Review: 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI delivers potent one-two punch of efficiency and entertainment

2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI – click above for high-res image gallery

It's time for American consumers to stop being scared of small diesel cars. Currently, we can't think of a single automaker that isn't shelling out bags of money to research and develop new hybrid powertrains – cars that are efficient first and fun-to-drive second (or third, or fourth). Diesel vehicles, on the other hand, offer a different sort of solution. Gobs of torque delivered at low revs and impressive fuel economy work together without sacrificing too much in the way of driving pleasure. Besides, does anyone really want to live in "One Nation Under Prius?"

Volkswagen introduced us to its new Jetta TDI a little over a year ago, proving that clean diesel technology offers a way forward for anyone who gives a hoot about driver involvement. Now, the automaker has fitted its well-received 2.0-liter diesel engine in the all-new sixth-generation Golf. Can this hatch prove to America that it's possible to fuse efficiency and enthusiasm together in a high-quality package? Can you really have your cake and eat it, too? Hit the jump to find out.

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Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Visually, the 2010 Golf is simple yet stylish. Gone is the chrome-heavy nose of the last-generation car, and while the overall shape hasn't changed a whole lot, it's important to note that the MkVI Golf doesn't share a single piece of bodywork with the MkV Rabbit (yes, we're glad the name has been changed back, too). What Volkswagen has done is something that's really underappreciated – make a car that's visually appealing while not being over the top. These days, it seems that some automakers put too much effort into creating bold design for little more than shock value, and it's refreshing to see that Volkswagen stands by its core goal of attractive simplicity.

TDI models come standard with a more robust kit of appearance extras, including foglamps and ten-spoke wheels wrapped in 225/45 17-inch Continental ContiProContact tires. The larger alloys are very sharp, and having the wheel wells pushed out to all four corners lends the hatch a more aggressive stance. What's more, the MkVI Golf is one inch wider than the outgoing Rabbit, but 0.4 inches shorter in length, and while these minor dimension adjustments aren't immediately noticeable when walking up to it, they indeed improve the platform's overall dynamics once you're plowing down the road. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

To reiterate on a phrase we used earlier, a theme of attractive simplicity is indeed carried over into the VW's interior styling, with an added dollop of refinement, to boot. If there's one thing we'll never complain about regarding Volkswagen products, it's the high quality feel that's put into every interior across the automaker's lineup. Every touchable surface in the Golf's cabin feels class-above great, and if you take time to really study every part of the cockpit, Volkswagen's attention to detail is easily recognized. Even the most untouched bits of plastic have been carefully fitted and fastened to create a cabin that feels really, really solid.

The TDI is the most expensive model to carry the Golf moniker, but with it comes a host of standard equipment only available as options on lesser trim levels. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a touchscreen audio interface with six-disc CD changer, multimedia device interface, Bluetooth connectivity and Sirius satellite radio round off some of the infotainment staples, and things like carpeted floor mats, leather-wrapped shift knob and handbrake, and rear HVAC vents add to the already sizable raft of interior refinements. In keeping with the aura of simplicity surrounding the Golf, all of the cabin switchgear is easy to locate, with dials and buttons falling right to hand. Our test car was equipped with VW's newer optional navigation system, which is incredibly simple and intuitive to use. We like the integration of the auxiliary media input into the interface, and while the graphics and controls aren't as high-tech as what you might find in Ford's much-loved SYNC system, they're better than the systems found in competitors like the Honda Civic or Nissan Sentra (though, to be fair, those vehicles retail at substantially lower price points similarly equipped), as well as newer competitors like the Mazda3.

Overall levels of comfort are quite good, and we're big fans of the highly supportive seats that Volkswagen has fitted in the Golf. Bolstering for both the seat backs and bottom cushions are excellent, and if you find yourself doing any spirited driving (which you should – trust us), your body won't slide around at all. What's more, the vast levels of support also provide generous levels of comfort. We never felt fatigued or sore after long stints of driving. Rear seat passengers are forced to deal with a flat, though relatively comfortable bench, but if you're going to be a passenger in a Golf, call shotgun. Seriously.

