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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - 103TDI Comfortline 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Spacious cargo area, refinement, smoothness, comfort, dynamics, diesel performance and economy, low emissions, luxury ambience, Golf reputation, expected high resale values
Room for improvement
Only six airbags to hatch’s seven, dreary styling, not quite as quiet as Golf hatch, low-speed DSG jerkiness, firm ride on optional alloy wheels, expensive options

14 May 2010

AH, it’s the new head on the same old torso trick!

The Golf wagon is the latest model in this time-honoured tradition – stretching back decades – of putting a fresh face on an existing body as an adjunct to a newly introduced one.

One that springs to mind is the Holden FB/EK utes and vans wearing the previous-gen FE/FC clothing. More recently Ford tried the same thing with the ’96 XH Falcon commercials (on ’79 XD-era bases!), and the ‘96-‘04 Mitsubishi CE Lancer wagon was really a mildly facelifted ’92-series CC.

Volkswagen has previous form here too. Golf fans may also recall that the Mk4 Cabriolet (‘98-‘04) was really just a Mk3 with a remodelled proboscis and dash.

But we can forgive the Germans this time because the ‘Mk6’ is the first-ever Golf wagon to be Oz-bound even though there’s been one available elsewhere since the Mk3 of ’92. Consequently, the news that everything aft of the A-pillar is pure previous-gen Mk5 is really rather academic. Such a Golf variant is, well, new to Australians.

And though it is a Mk5, the wagon isn’t quite as old as the Mk5 Golf hatch (b. 2003), as it enjoyed an elephantine gestation period before arriving during 2007 in Europe.

Now today’s Golf wagon gains most of the Mk6 hatch’s advances – including a sharper nose, cleaner drivetrains, palpably higher-quality dashboard and options like Park Assist, satellite-navigation, and a rear-view camera – so it is hardly yester-tech.

But as the wagon is actually based on the slightly longer Mk5 Jetta sedan platform released during 2004 in North America, it loses out on the hatch’s driver’s knee airbag, along with the furry-lined door pockets and noise-cutting acoustic windscreen.

What you get instead is a relative rarity in the small-car segment – a big handy carryall. Only the Peugeot 308, Hyundai i30 CW and (closely related) Skoda Octavia Estate oblige. Until relatively recently, buyers could also choose from the Holden Astra, Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi Lancer wagons, but they’ve all perished.

So what we have here is a new-to-you Golf wagon that adds $2000 to the price.

It’s made in Mexico, sole global supplier of the now-dead New Beetle and – until late 2008 – the Jetta sedan. The latter has since switched to South Africa (home to most Mk5 Golfs for Oz) after VW consolidated all Mk6 hatch production into Germany.

Just for you, we lined up an MY10 103TDI wagon and hatch. Frankly we couldn’t really tell the difference between Mexico and Germany as far as build quality and presentation were concerned.

In fact, the Central American VW’s (Mk5) door cards blend in better with the rest of the side trim mouldings from the B-pillar back since in both cars they’re pure Mk5 items anyhow. But then the hatch smells better inside.

Everything else inside the wagon seemed pretty much identical.

This means cabin quietness and refinement hitherto unknown in the small-car class, with rubbery-soft plastics and an almost architectural application of design and trim. It may look conservative, but nobody does dashboards like VW.

Comfort has obviously been a priority, as illustrated by the firm yet supportive front seats offering plenty of support. Few people will complain about the amount of space available, and for the driver this is enhanced by a tilt/telescopic steering wheel of a most pleasant size and design, as well as a seat-height adjuster.

Brilliantly clear white on black instrument markings – with a comprehensive trip computer and fab digital speedo readout – give the wagon an Audi-like quality edge over the competition. And as the Germans have been building Golfs since 1974 there are no ergonomic issues to speak of either. Ventilation abilities, controls access, compartment availability – all rank extremely highly in here.

Rear vision is better in the wagon than in the hatch though, since the extra window length and low tailgate window help the driver to see out better.

Nothing’s changed as far as the wagon’s wheelbase is concerned, so rear passengers still experience sufficient amounts of room for feet, legs, knees, hips, shoulders and heads, with a pair of vent outlets, overhead grab handles and door storage compartments present to enhance the journey. As per usual, the centre-rear occupant gets the raw deal perched up higher than the others.

