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23 November 2009

Volkswagen sells a lot of Golfs — including all variants, more than 450,000 were sold last year in Europe alone. Since its introduction in 1974, a staggering 25 million units have moved from lots. Marketed across the world, the Golf is one of those simple cars that doesn’t necessarily excel in any one particular area, but does everything quite well at a reasonable price. Calling the Golf an important icon for VW is an understatement on par with calling the game of golf “something Tiger Woods is okay at.” Six generations on, the new Golf is now upon us. We were in Germany recently to find out if it’s ready to carry the torch.

Rather than start from yet another clean sheet of paper for the sixth-gen Golf, Volkswagen realized that it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, especially when the current model is already quite good. After all, the fifth-generation Golf (Golf V) was a major step ahead of the Golf IV it replaced; upon its debut, it won the European Car of the Year and World Car of the Year awards. So when the time came to ink the Golf V’s successor, Volkswagen opted to go with a heavy facelift of the existing model. VW engineers will go on about the 1,500-some individual changes that were made between Golf V and Golf VI, but 90% of them you can’t see.

If the Golf V was handicapped in any one area, it was in the looks department. Sure it grew on us, but the large, pulled-back headlamps, cross-eyed taillamps and generally awkward design conspired to give the fifth-generation Golf a bit of an Ugly Betty complex. It may have been fun to drive, quiet and comfortable, but it wasn’t always the car you wanted to look back at fondly after parking it. Thankfully, every piece of sheet metal on the Golf VI was changed, save the roof.

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Volkswagen design group leader Walter DeSilva says of the new Golf, “Never have I had a more difficult design project than the next generation Golf. This car keeps me up at night.” And this from the guy who oversaw the Audi R8 and the Alfa Romeo 147, among other beauties. The resulting design is much tighter and more traditionally “Golf.” A tense crease line runs down the flanks; leaner headlamps look more focused than the old model and work in conjunction with a totally revised horizontal grille to give the nose a sharper, more chiseled look; new bumpers seem to have a greater sense of function; and the rectangular tail lamps carry the new family identity, drawing inspiration from the Touareg. Even though the overall dimensions of the Golf VI are virtually the same as the Golf V, the new car appears wider, lower and sportier – a big improvement in our book.

Under that new skin Volkswagen made myriad improvements. Fewer individual pieces are needed to build the new car, resulting in fewer things to break, squeak or rattle. More laser-welded seams and tailored blanks mean an even stiffer chassis with less flex. The stiffer chassis means the suspension could be revised to give an even better ride while delivering the European handling we expect in a Golf. Windows are now made from a new laminated glass that absorbs sound, and the doors all get double rubber seals to keep wind and dirt out. Materials on the interior are a step up from the Golf V with simpler surfaces and softer materials more common in cars that cost far more. Where you notice all these changes the most is in just how quiet and refined the interior seems to be. Driving a Golf V and Golf VI back-to-back really underscores the fact that the new Golf is not just a mid-stream facelift, but rather a truly unique model generation.

Two powerplants are offered to the US market this time around &madsh; the 2.5-liter inline-five gas engine returns with 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque; otherwise VW’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged “clean diesel” TDI is available with 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. A manual gearbox is still standard – a five-speed for the gas engine, a six-speed for the diesel – while the self-shifting six-speed DSG can be had in either as an option. The two models differ in more ways than just powertrain, however, as the choice of engine will also dictate several other bits of equipment, essentially creating two unique models. And get this – the diesel is the sportier of the two.

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Before we get into the differences, let’s talk about what they share. One of the Golf’s biggest assets is its adaptability; whether you’re bringing home a flat screen TV, taking a snowboard up the mountain, or hauling four full-sized people to dinner, the Golf is able to cope. Standard equipment includes single-zone climate control, power windows and locks, an eight-speaker stereo, four-wheel disc brakes. Standard safety features include stability control (ESP), traction control (ASR), anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution and electronic differential lock. Dual front airbags and side curtain head bags are also included. Suspension on all new Golfs is a MacPherson strut setup in front and fully independent multi-link in the rear.

The gas-powered Golf represents solid, no-nonsense transportation. Cloth upholstery covers flat-bottomed seats, and the steering wheel is plastic-rimmed. A standard version of the suspension is bolted to fifteen-inch steelies. The inline-five feels a little rough around the edges, like five-cylinder mills often do, but power is plenty adequate, as we discovered on a 125-mph autobahn run. At this speed the Golf shows its German roots, feeling absolutely rock solid. This may not be the preferred setup for track day excursions, but it is quiet, rides well and is able to take some abusive driving on rough roads with little drama. Fuel economy is rated at 23 mpg city and 30 highway, which puts it at a disadvantage to some four-cylinder competitors, though it delivers a distinctly European driving experience its rivals can’t match.

The TDI is actually a step up from the standard Golf in trim level, giving us essentially a “sport” version of the Golf TDI. A taught sport suspension is part of the diesel package, as are seventeen-inch alloys with all-season performance rubber. Inside, the same bucket seats found in the base GTI are fitted, trimmed in a tasteful black cloth, while extras like leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather shift boot, touch-screen premium eight-speaker sound system with six-disc CD player, MP3, Sirius satellite radio, SD memory card reader and iPod connection are also included in the package.

The TDI fires up at the first twist of the key, idles quietly and produces torque equal to VW’s 3.2-liter VR6. Acceleration is brisk, shoving you back into your seat far more than the modest 140 hp would suggest. On the Autobahn the TDI model was easily able to outrun the gas Golfs, all the while quiet and relaxed. The car’s seriously fun to drive, but can still deliver 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway – it can go almost 600 miles on a single tank of fuel.

Pricing for the base Golf starts at $17,490 for the two-door and $19,190 for the four-door. TDI models are priced at $22,189 (two-door) and $22,789 (four-door). Overall the Golf VI is a much-improved premium commuter car. The new looks, improved chassis and fun-to-drive element are what really got our attention – VW was able to make the car more refined without taking anything away from the performance. Whether a hatchback is your thing or not is up to you, but if you’re looking for a European car that’s both affordable and well-built, the Golf VI might surprise you.



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