Thursday, December 18, 2008

Volkswagen Golf 5


The Golf has to be one of the most desirable cars of this size. The first-generation model of 1974 redefined the small family car genre, the Mk 2 was the posh hatch to have in the '80s, comprehensively outclassing contemporary Escorts, Astras and all its competitors, and whilst the larger, heavier Mk 3 and Mk 4 have been conservative and stodgy to drive, none of that has put buyers off: in 2002, its sixth year on sale, Golf Mk 4 was the best-selling car in Europe.

Volkswagen has sensibly resisted the temptation to tamper too much with a winning formula, but Golf Mk 5 represents a return to form. Sharper-styled without being controversial or overly adventurous, thoroughly mechanically overhauled and more fun to drive in every respect, it might still not be the most exciting or inspirational car to own, but it's an immensely capable all-rounder and remains the smart choice in the class.

Engines range from a 75bhp 1.4-litre petrol to a 140bhp 2.0-litre diesel. There's also a 1.4-litre TSI engine which has a turbocharger and a supercharger. There's also brilliant 2.0-litre GTI and 3.2-litre R32 versions - tested seperately. Other body-styles in the range include the slightly roomier Golf Plus, the Touran MPV and Jetta saloon.

Reliability and Quality

The previous Golfs haven't been problem-free, and the range has slipped well down the rankings in customer satisfaction and reliability surveys in recent years. However, engineers claim that they've overhauled the testing procedures for this model and that they've learned a lot from the initial glitches in the Phaeton and Touareg ranges; they say that this will be the most comprehensively de-bugged VW yet.

On the quality front, the models we've tested seem structurally well-screwed together and feel very solid, though some of the cabin's plastics and fabrics aren't quite as tactile and plush as expected - out of immediate eye-range, there's some rather cheapo bits and the nylon seats aren't that nice. We suspect that there's been some cost-cutting here to fund the more comprehensive chassis overhaul, and to ensure greater differentiation between the Golf and the supposedly more upmarket A3.

On the road

Volkswagen has got the driving position spot on, with adjustable seats and steering wheel for fine-tuning, a clear, well-laid out dash, well-positioned and intuitive controls and good all-round visibility. The Golf's not a small car - you're instantly aware of just how big it is when you have to do a quick, tight manoeuvre - but its squat wheel-at-each corner stance and flat rear tailgate make it easy to judge its dimensions.

The manual gearboxes are precise, the revised steering direct and accurate, and stability, grip and balance are all superb, making the Golf a confidence-inspiring drive. The clutchless gearboxes - six-speed Tiptronic auto with sequential shifts, optional on 1.6 FSI, or DSG direct-shift gearbox, optional with 1.9 and 2.0 TDI engines - are also simple to master, both with fully auto and sequential 'manual' modes, the latter with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts in 2.0 TDI models.

The electric power steering is so much better than that in, say, the Renault Megane - it's direct and precise, with none of the horrid artificially weighted feeling of so many such systems. It may be a little light for keen drivers, though, without a lot of feedback.

The supple suspension - completely redesigned at the rear axle - gives far more scope for amusement and entertainment, without the potential for any nasty surprises: it's all predictable, and the ESP and traction control (where fitted) are well-restrained, not cutting in too early to spoil the fun.

It's not quite as edgy as a Focus, though, and if you really want to find fault, it just feels too competent to dish out the thrills, and it lacks the character of some otherwise less-assured rivals.

The strong, torquey 2.0 TDI (140bhp) is the keen driver's choice: it pulls superbly in any of its six gears, and as a motorway cruiser, beats the old V6 petrol hands down. The 1.9 TDI's not slow, either; this feels more laid-back, especially with the optional DSG transmission, but is a good compromise between cost and output.

In fact, it's difficult to argue the case for the petrol engines on any grounds other than purchase price: the FSI (direct-injection) units are not much quieter than the diesels, drink more fuel, incur more company car tax and are weedier mid-range.

If you really can't bring yourself to opt for an oil-burner, then the 1.4 FSI is sweeter than the 1.6 FSI, with very little difference in performance.

There's also the intriguing 1.4-litre TSI engine which uses both a supercharger and a turbocharger to deliver 167bhp and 177lb-ft of torque. See our Driven piece on this model to learn more.

Safety and Security

The Golf Mk 5 has scored the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests, with a good three stars for pedestrian safety and four in the new child protection test - an excellent result all-round. Its torsional rigidity has been improved by no less than 80 percent, which not only aids handling precision but ensures a stiffer, stronger structure. The all-new floorpan has more sophisticated reinforcements and impact force distribution, and all the panels and pillars are tougher.

Standard specification includes ABS anti-lock brakes, ESP electronic stability programme, active front head restraints, three rear three-point seatbelts, ISOFIX child seat mounting points, front and side airbags and full-length 'curtain' head 'bags, with rear side 'bags optional in five-door versions.

Running Costs

Volkswagen claims reduced repair costs, hence lower insurance, as well as better dealer support to reduce repair and maintenance times.

Fuel consumption, model for model, is pretty good, though the FSI petrol engines can be thirstier than the official figures suggest and need the more expensive 98 RON premium unleaded fuel for optimum performance.

Comfort and Equipment

Golf MK 5 rides much better than its predecessor, even with the optional sports suspension; it is smooth, beautifully balanced and with none of the Mk 4's tendency to pitch, roll and wallow. Tyre noise and wind noise are well-suppressed, and there's an impressive reduction of engine vibration, especially in the diesel models.

However, all the engines are noisier than expected; strangely, they're more raucous than in equivalent Audi A3 models. The FSI models are less pleasant to the ear, with a distinct whine when pushed; when idling, they're actually more rattly than the diesels.

The seats, although well-shaped in the front, aren't exactly sumptuously upholstered, and the rear bench is flat and unsupportive. The boot space is generous in both three- and five-door standard models without being outstanding, but it's a shame that the rear bench seat doesn't do more than fold (no flat-tumbling or sliding).

A CD player is standard, and there's also a fairly comprehensive list of good-quality optional set-ups, from a single-disc 20-watt unit with six speakers to a six-CD autochanger (with stacker placed in the front centre armrest) and 10-speaker system with satellite navigation, seven-inch colour screen with full mapping and touch-screen controls. The highest-spec stereo is easier to use than that in earlier top-end Golfs, with a more user-friendly menu function, and sound quality is pretty good.

Used Value

The largest cost in running any new car is always depreciation, and the Golf consistently returns the highest residual values in the class, second-hand demand is so strong.

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