Cargo area, however, changes a lot. With a 432mm increase out back (coupled with a weight rise of up to 160kg depending on which wagon model you choose), the Golf’s carrying capacity soars from sufficient to significant.

For number crunchers, available loading volume is between 505 litres and 1495 litres with the rear bench folded (versus 350L-1305L in the hatch). Lengthwise space rises from 1.07 metres to 1.7 metres, with 1.29 metres of width, except for between the wheel wells (1.01m). There is bin storage on the side panelling, and under the cargo floor too.

Other details include a trio of child-seat anchorage points across the back of the rear seats so as to not impede cargo space, a cargo net that can be relocated from behind the rear seat to behind the front ones to stop loads from flying forwards. To that end there are also a quartet of tie-down points and foldout shopping bag hooks.

What all this means is that, for a small car, the Golf has a long, low and useful carrying capacity that would shame medium-sized wagons of even just a generation ago. It is way more capacious than many compact SUVs too.

All in all then, the latest Golf’s interior functions like one of the world’s most competent personal assistant that also happens to be easy on the eyes.

On the road, only a back-to-back test would reveal the wagon to be the slightly inferior drive to the hatch.

The extra weight means the 103kW 2.0-litre common-rail turbo-diesel simply isn’t as sparkling off the line, with a moment’s more hesitation before the tacho reaches the 1750rpm torque top. Speed then builds up like a torrent, thrusting the Golf wagon forward almost instantaneously.

Actually, that can become quite tiresome if you’re a lead-foot sort because the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox can be a bit jerky in low-speed situations. It takes a concerted effort to feed in the throttle for smooth, linear progress forwards in busy traffic.

Once on the move, though, the 103TDI powerplant/DSG combo is a beauty, providing effortless oomph up hills, along freeways, during overtaking manoeuvres and for rapid speed increases.

Fuel consumption is another diesel plus, with low 7s recorded during our lengthy urban/freeway runs.

Responsive and direct sums up the beautifully weighted steering effort and feel, backed up by able handling and a reassuring level of roadholding. These cars are certainly tuned to keen driver’s tastes, and reward the owner who likes to occasionally blast up a winding mountain road.

The brakes may feel a bit touchy to the uninitiated, but these too work brilliantly once the driver gets used to them, and – along with the almost imperceptible stability and traction control inputs – help keep the Golf planted and grounded.

Switch the driver aids off though, and wheel spin is a constant companion, especially on wet or loose surfaces.

Our test car was fitted with larger 18-inch alloys, which – along with the Comfortline’s smart roof rails – alleviate the saggy bottom-heavy styling.

But there are compromises that come with having a perky posterior since the wagon’s ride quality deteriorates on rough or uneven surfaces. Busy and jiggly best describes the suspension’s workings with wheels this large, and that too often translates into tiresome droning on the open road.

We recommend the standard 16-inch set-up to experience the regular Golf’s superior comfort and body control, and to hell with what the wagon looks like.

Finally we’re a little concerned about the Comfortline 103TDI’s $36,490 pricing. That’s well into Ford Mondeo TDCi, Mazda6 and Subaru Liberty territory (and almost Ford Territory territory, for that matter) for what is essentially a small wagon, so we would be more inclined to consider the lower-end of the Golf wagon spectrum.

And it’s not as if equipment levels are startlingly better in the VW – you’ll find much the same bits and pieces such as six airbags/ESP safety gear, cruise control, climate-control air-con, power windows, remote central locking, cargo net, trip computer, daytime running lights integrated into the headlights, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, roof rails, 16-inch alloy wheels, ‘Comfort’ front seats, and a rear seat armrest with ski-port. Bluetooth is optional though.

Nevertheless, we welcome another entrant in the under-represented small car wagon class with open arms, because not everybody wants or needs a large carryall when the Golf has been engineered to offer nearly as much capacity in a more compact package.

We reckon VW ought to have come clean with the naming, however, and stuck on a Jetta badge compared to the segment-leading Mk6 Golf hatch, the Mk5-based wagon misses the marque – and by more than just a (newly grafted on) nose too, to boot.

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