torque: 177/236 lbs.-ft.
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Length: 165.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,023 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30/42 mpg highway, 23/30 mpg city
Also consider: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3

The Good:
• Stylish looks inside and out
• Useable hatchback design
• Fuel-efficient clean diesel engine available

The Bad:
• Soft suspension in 2.5 edition

The Ugly:
• High price compared to competitive models