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(Volkswagen)
(Volkswagen)

Volkswagen Golf

VW Golf is a cut above its rivals Add to ...

If you're a fan of small nimble econoboxes, the progress of the VW Golf over the past few years has been interesting to chart.

After that whole "is it a Golf or is it a Rabbit?" fiasco, VW is back in the business of manufacturing a competent, well-engineered hatchback, that is, in many respects, a cut above its rivals.

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Which is how things used to be. After all, VW popularized this genre of automobile - back in what, 1975? - with the original Rabbit and, despite the presence of models like, oh, the Mazda3, Nissan Versa, Toyota Matrix and Hyundai Elantra, the Golf has always been a performance leader of this market segment. With the exception, of course, of special models like the MazdaSpeed3 or Subaru Impreza WRX.

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Econobox? Of course, but the Golf has a nice motorsport heritage and, in its various forms, has long been a staple at grassroots track events throughout Canada. VW even had its own racing series for the Rabbit, 'way back when, and these days is heavily involved in the Dakar Rally and TDI Cup in Europe.

Anyway, the latest version of the Golf, propelled as it is by a 2.5-litre five-cylinder, is a little hot rod. With some 170 horsepower pushing a 1,376-kilogram two-door hatchback body, the three-door version with a manual gearbox can hustle from 0 to 100 km/h in about eight seconds, which ain't too shabby.

I did a few acceleration runs while I had this car and got pretty close to this time on a regular basis. Few of the Golf's competitors can match these numbers. One note here; VW continues to sell the City Golf in Canada, which is essentially the former-generation, featuring a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine and a significantly lower price tag. If you want the five-banger, you have to plump for the non-City model.

Two versions are being offered this year: Trendline and Sportline. About $3,000 separate the two, and the latter has bigger wheels and tires, a power sunroof, different seats, tighter suspension, heated front seats and various other odds and sods. My tester, a base Trendline model, came with a five-speed manual transmission, but you can also order a six-speed automatic, for an extra $1,400. There is also a five-door version of this car, but, again, it's more expensive - by about $1,000.

Standard equipment level with the Trendline is decent. You get items such as cruise control, air conditioning, remote central locking and power-adjustable mirrors. I'd love it if the heated seats were standard issue as well, but they're not. That said, you can order them for an additional $275. This is actually not a bad price, and kudos to VW for offering the heated seats as a stand-alone option (well, almost - you also get heated windshield washer nozzles), and not part of some expensive and convoluted "package." If you're in the market for this car, get the seats.

Too often in this corner of the market, when you get behind the wheel of an econobox, that's exactly how it feels: like you're driving a cheap car, built to a price and missing even the most basic creature comforts. The Golf, on the other hand, has an almost upscale feeling to it.

Aside from a little engine growl, it may be the quietest hatchback on the market with minimal NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) and I felt like I was in a more expensive car - excellent front seats (with a knackle!), tasteful interior trim, full instrumentation, and sensible ergonomics.

Fold down the 60/40 back seat and you get a purported 1,310 litres of storage space, which compares favourably with models such as, oh, the MazdaSpeed3, which has 1,213 litres available, and the Toyota Matrix, which boasts 1,399 litres. The Golf will also seat five, but that won't be most pleasant of experiences.

Speaking of downsides, the major drawback to having a 170-horsepower, five cylinder engine in this configuration is the resultant fuel economy - or lack of it. The Golf three-door with the five-speed manual is rated at 10.4 litres/100 km in town by Natural Resources Canada and 7.0 on the highway. These numbers are below just about every other competitor, although not by that much - the Mazda3 2.5-litre is virtually the same. Just for the sake of discussion, the City Golf is slightly lower.

And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, I must complain once again about VW's accursed self-locking mechanism. This annoying feature catches me by surprise over and over again, and I think the next time I test-drive a VW product, I'm going to have it disabled. VW: make this an option, not a standard feature.

Would I choose the Golf over its less expensive stable-mate, the City Golf? I like it, but probably not. After all, performance is nice, but in this market, economy rules.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2010 Volkswagen Golf Three-Door

Type: Five-passenger, subcompact hatchback

Base Price: $20,175; as tested: $21,540

Engine: 2.5-litre, five-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel Economy (litresL/100 km): 10.4 city/7.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda3, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Toyota Matrix, Kia Rondo, Volkswagen City Golf, Nissan Versa

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