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First Drive: 2010 Volkswagen Golf

Setting a tough benchmark - but commanding a high price.

by on Oct.13, 2009

All-new, sixth-generation versions of the Volkswagen Golf and the VW GTI are just reaching U.S. showrooms.

All-new, sixth-generation versions of the Volkswagen Golf and the VW GTI are just reaching showrooms in the U.S.

American motorists have long had a love/hate relationship with Volkswagen, but which way will they swing when the 2010 Volkswagen Golf rolls into showrooms?

The German carmaker was the first offshore brand to make a serious foray into the American market, its little Beetle becoming an icon of the Hippie era.  But despite the initial success of the Bug’s successor, the Rabbit, VW sales soon crashed, as Baby Boomers shifted loyalties to a new generation of higher quality Asian imports.

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In the late 1990s, Volkswagen staged a significant comeback, but despite the arrival of the completely redesigned “New” Beetle, that success was relatively short-lived, in large part due to owner frustrations over seemingly endemic quality problems.

With a base price of $17,490, the 2010 VW Golf isn't cheap, but it has a lot going for it.

With a base price of $17,490, the 2010 VW Golf isn't cheap, but it has a lot going for it.

Recent reports by industry arbiters, notably including J.D. Power & Associates, suggest VW is getting its quality problems under control.  And that’s encouraged the German maker to lay out an ambitious goal to become one of the biggest foreign-owned brands in the American market, with sales more than doubling, to 800,000, by 2018.

To get there, VW is laying out an ambitious agenda that includes the construction of a new assembly plant, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as the addition of a variety of new products.  But the foundation of the plan, it could be argued, is the launch of the sixth generation compact hatchback, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf, which is just going on sale in the U.S., this month.

You’ll notice the Rabbit nameplate is gone.  The maker has once again decided to market itsglobal best-seller using the same name shared everywhere else on the planet.  While the 2010 VW Golf starts off with the basic platform used in the previous model, it undergoes some dramatic enough changes that VW bills the ‘10 as an all-new product.

This 2.0-liter turbo diesel, in the 2010 VW Golf TDI, is fun to drive but still makes 42 mpg on the Highway.

This 2.0-liter turbo diesel, in the 2010 VW Golf TDI, is fun to drive but still makes 42 mpg on the Highway.

Perhaps, but VW aficionados won’t take long to recognize the basic shape, whether in three or five-door configuration.  Evolution has been the underlying philosophy, from the original Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Golf to the 2010 Golf VI.

If you need to sum up the modest styling changes in a word, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf is “crisper.”  A bit broader-shouldered than the old version, known internally as Golf V, the 2010 model features more pronounced wheel arches and several distinctive character lines, most notably the sharp crease that runs gently downward, across the length of the vehicle, from the top of the taillights to the middle of the headlamps.

There are softer accent lines on the hood, as well, but VW has chosen not to mimic the latest trend in design, with all too many manufacturers flouting their skills with the stamping presses by adding kinks, creases and bends just about everywhere.  “La Semplicita,” explains Volkswagen Design Chief Walter da Silver, which loosely translates as “Keep it simple.” Expect this theme to spread throughout the entire VW line-up, suggests da Silva.

The 2010 Volkswagen Golf's interior is simple but well-appointed, with far less hard plastic than the prior model.

The 2010 Volkswagen Golf's interior is simple but well-appointed, with far less hard plastic than in the prior model.

The Golf VI cabin echoes this philosophy, again using creases and curves where they make ergonomic sense, but not simply for a design statement.  Instead, VW designers have focused on maximizing functionality while delivering a more sophisticated, upscale feel.  There are pleasantly fewer hard plastic surfaces than in the old Golf.

For its class, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf is a reasonably well-equipped package, with all the usual safety features, such as ABS, Stability Control and front, side and head airbags.  There’s the sort of well-tuned audio system – which offers not just satellite radio but the ability to plug in your iPod and other portable digital devices – that the typical, younger customer is likely to expect.

But you’re going to pay a premium for the VW logo on the hatchback’s hood, acknowledged Stefan Jacoby, CEO of Volkswagen of America.  He conceded, in an interview with TheDetroitBureau.com, that the typical Volkswagen model is running about $3,000 to $4,000 more than comparably-equipped competitive offerings – largely reflecting today’s dollar/Euro exchange rate. (That’s a key reason why you’ll be seeing that new Tennessee assembly plant open in 2011.)

With the base 3-door starting at $17,490, and the 2010 Volkswagen Golf GTI going for $23,290, the new car may push to the upper limits of the segment, but it shouldn’t scare away those who crave the sort of fun-to-drive qualities that have kept so many VW fans loyal, through thick and thin.

