2012 Volkswagen Golf

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First Drive Review: 2010 Volkswagen Golf

This 2010 review is representative of model years 2010 to 2014.
By Tony Swan of Car and Driver

What's in a name? Given the vacillation of Volkswagen of America marketing strategists, it's hard to say. Known then to the rest of the world as the Volkswagen Golf, the company's enduring hatchback made its U.S. debut in 1975 as the Rabbit. Then it fell into line with the rest of the planet and became the Golf for later generations. Until it was the Rabbit again for its fifth generation of U.S. sales, a return to the good old days that lasted three years before the name was discarded once and for all — maybe — for the 2010 model year.

This designation dilemma is a reflection of the marketing uncertainty that has plagued VWoA for the past decade or so, one that might be stabilized under the baton of Stefan Jacoby, who took over the U.S. operation in September 2007. Dynamic and engaging, Jacoby is no stranger to a difficult business climate, having served as CEO of Mitsubishi Motors Europe prior to joining VW.

Jacoby faces multiple challenges in the U.S. — a product reputation that's been tarnished over the years by various quality problems and pricing that tends to be high versus comparable products from competing carmakers, thanks to the strength of the euro versus the dollar and high labor costs in Germany.

So, here's a brand-new Golf, the sixth renewal of VW's perennial bestseller. Just how big a part it will play in Jacoby's effort to revive VW profitability in the States remains to be seen. But based on a preview drive in Germany, plus our earlier experiences with the latest Golf-based GTI, this much is clear: VW has done a good job of keeping its bread-and-butter car at the front of the compact hatchback pack.

Refinement Refined
For U.S. buyers, who are not quite as attuned to the Golf's ongoing evolution as folks in Europe, the distinctions between generations five and six are probably a little difficult to discern at a glance. The front fascia is new, the sheetmetal is tightly wrapped around the wheels, front and rear overhangs are minimal, and the rear hatch opening has been widened. But the general look of the car is familiar, and it would take a robotic eye to see the tiny dimensional differences, although they do conspire to give the car a more purposeful appearance. The 101.5-inch wheelbase is unchanged, overall length (165.4 inches) is reduced by 0.4 inch, width (70.3 inches) increases by an inch, and height (58.3 inches) is unchanged. Although there's a little more elbowroom, interior volumes don't really change much, either. Like other compacts, the Golf is rated for five passengers. There's good rear-seat leg- and headroom for adults in the outboard positions, but pity the poor unfortunate who's sentenced to sit in the middle. What's the German word for fuhgedaboudit?

Powertrains for the U.S. models are also familiar: a 2.5-liter gasoline five-cylinder, offered with a five-speed manual gearbox (standard on three-door examples) or a six-speed Tiptronic automatic with manumatic shifting (optional on three-doors and standard on five-door models); and VW's excellent 2.0-liter TDI turbo-diesel four with a standard six-speed manual or the option of VW's six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (DSG), which was the focus of much of our driving in this preview. This TDI engine is currently available in the Jetta, but diesel power makes its return to the Golf lineup after an absence of a few years.

For all the familiarity, VW has elevated its Golf game in terms of fit and finish, two areas where the gen-five Golf caught a fair amount of flak. Panel gaps are not only minimal, they're uniformly minimal. Interior cut-lines are all but invisible, plastics and trim pieces are noticeably higher in quality, storage bins have soft linings to damp out content rattles, and VW has obviously done a lot of subtle work in the area of noise, vibration, and harshness. Wind and road noise have been suppressed, and exhaust sounds become audible only at full throttle. From the solid ka-chunk of the door closures to the comforting embrace of the front bucket seats, everything about the latest Golf reinforces VW's renewed emphasis on quality.

On the Autobahnen
Almost all of our preview driving took place on German autobahns, culminating in a run from VW HQ in Wolfsburg to Berlin. Although this didn't tell us much about the car's dynamics in terms of its twisty road behavior, our earlier experiences with the new GTI lead us to believe that even the basic Golf will acquit itself well when fancy footwork is required. And in the high-speed world that is Germany, where there are still substantial stretches with no speed limit, the Golf exhibits the kind of rock-steady stability that comes from autobahn development.

We logged seat time in gasoline and turbo-diesel models. VW claims 0-to-60-mph times of 7.8 seconds for the 2.5 five-cylinder with a manual transmission, 8.1 seconds with the automatic, and a top speed of 125 mph. EPA city/highway mileage ratings of 22/30 mpg are given for the manual, 23/30 for the automatic. VW has done some welcome work with the gasoline five, which feels a little smoother than earlier editions and tows the Golf to speed a little quicker than the turbo-diesel, which needs 8.6 seconds to achieve 60 mph, according to the manufacturer.

However, we preferred the TDI's throatier growl, its lovely torque curve — 236 lb-ft from as low as 1750 rpm — and of course its terrific fuel economy: 30 mpg city and 41 mpg highway with the six-speed manual, according to the EPA, and 30/42 with the DSG. And we also preferred its firmer suspension tuning, similar to the Europe-only Golf GT's.

Like the gasoline version, the Golf TDI is supposedly capable of 125 mph. The most we could coax out of either powertrain, however, was an indicated 122 — although that should be sufficient to get you into enough trouble to last for a while. (Tip: Do not explore top-speed capabilities in your own neighborhood.)

Money
Quality is costly, and the sixth-generation Golf is more expensive than its predecessor. A base three-door with the 2.5-liter five and the five-speed manual transmission starts at $18,190. Add $1100 for an automatic transmission. Then tack on an additional $600 to jump to the five-door 2.5-liter, which is offered only with the automatic. The Golf TDI starts at $22,889 for a three-door manual and $23,489 for a five-door manual. Add $1100 for DSG. So they're a little expensive, but based on our drive, folks who pony up the cash are likely to end up mighty satisfied.

Performance data:
PERFORMANCE (MFR'S EST):

Zero to 60 mph: 7.8-8.6 sec
Top speed: 125 mph

FUEL ECONOMY:
EPA city/highway driving: 22-30/30-42 mpg

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BB02 - 9/18/2014 1:12:26 PM