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Friday, September 12, 2008

PM Drives the New Golf

Volkswagen Golf VI


COMING MONDAY: GM Unveils the Chevy Volt Hybrid Electric Car!

(Photographs by Ingo Barenschee)

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — While folks back in the United States have been content these past few years scooting their hip little Rabbits around the city—and praying that the new Jetta diesel crosses the pond—Volkswagen has been banking on its five incarnations of the flagship Golf here in Europe ... to the tune of 26 million units sold. And while gas-gouged Americans were dropping their jaws this week at the unveiling of the VW Golf BlueMotion—and its claimed 62 mpg from the 1.6-liter TDI engine—we were busy driving the nonconcept version of the sixth-gen Golf on some of the wettest and roughest Nordic roads imaginable.

So whaddaya mean it looks like the old Golf? With all the success VW has had thanks to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design for a small and perfectly formed hatchback replacement, the Mk6 version attempts to answer some of the criticisms of its predecessor—without alienating loyalists. “We just improved the old car," said Ulrich Hackenberg, VW’s board member for product development. “It sounds banal, but you have to work very hard to do it." Volkswagen design boss Walter de Silva told us he even stopped the mighty Golf production engines in Wolfsburg, Germany, for two weeks while he stroked his beard over the minutiae of design changes.

But will those picked-over styling cues and just two U.S. models offer enough to fend off Jetta TDI-craving Americans when the Golf arrives stateside next spring? If anything was going to stop us from finding out, it certainly wasn’t going to be everything that Mother Nature and the North Atlantic could throw at us. —Andrew English

The Specs

Under the skin, the Mark VI Golf is essentially a Mark V mirror, so it’s the design shifts that make a difference. The cabin, for one, shows enormous improvement: Surfaces are softer and easier on the eye, and the build quality is simply out of this world. The door pockets feel as if they could stop a train, the interior lamps have a sense of art to them, and the seat-adjusting mechanisms are mechanical delights.

At 165 in. long, the new Golf isn’t the biggest B-segment family hatchback in Europe, but VW makes clever use of the interior space. Two six-footers can sit behind one another in relative comfort with simple and capacious storage bins throughout the cabin, while the trunk is large and relatively uncluttered by the rear-wheel arches. The seats are hard but comfortable, although the standard items don’t grip your torso brilliantly—if you want to go fast round corners, you need the optional sport seats. Other than that, however, the driving position is spot-on, and the large reach-and-rake adjustment on the steering column allows the largest and smallest alike to drive safely.

And for its class, the Golf has an eye-popping tech kit, too. Rain-sensing wipers, dark-sensing headlamps, intelligent cruise control, rear parking cameras, reverse parking programs (you work the pedals, it does the steering) and adaptive chassis control are all options for which it’s well worth forking over the extra cash.

Come January, Europeans will get their pick of five engines at four cylinders apiece—1.4-, 1.6- and 2.0-liter versions of the 1.4-liter TSI petrol engines, plus the latest common-rail fuel-injected 2.0-liter turbodiesel, which is already used in the Skoda Superb and Audi A4. Certainly the latter will become the UK’s most popular option, what with its 140-hp, 236 lb.-ft. of torque and top speed of 130mph—all while hitting 48 mpg.

In the spring, meanwhile, the U.S. will get the Mexican-built, 2.5-liter, 170-hp five-cylinder as fitted to the Jetta, as well as the 200-hp, 2.0-liter FSI mill from the GTI model and the 2.0-liter diesel to boot. The latter engine is already fitted to the Jetta in the States and is going like gangbusters.

The Drive

While you’re sure the engine has started at the turn of the key, you’d struggle to know this new Golf is a diesel. The sound insulation work is exemplary, with a fully insulated firewall, double-skinned insulated bonnet and sound-deadening layer in the laminated windscreen. As project leader Hubertus Lemke says, “Handling needs are different according to different drivers, but everyone needs a quieter car." As a result, Golf now sets the class standard in cabin refinement, beating even its Audi A3 sister. At speed, there’s a little rustling around the door mirrors, perhaps, but then you look down and realize that, thanks to the quietness of the ride, you’re pushing well over 100 mph.

Matched to the six-speed DSG, twin-clutch transmission, the diesel unit is foolproof, powerful and well mannered. From just under 2000 rpm, the surge is strong and keeps going all the way to the 5000-rpm redline.

Ford’s European Focus still wins the handling argument, but the gap has closed considerably. The lurching weight transfer that used to affect the old Golf has lessened, and while the rear end occasionally heaves over long-wave bumps, the car refuses to become unsettled, no matter what the road and driver throw at it. All-round disc brakes are very powerful with a linear pedal action and a good pedal feel. The steering system is also improved, partly thanks to body-shell stiffening. That makes for a first-class ride, especially on the broken-surface roads.

The U.S., however, won’t benefit immediately from the effervescent little 1.4-liter TSI gasoline engine, and that’s a darn shame. This diminutive turbocharged and supercharged engine pumps out a scarcely believable 160 hp and 177 lb.-ft. of torque while offering a smooth power delivery sans attitude. Fitted with a seven-speed DSG gearbox, or six-speed manual, this top-model TSI has a top speed of 136 mph, pulls 0 to 62 mph in 8 seconds and delivers a pristine 39.2 mpg.

The Bottom Line

“We can deliver this engine in the U.S. if we have to," Lemke promises of the 1.4-liter TSI. “We are keeping a constant surveillance for market demands for it." So keep up your pleading, and in the meantime rest assured that VW has smartly relaunched what had been something of a flawed predecessor to the sixth iteration of the Golf. The style is, um, totally Golf, but that’s the whole point. The audience for this popular European car doesn’t want it to change its look every year—they like constancy, reliability and unobtrusiveness. And the fact that their favorite is now a whole lot nicer to drive is a bonus with which they’re happy to live.