Performance and refinement in a compact package.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $14,900
As Tested $20,045
Volkswagen's Golf is quick. It corners well, it rides nice, it's comfortable and it's practical. It has soul. Those who don't like its styling or don't appreciate the hatchback design just don't get it. With either the new 1.8 turbo or the narrow-angle V6, this car is fun to drive. Two can sit comfortably in back. Fold the seats down and you can cram loads of stuff in the cargo area. It's also one of the most refined cars available in the compact segment. It exudes fine German engineering.
Two Golf body styles are available: a three-door hatchback and a five-door hatchback. (The rear hatch counts as a door.) Volkswagen lists GTIs as separate models, but we are lumping them together. All GTIs are three-door models.
Volkswagen offers more engine options for its compact than any other manufacturer. Four engines are available: a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4, a new 150-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4, a 174-horsepower 2.8-liter VR6, and a 90-horsepower 1.9-liter TDI turbocharged diesel inline-4.
Retail prices for the Golf and GTI model lines: GL 2.0L 3-Door ($14,900); GL TDI 3-Door ($16,195); GLS 2.0L 5-Door ($16,350); GLS TDI 5-Door ($17,400); GLS 1.8T 5-Door ($17,900); GTI GLS 1.8T 3-Door ($19,225); GTI GLX 3-Door ($22,620).
GTI GLX comes with Volkswagen's 2.8-liter narrow-angle V6. The new 1.8-liter turbocharged engine is replacing the 2.0-liter as the base engine for the GTI. Volkswagen is phasing out the 2000 GTI GLS 2.0-liter ($17,675).
All models come standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. Optional automatic transmissions typically add $875. A Leather Package is available for the GTI GLS for $850.
Volkswagen totally redesigned the Golf for 1999. Though the fourth-generation Golf may look like its predecessor, subtle changes make it a much more modern-looking automobile. Big, sculptured headlights look really cool and are stuffed with high-tech lighting hardware.
More important, this fourth-generation Golf is 3 inches longer than pre-1999 models and rides on a wheelbase that's 1.5 inches longer. It is 1.6 inches wider and 0.5 inches taller than the last generation. Rear doors on five-door models make full use of this increased size to improve entry and exit.
With its hatchback design, the Golf can carry an enormous amount of cargo. Flip the articulated rear seat bottom, remove the rear headrests and fold one or both rear seats backs down to create a cavernous space. We can't understand why Americans find hatchbacks so unattractive. Hugely popular in Europe, they are perhaps the most popular body style there. Hatchbacks offer some of the functional benefits of station wagons, including easy access to cargo through side doors and the rear hatch. A split rear seat allows carrying one rear passenger along with luggage and long items like skis or fly rods. A cargo cover shields possessions from prying eyes when the rear seats are flipped up.
Golf comes with an unusually high level of standard equipment, including anti-lock disc brakes and side-impact airbags. There's an unexpected level of refinement. Forget the grained plastic wood found in many cars. This trim is the real thing. Stylish instruments look like aircraft components at night with vibrant red needles over backlighted indigo gauges. Power windows with auto-up and auto-down are normally not found in this class.
Golf's cupholders are well placed and adequate for most container sizes. There's plenty of storage space, with a large glove box, deep door pockets and a center tray that's useful for stowing cellular telephones. Driver and passenger doors use different inside handles that make them easy to close.
Seats in the 1.8T are firm and supportive. More side bolstering would help brace driver and passenger in tight corners, however. Seating adjustments are trademark Volkswagen with its unique jack to adjust seat height; they are a bit difficult to use at first with an awkward knob for adjusting rake, but familiarity improves this.
Rear seats seem surprisingly roomy with plenty of headroom for all but the tallest passengers. There isn't much stretch-out legroom, but sliding your feet under the front seats makes for a quite comfortable place for short trips. Three-point seat belts are used in all three positions in the rear - an excellent safety feature normally found on expensive luxury cars.
The optional Monsoon Sound System ($295) is one of the best factory stereos I've heard, with crisp highs and snappy bass response.
This car is a lot of fun to drive.
Brisk off-the-line acceleration performance is the first thing you notice about the 1.8T. There's a surprising amount of low-rpm torque here, more than enough to spin the front wheels. Traction control steps in when needed to minimize this, enhancing control. Accelerating through the gears, there's no turbo lag. Instead, the power delivery is fluid and linear. This 1.8-liter turbocharged engine is so smooth and it revs so freely that you're encouraged to put the throttle down. In spite of its power, it nets an EPA-rated 24/31-mpg city/highway.
GTI VR6 comes with Volkswagen's VR6, an innovative narrow-angle V6 engine that delivers 181 foot-pounds of torque. It isn't a rocket off the line, but offers good acceleration on the steepest grades.
The 2.0-liter engine offers adequate performance for commuting, but doesn't inspire drivers who enjoy spirited driving. However, the 2.0-liter engine holds its own in traffic, cruising steadily at 80 mph, delivers an EPA-rated 24/31 mpg city/highway. Its relatively low price offers the best value.
If fuel economy is at the top of your shopping list, consider the 1.9-liter TDI, a turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder diesel engine. Diesels have a reputation for being noisy, smelly and slow, but Volkswagen has perfected the design. New emissions systems have cleaned up the exhaust scent, and the TDI is only a shade louder than the 2.0-liter gasoline engine. At highway speeds, you'll barely notice the difference. You sacrifice some performance, but the improvement in mileage is dramatic: it gets an EPA-estimated 42/49 mpg.
Golf offers excellent handling and a comfortable, well-controlled ride quality. With compliant coil springs and gas-filled shocks, the driver feels connected to the road while vibrations and bumps are comfortably muffled. MacPherson struts in front and the independent torsion-beam suspension in the rear help keep the car rooted to the road. Aggressive maneuvers generate little body roll. The longer wheelbase and the much stiffer chassis of the fourth-generation Golf reduce vibration on rough roads and improve handling in tight corners.
The Golf's firm brake pedal provides good feedback to the driver. This car is stable under hard braking. ABS, which comes standard, is ready to prevent wheel lockup, allowing the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency stop.
GLS and GTI models come with Volkswagen's Anti-Slip Regulation system (ASR), which detects wheel slippage and applies braking force to that particular wheel. Working with an Electronic Differential Lock at speeds below 25 mph, ASR controls throttle response to maximize traction and minimize slipping for enhanced driver control in tight cornering situations. Pressing a button in the center of the dash turns ASR off.
Among compacts, the Golf 1.8T may be relatively expensive. But it's more fun to drive and more refined than other cars in its class. If you enjoy driving, this car is a great choice. If the 150-horsepower turbocharged engine isn't enough juice, then moving up to Volkswagen's narrow-angle V6 should provide plenty of grins and put you in a performance class with upscale sports sedans and sports cars.
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