The 200-horsepower turbo I-4 in the 2010 Volkswagen GTI will make 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds.

The 200-horsepower turbo I-4 in the 2010 Volkswagen GTI will make 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds.

That goes for the base car, with its 2.5-liter inline-four, which makes 170 horsepower and gets 22 mpg City and 30 on the Highway, as well as the peppier GTI.  The sportiest version of the Golf line turns 200 horsepower out of its 2.0-liter turbo I-4, and can be mated to either a 6-speed manual or DSG with paddle shifter.  Expect to read a lot about the gen-6 GTI, with its 17-inch standard wheels (18s are optional), and sportier front end.  It’ll hit 60 in a brisk 6.7 seconds and still deliver 24 mpg in the City and 32 on the Highway with the DSG gearbox – which can be operated in either auto or full manual mode.

But during a couple days of driving, during which we clocked about 500 miles in all the various Golf permutations coming the U.S., our surprise favorite was the new 2010 Golf TDI, which starts at $21,990.

Powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel engine, the TDI meets emission standards for all 50 states, and it delivers an impressive 30 mpg on the EPA City cycle, with a Highway rating at 42 mpg.  Better than a number of hybrids now on the market, that’s earned it a position as one of the five finalists in the Green Car of the Year program.

Americans may not be used to the hatchback style, but the roomy rear of the 2010 Volkswagen Golf demands a closer look.

Americans may not be used to the hatchback style, but the roomy rear of the 2010 Volkswagen Golf demands a closer look.

For some potential customers, that might be the kiss of death.  How often do mileage champs also deliver a fun drive?  Here, for one.  Okay, it’s not quite as quick off the line as the GTI, but spend some time behind the wheel of this common rail fuel injected turbocharged diesel and you’re likely to come away impressed.  It’s got a great launch feel and the engine keeps on pulling, all the way to 140 mph during one of runs down the Autobahn, heading from Wolfsburg to Dresden.

And for those used to the diesels of old, the TDI is not only quick but relatively quiet.  You might not even notice any of that traditional diesel diesel clattering unless you’re idling at a light with the radio off.

For the extra money, the diesel gets some extra equipment in the package, including a new touch-screen audio system with Sirius satellite radio – and a lowered sport suspension.

Across the board, all variations of the Golf showed themselves more than capable of handling both the demands of the Autobahn and the back roads we occasionally switched over to.  Unlike many entries in this segment, the hatchback has a solid road feel with surprisingly little body roll in even tight corners.  Steering is crisp, precise and you get the sort of road feel that VW has always been known for, even though the Golf engineering team has done a credible job of isolating the normal road jouncing.

The 2010 Volkswagen GTI is the sportiest member of the sixth-generation VW Golf family.

The 2010 Volkswagen GTI is the sportiest member of the sixth-generation VW Golf family.

Volkswagen officials are so confident about their new hatchback that they’re making a concerted pitch to the 50 members of the North American Car of the Year jury – of which I am one.  So far, the 2010 VW Golf has made it through the first round of voting and I would personally be surprised if it didn’t make the jump from semi-finalist to finalist.

Perhaps the only thing working against the car is that it maintains that VW philosophy of continuous evolution, rather than surprising us with some truly revolutionary changes.  But, then again, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf is simply so good it doesn’t need to.  Yes, the price tag may get you to swallow hard, but if you’re in the market for a compact offering that’s roomy, fun-to-drive and delivers great fuel economy, you’ll have to look hard to find something quite as competitive.

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2 Responses to “First Drive: 2010 Volkswagen Golf”

  1. Larry says:

    VW’s de Silva is to be applauded for his crisp and simple design and to be congratulated for not following every other recent design with silly chrome vents on the front fender sides.
    My recent experience with the TDI in an Audi A3 gave me 47mpg average. Now if we only could get diesel fuel priced lower than gasoline, like in Europe.

  2. Ken Zino says:

    The U.S. does not have the refining capacity to handle a significant shift to diesel fuel, so it is unlikely that diesel fuel will decrease in price.

    It also appears that one key strategy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to increase the price of all carbon based fuels, perhaps significantly.

    Add in the fact that the diesel engine is roughly 25% more expensive (maybe even more now with EPA requirements to remove its cancer-causing particulate matter in the exhaust that European regulations ignore) than an equivalent gasoline fueled one, and the diesel will likely remain niche market in the U.S.

    There is no scenario that I am aware of that predicts differently.