High-tech, torque-y and efficient Clean Diesel power makes the TDI version of Volkswagen's redesigned-for-2010 Golf an oil-burner you can actually become enthusiastic about in a driving sense, not just for its fuel frugality.
Okay, it's not quite a match for the latest GTI version of this sixth generation of Golfs, but it's certainly not without its charm and is capable of giving cars with more sporting pretensions a surprise on a twisty road. At the very least, it could pass them while they were making a pit stop for fuel.
There have always been those who've liked diesels for their ruggedness and economy, but in the past, few who really enjoyed driving would have chosen this type of powerplant. That's changed considerably with recent advances in the design of compression ignition engines - a diesel's pistons squeeze the fuel/air mixture until it gets hot enough to go bang versus igniting it with a spark.
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In the VW Golf TDI's case, who wouldn't find appealing the ability to average 6.0 L/100 km while keeping up with Highway 401 traffic - and not much more than that in around-town usage? While driving a not-too-expensive, well-equipped, compact-sized vehicle that seats four in a nicely styled and detailed, comfortable and surprisingly quiet interior, with a capacious cargo area? That also has a quick-shifting, six-speed manual transmission, plenty of performance punch, good brakes, responsive steering and corner-carving handling (the penalty for which is a very hard ride)?
And in which you can experience all that without most of the diesel downsides that have kept the majority of North Americans from showing much interest in this form of engine in the past.
The TDI doesn't cost an excessive amount more than its gas-fired sibling. The five-door Comfortline reviewed here starts at $24,975, while the 2.5 litre gas-engined equivalent lists at $22,575. And yes, it will take more than a few kilometres to recoup that additional cost.
The TDI's fuel economy ratings are 6.7 L/100 km city and 4.6 highway, while the 2.5 gas-engined Golf's are 10.1 city/7.0 highway. In other words, you'd better be planning on being in it for the long haul for it to make dollars and sense. It does give you the potential ability to travel something approaching 1,200 km on a tank of fuel, though.
Unlike diesels of old, the TDI's engine requires little fussing (a brief pause in cold weather) to get started, doesn't clatter at idle like a metal bucket of bolts - more like a coffee can and a handful of small washers. In fact, it's very civilized, its sound is virtually unnoticeable at highway cruising speeds and it doesn't emit smelly smoke or force you to accept a serious performance penalty. Even the only remaining "downside" - having to fuel it at a service station's diesel pump - is becoming less of an issue. At least you don't have to do it as often.
The TDI's engine is a low-emission, turbo-charged, 2.0-litre four-cylinder that makes its rated 140 hp at just 4,000 rpm and a huge 236 lb-ft of torque from 1,750 rpm to 2,500 rpm. This is delivered to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox or an optional DSG automatic.
With all that torque, you could probably make do with a four-speed, but having six provides a ratio for every driving occasion. Not that you have to shift often if you don't want to as there's always adequate torque available.
It's odd at first not to be using lots of engine revs, but like all manual-gearbox cars you soon get into the habit of choosing the gears it's happiest with in a given situation.
You can short-shift through all six without taking it over 2,500 rpm and still get surprisingly good acceleration, although it's not at its best in a drag race, getting to 100 km/h in a claimed 9.1 seconds versus the 2.4 litre gas-engined model's 8.3 seconds. I don't measure this kind of thing on public roads any more, but I'd guess acceleration is comparable, maybe better, in the higher gears.
The latest redesign has maintained a familiar look, but one that manages to look more modern and sophisticated, uncluttered by side mouldings. It also added a little width that gives it an improved stance and more glass area in the rear compartment.
The interior is less austere than in previous Golfs. The heated front seats feature power recline and have been redesigned to improve comfort and hold you in place better. Soft-touch materials have been incorporated on some surfaces. The rear seat is hard and flat, but the backrest is slightly sculpted, and behind it there's 410 litres of space that expands to 1,300 litres with it folded.
Aluminum trim adds a bright and techie touch and the leather-wrapped wheel some sporty flare; the heating/ventilation system is improved and the instrument cluster redesigned. The single-disc CD player/eight-speaker sound system sounds fine and the headlights are decent, but the windshield washers could work better at speed. Bluetooth connectivity is optional, as is a trip computer. Improved exterior aerodynamics and increased sound-deadening efforts make it comfortably quiet at highway speeds.
Safety equipment includes front/side/side curtain airbags, ABS brakes but not electronic stability control (this was included as an option on the test car for $450).
Volkswagen's Golf has always included a strong contingent of diesel fans among its admirers, but I'm not entirely sure why, as I can't make the fiscal facts add up. And so, despite the TDI being the best diesel-powered Golf yet, I'd still opt for the more powerful and not particularly thirsty gas-engined version and either save some money up front, spend it on optional equipment, or stretch it to a GTI.
2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI
Type: Compact hatchback
Base price: $24.975; as tested, $25,425
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four diesel
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/236 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 /4.7 highway; diesel fuel
Alternatives: Kia Forte, Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Chevrolet Cobalt, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Matrix, Suzuki SX4.
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