Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Smooth, sophisticated, practical.And powerful.
The Volkswagen Golf plays many roles and plays them well. It's a practical car. Two people can sit comfortably in the back seats. The hatchback design means you can fold those seats down and cram amazing loads of stuff into the cargo area.
Being in one is pleasant. The Golf is one of the most refined compacts available, exuding precision German engineering, and upscale trim and a high level of standard equipment make it comfortable.
These are also enjoyable cars to drive. All Golfs are agile, built on rigid chassis with carefully tuned suspensions. All are fitted with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and all come standard with side-impact airbags. Some Golfs are frugal. The TDI diesel boasts an EPA-rated 42/49 mpg. Some are affordable, starting at just $15,050. And Volkswagen now offers a four-year/50,000-mile warranty.
Others are quick, downright fast. The GTI is a true driver's car, born of the German autobahn. Both GTI engines benefited from a power boost partway into the 2002 model year. The 1.8-liter turbocharged engine now boasts 180 horsepower, while the VR6 V6 jumps to 200 horsepower. Available in very limited quantities is a high-performance GTI 337 Edition.
Golf comes is available in two-door and four-door versions, or some would say three-door and five-door because of the access provided by the rear hatch.
Volkswagen offers more engine options for its compact than other manufacturers. Four engines are available for the Golf: a 90-horsepower 1.9-liter TDI turbocharged diesel inline-4; a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4; a 180-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4, and a 200-horsepower 2.8-liter VR6. The VR6 switched from two-valve to four-valve heads in the spring of 2002 and horsepower jumped from 174 at the start of the 2002 model year to 200 for its second half.
Four transmissions are available: 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual, 4-speed automatic, or 5-speed automatic with Porsche's Tiptronic shifting.
Retail prices start at $15,050 for the two-door Golf GL with the 115-horsepower engine and 5-speed manual. The same car with a 4-speed automatic lists for $15,925. The two-door Golf GL TDI with the 90-horsepower diesel engine is $16,345 with a 5-speed and $17,220 with the automatic.
The four-door Golf comes in either GL or GLS trim levels. GL retails for $15,250. GLS is listed for $16,600 and comes with power windows, a premium audio system, and velour upholstery (in place of cloth) with matching door trim.
The GTI only comes in the two-door body style. It's priced at $18,910 with the 180-horsepower 1.8T engine with a manual transmission, $19,985 with Tiptronic. Add the 200-hp VR6 engine and 6-speed manual gearbox and it's $21,775.
Few options are available. They include 17-inch alloy wheels ($400), a cold weather package with heated seats ($150), leather seats ($900), a luxury package ($1,240 that includes a power sunroof and Monsoon audio system, and a technology package ($755) that is available only with the VR6 engine and includes climatronic automatic heat and air conditioning, a self-dimming rearview mirror and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
The GTI 337 Edition, of which only 1,500 will be offered, is priced at $22,225. The GTI 337 is inspired by the rare 25th Anniversary edition Golf sold only in Europe. The American version comes with the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine mated to the six-speed manual transmission, special 18-inch alloy wheels, 225/40 aspect performance tires and with 16-inch brake discs with red calipers. The car also has special exterior and interior trim treatment, with racing-style Recaro Sport seats.
If you want a Cabrio, you'd better hurry because the last Cabrio for the U.S. left the factory in Puebla, Mexico, this summer (2002). After 23 years and more than 223,000 cars sold in the United States alone, Volkswagen of America is saying good-bye to the Cabrio. Cabrio models are powered by the 2.0-liter engine and have been available in GL ($19,600) with vinyl manual top, GLS ($20,600) with cloth top and power windows, and GLX ($22,300) with leather trim and a power top. It's important to note that the Cabrio is a dated product, based on the previous-generation Golf, and does not offer the levels of quality of the current, fourth-generation Golf models. Volkswagen is replacing the Cabrio with the Beetle convertible, which will be introduced early in 2003.
A new 4-year/50,000-mile warranty covers the vehicle along with a 5-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty that can be transferred to a second owner. The new warranty plan includes 24-hour roadside assistance.
Volkswagen Golf looks quite contemporary with big, sculptured headlights stuffed with high-tech lighting hardware.
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.
Americans are starting to buy more hatchbacks, especially those with four doors (or five if you prefer to count that way).
Hatchbacks historically have been hugely popular in Europe, 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 is one of the best factory stereos I've heard, with crisp highs and snappy bass response.
The Volkswagen Golf is a lot of fun to drive. The driving experience is colored by engine and transmission choice, so choose carefully.
The new 180-hp 1.8T is a joy when paired with the manual gearbox. It's quick, at times abrupt, but oh so smooth. It delivers brisk off-the-line acceleration performance. 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 is some turbo lag down at the bottom of the rev range. Under normal conditions, launches can be a little slow unless you rev it up and drop the clutch. There is little torque available below 2000 rpm. It starts to build at 2500 rpm and comes on quickly after that, but it isn't the explosion of power that big turbochargers deliver. It's more like the progressive acceleration of a smaller turbo, more fluid and linear.
This 1.8-liter turbocharged engine is so smooth and 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.
I did not like the 2002 1.8T with the five-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission ($1075). The automatic seems to get confused by the turbo in city traffic, often leaving the engine caught out, bogging when I pushed down on the throttle. When asked for moderate acceleration, the transmission would downshift, there would be a surge of power, I'd ease off the throttle, the transmission would upshift, the engine would eventually bog again, and the process would start all over. It's far more subtle than the description above suggests, but it annoyed me on downtown streets. This car is too good to be saddled with this combination. Therefore, we strongly recommend the manual gearbox with the 1.8T. The automatic is better suited for the other two engines, which are naturally aspirated (non-turbocharged).
GTI VR6 comes with Volkswagen's innovative, narrow-angle V6 engine that delivers 195 foot-pounds of torque. The recent power boost is the result of a switch from two-valve to four-valve heads. Strong torque makes this a great engine for the automatic.
The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offers adequate performance for commuting, but doesn't inspire drivers who enjoy spirited driving. It does, however, hold its own in traffic, and feels comfortable when cruising steadily at 80 mph. The 2.0-liter engine is EPA rated at 24/31 mpg city/highway, good, but no better than the GTI's 1.8T engine. Its relatively low price still makes the 2.0-liter a good value, however. This should be a good mate for an automatic, though we haven't tried it.
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. That's competitive with new hybrid gas-electric cars from Honda and Toyota.
No matter the engine, the 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.
The Volkswagen Golf is among the most enjoyable, refined, and sophisticated of compact cars. The 2.0 and TDI models deliver comfort, handling, quality, practicality, economy, and value.
The Golf 1.8T may be relatively expensive when measured against other compacts, 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, but be sure to get it with the manual gearbox.
Moving up to Volkswagen's narrow-angle V6 provides plenty of grins and puts you in a performance class with upscale sports sedans and sports cars.
GL (2 door) 2.0L $15,050, 1.9L diesel ($16,345); GL (4 door) 2.0L $15,250), 1.9L diesel ($16,545); GLS (4 door) 2.0 ($16,600), 1.9L diesel ($17,650); GTI 1.8T ($18,910), VR6 ($21,775), 337 Edition ($22,225).
Options As Tested
Luxury Package ($1,240); Cold Weather Package ($150).
GTI 1.8T ($18,910).
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