The shining star of the Golf TDI, however, is its engine. Volkswagen introduced its 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder mill to the U.S. in late 2008 with the launch of the Jetta TDI, and we've always been quite fond of this powerplant. Offering 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, the diesel hatch has more than enough power for any sort of driving scenario, while still providing excellent efficiency. Volkswagen claims 30 miles per gallon in the city and 42 on the highway for our DSG-equipped test car, and without even trying to drive efficiently, we easily pulled off 37 mpg during our week-long test. This is clearly the most attractive part of the TDI package to consumers, but for enthusiasts, there's another hidden treat. Superb fuel economy is one thing, but being able to achieve it under spirited driving is another thing, and when we find ourselves discussing the Golf TDI with friends and colleagues, the first thing we talk about is how good to drive the little hatch is, not what sort of mileage numbers we achieved.

Off the line, all 236 pound-feet are fully delivered between 1,750 and 2,500 rpm, and there's really never a need to rev higher in any gear. The 140 available horses come on fully at 4,000 rpm, but we're quite fond of diesel power delivery and were happy to leave the tachometer needle sitting below 3,000 in all six gears. Volkswagen claims that runs to 60 miles per hour can happen in 8.6 seconds, and while that figure certainly won't blow you away, keep in mind – this car was built for efficiency, not speed. The six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is a good fit for the 2.0-liter TDI mill, though the addition of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is a little nonsensical with all that torque. With the shifter left in 'D,' the transmission keeps the revs right where you want them, and we never felt the urge to move through the gears ourselves. Plenty of power is available down low for passing situations, and we love being able to leave the transmission in sixth gear when overtaking slow-moving trucks on the highway.

As we've come to expect from German-bred cars, the TDI's handling dynamics are up to par for the segment – if not over. Interestingly, diesel models benefit from sportier suspension geometry over normal gas Golfs, making it a real champ for enthusiastic jaunts down our local back roads. The Golf's suspension is nicely composed through the bends, with little body roll to speak of – even during aggressive handling maneuvers. What's more, the sportier suspension setup was never a hassle on the cracked, pothole-ridden streets of metropolitan Detroit – the ride is disciplined and well-snubbed, but not harsh. It's a real winner, and when matched with the power delivery characteristics of the TDI mill, we find the Golf to be exceptionally poised for all types of driving, both calm and spirited. No, it's not going to run toe-to-toe with big brother GTI, but it's surprisingly good when pushed.

Overall steering feedback is quite good, though we take slight issue with the rather dead on-center feeling. Still, a lack of torque steer and quick response by the driven wheels inspire confidence. The brakes themselves work perfectly well, but there's quite a bit of travel in the actual pedal and a general feeling of mushiness when stopping. That gripe aside, we're very impressed with the Golf TDI's dynamics. It isn't a performance car, but if you're listening, it's game for being driven like one.

So while the Golf TDI may earn a gold star in our road test, we're still a little weary of Volkswagen's overall reliability and propensity for electronic glitches, though the automaker has stated on many occasions that it is working hard to resolve these issues. Then there's the issue of price. Golf TDI models start at a relatively modest $22,354, but adding on features like the navigation package, sunroof and fancy gearbox will easily add thousands to that price. It's a great car, this TDI, but we can't help raising our eyebrows at the $28,260 as-tested figure of our four-door test car. Still, tread lightly on the options list, maybe stick with the a-okay six-speed manual transmission, and you've got a tidy little package for a reasonable amount of coin – especially in view of how much you'll save on fuel.

We think people who look beyond the Golf TDI's price tag will be extremely impressed. It's worlds better to drive than your run-of-the-mill Prius or Civic Hybrid, and there isn't too much of a fuel economy sacrifice in the long run. Plus, the car's robust interior packaging and high levels of refinement make it feel much more upscale than its price tag would suggest. We'd gladly drive one every day of the week.

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Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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