Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Does the new 2010 Volkswagen Golf's status as "best-selling car in Europe" have a downside? Can there be a negative aspect to the VW Golf being named 2009 World Car of the Year? Perhaps, but only in the limitations it puts on Volkswagen when it comes to altering the Golf's basic character. In fact, rumors that the current Golf V (badged "Rabbit" in the U.S.) never turned a profit suggest Volkswagen has to limit the 2010 changes to the Golf VI for financial concerns, if nothing else.
Regardless of the reasons behind the 2010 Golf's changes, including a return to the "Golf" moniker in the U.S. market, the result is a car that's functionally similar to last year's model but visually all new, inside and out. We experienced the Golf in its homeland of Germany, where the preponderance of older models gave us adequate opportunity to scrutinize the latest exterior updates. Volkswagen reps tell us only that the roof panel carries over unchanged on the outside, with the new Golf's cleaner quarter panels and meaner front grille providing a refined look compared to the chunkier Rabbit it replaces.
Revisions to the cabin are similarly sweeping, including an available multifunction steering wheel and revised gauge cluster, center stack and door panel designs. These changes are universally superior to the previous execution, giving the new Golf's cabin a more upscale appearance. Add in new luxury options, like a 6.5-inch LCD touchscreen navigation system and a premium audio system with satellite radio and a 30-gig hard drive, and it's clear VW wants the Golf to excel in the rapidly growing "premium small car" segment.
The 2010 Volkswagen Golf's upgrades aren't only cosmetic and convenience-related, as it can now be had with the same 2.0-liter clean diesel TDI engine (certified for all 50 states) that debuted in the 2009 Jetta. This engine comes attached to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual, with either transmission offering 40-plus real-world mpg when hooked to that turbodiesel engine.
Of course these features don't come cheap, as a base 2.5-liter gasoline-powered Golf coupe (in manual transmission form) starts at $18,190, while our TDI test model, featuring the dual-clutch automated manual and a navigation-audio package, rang in at $25,540.
Viewed strictly as an "economy car," the Golf proves costlier than segment leaders like the Honda Civic, Mazda 3 and Mini Cooper. However, the new Golf arguably delivers more premium feature content and fuel-efficiency than those models. When viewed as a complete package, Volkswagen's sixth-generation Golf makes a compelling "you get what you pay for" case.
German cars (even small ones designed for fuel economy) tend to have a solid, heavy and confident feel. The 2010 Volkswagen Golf continues this tradition, riding on a four-wheel independent suspension and offering an impressive balance of ride comfort and capable handling at both low and high speeds. An electromechanical steering system with variable power assist provides effective communication between the driver's hands and the front wheels, giving the Golf a decidedly sporty persona compared to your typical hatchback.
Our test vehicle had the optional 2.0-liter TDI clean diesel engine that makes 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. This engine, when mated to the optional dual-clutch six-speed automatic, imbues the Golf with exceptional pulling power at low-to-medium speeds (anything below 50 mph). Volkswagen claims a 0-60 time of 8.6 seconds, which is a bit slower than the 2.5-liter gasoline engine (8.1 seconds, according to VW).
But the diesel's slightly slower acceleration nets the TDI Golf a substantial fuel-efficiency advantage, earning it a 30 city/42 highway rating versus the gasoline engine's 23/30 rating. And the rapid gearchange capability of the paddle-shifted dual-clutch automated manual on our test car (a transmission not available on the gasoline Golf) gives the driving advantage to the TDI model.
The 2010 Volkswagen Golf's advanced technology extends beyond its engine and transmission. A host of standard safety features, including traction control, stability control, ABS with brake assist, a locking differential and six airbags, further elevated our confidence on the rain-soaked autobahns between Dresden and Berlin.
Those autobahns provided the running room (and legal freedom) to explore the new Golf's ride quality at triple-digit speeds. Because of Germany's consistently smooth pavement, the Volkswagen never felt jarring or unsettled when cruising the superhighways. In-town travel on the more, shall we say, classic German surfaces betrayed the Golf's relatively stiff suspension over roadway irregularities.
The car remains generally comfortable on broken pavement, largely because of its capable suspension and excellent seat design, but don't expect the same isolation from buckled asphalt that some competitors offer. The same can be said of road and wind noise, which is never intrusive (well, not below 100 mph, at least) but remains an undeniable aspect of the driving experience.
As with previous versions, the new 2010 Volkswagen Golf makes the most of its interior space. With overall length, height and width nearly identical to last year's model, you can count on fitting four full-size adults comfortably in the four-door model, while even our two-door test car accommodated four full-size adults on shorter trips.
Everything from the soothing white instrument lighting to the high-quality switchgear builds on the Golf's confident driving dynamics, giving the car a premium look and feel. The multifunction steering wheel puts audio, phone and menu controls at your fingertips, and our test car's optional navigation touchscreen provided easy access to Sirius Satellite Radio, MP3 music (stored on a 30-gig hard drive) and DVD controls.
Other premium features, like one-touch window operation, keyless entry, automatic climate control and a driver's information center between the primary gauges, are standard on every 2010 Volkswagen Golf. Storage space behind the rear seats measures a usable 12.4 cubic feet, but a center armrest pass-through (standard on TDI) and the 60/40-split folding feature further expand the Golf's utility, offering 46 cubic feet of storage with the seats down. Throw in the simple three-dial climate control system and standard iPod interface cable (optional on gasoline-powered Golfs) and the TDI's cost of entry arguably swings from "pricey" to "value."
Design/Fit and Finish
Quality and construction were two specific areas Volkswagen focused on during the Golf's latest revision. The updated body not only has cleaner lines but a cleaner appearance, courtesy of tighter panel gaps and upgraded exterior lights. That trademark "thunk" when shutting the Golf's doors has more bass tone than ever, and the upgraded interior materials include lined storage bins to reduce rattles, and high-quality metallic trim panels to offset the black interior.
In fact, if there's a complaint to be made regarding the new Golf's cabin, it relates to a one-dimensional Volkswagen decision to offer the interior in basic black with cloth seats. For a vehicle with such obvious premium aspirations, are leather seats or a parchment interior really too much to ask? For now, the answer apparently is "yes."
Who should consider this vehicle
With a relatively high base price tag, the latest Volkswagen Golf TDI isn't for the frugal shopper who seeks basic transportation. The combination of extensive standard content and superior fuel economy provides the new Golf with "entry-luxury" status, while also delivering nearly 600 miles on a single tank of gas. For driving enthusiasts looking to trade gas money for feature content, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI is a solid choice.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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