Most people looking for an economy car have precisely that at the top of their list of requirements: economy. Whatever they’re shopping for must be affordable, cheap to run, reliable and offer maximum bang for the buck.
Japanese and South Korean manufacturers have known this for years and have long since mastered the art of producing thrifty, accessible and dependable econoboxes, which is why models like the Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris and Honda Civic are perennial best sellers.
But Volkswagen, the company that arguably created this niche, has strayed from the path. At least, the seminal econobox – the VW Golf – has quietly slipped upscale.
A stripper three-door model will run you twenty grand to start, and the Sportline five-door, with a Tiptronic automatic transmission, is approaching $27,000. Step up to the top-of-the-line Highline, and you can drop more than thirty thousand, just like that. A nice car, to be sure, but considerably more expensive than most other models in this category. More expensive, in fact, than a base four-cylinder Jetta.
Offered as a three- or five-door hatchback – in Trendline, Comfortline, Sportline, and Highline versions – plus a pair of TDI diesel models, and a couple of high-performance pavement-burners – the GTI and R – the Golf utilizes a 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine as its base powerplant. This engine develops 170 horsepower and you can get the Golf with either the aforementioned Tiptronic or, depending upon the model, a five -or six-speed manual. If you feel confused as to what’s what here, you’re not alone. Volkswagen has a habit of over-complicating its models and the Golf is no exception.
My tester, a middle-of-the-range Sportline with a Tiptronic, is a popular choice with VW owners. It comes with a fairly high level of standard equipment – heated front seats, power sunroof, Sirius satellite radio, fog lights, and upgraded suspension and so on. It also had the Connectivity package, which includes Bluetooth and iPod interface, a multi-functional steering wheel and multi-function trip computer. This adds $775 to the car’s price tag.
Thanks to the five-cylinder powerplant, the Golf is as much a sports hatch as it is an econobox. This engine is abundantly powerful, quiet in operation and has a lively linear power delivery. In the world of econoboxes, it’s arguably the most versatile powerplant of them all.
Personally, I’d go for a manual transmission over the Tiptronic, as I found the automatic to be vague and slow to respond from a dead stop. It also costs an additional $1,400. Interestingly, fuel economy is about the same for both, with the Tiptronic being slightly thriftier around town and less so on the highway.
Nonetheless, the five-cylinder engine in the Golf, regardless of the model, sets it apart from the rest of the herd. It gives the car a muscularity and athleticism most other comparable rivals simply don’t have. It responds well to enthusiastic driving, in other words.
It also has a roominess inside the car that is appealing. All kinds of elbow room here, with big useable doors, and a back seat that can accommodate three adults in relative comfort.
Behind the back seat you get 413 litres of cargo area and, with the back seat folded, there’s 1,298 litres in total back there. You’d be surprised how much carrying capacity this gives the Golf. Comparatively, a Kia Soul has 1,500 litres of total cargo space, and the Golf wagon 1,897 litres.
In fact, the Golf has an overall upscale ambience about it. So often, when you slip behind the wheel of an econobox, you know instantly that this car was built to a price and is going to let you down in certain areas. I don’t get that from the Golf.
It’s probably the quietest model in this segment of the market, with minimal NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) and almost no drivetrain noise, is easily the best handler of the bunch, has the most power, and the best brakes. Its fuel economy could be better, but you can’t have everything.
And I won’t even go on about the self-locking door feature except to say that if you’re contemplating one of these cars, get the dealer to disable it before you take it off the lot. And don’t let him charge you for this service.
But what disturbs me about the Golf, and all VW products, for that matter, is its spotty reliability record. According to Consumer Reports, only 67 per cent of new Golf owners would buy one again. This is below models like, oh, the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Elantra and so on. That said, the 2012 Golf gets a “recommended” grade from CR. and scores 85 out of 100 in its testing schedule.
2012 Volkswagen Golf Five-door Sportline
Type: Compact hatchback
Base Price: $25,250; as tested: $27,425
Engine: 2.5-litre, five-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.9 city/6.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda3, Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Orlando, Kia Forte, Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper, Audi A3