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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - 118TSI 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Refinement, smoothness, comfort, dynamics, 118TSI performance and economy, low emissions, luxury ambience, Golf reputation, expected high resale values
Room for improvement
98 RON premium unleaded requirement, low-speed DSG jerkiness, elasticengine response in some low-speed situations, expensive options, styling sameness

25 Mar 2009

REVISIONISM is in serious order here.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Volkswagen Golf's lasting legacy is not pioneering the hatch (that would be the 1965 Renault 16), “hot” hatch (hello 1968 Renault 16TS) or even the small-car convertible (the company's own Beetle did it decades before the Golf Cabriolet came along in the late 1970s).

No, the seminal moment for the 26 million-selling nameplate (that is so-called after the German word for ‘gulf’ and not the game, while we are myth-busting) was way back in September 1983.

This was when the second-generation version wowed the world at its Frankfurt motor show debut – not with a myriad of functionality improvements, but rather by an unexpected visual similarity to the previous Golf.

Intentionally or not, a form of post-modernism for contemporary automotive design had been sanctioned (if not strictly introduced Honda did it earlier with the Mk2 Civic in 1979) by Volkswagen, eager for its bacon-saving Golf to not stray too far design-wise from the crisp Giugiaro lines of the massively popular MkI original.

At the time, there was disappointment from a few quarters but widespread relief from others, as Volkswagen served up more of the same, but only slightly differently.

That 1983 MkII went on to sell millions, and is now one of the best loved of all Golfs since the series first surfaced in 1974. Of course, Australians had to wait until 1990 before a neutered ‘GTI’ version arrived, but by then nobody cared.

From that moment, it was OK for car-makers to regurgitate popular designs, with varying degrees of success. Porsche has thrived with identikit 911s Jaguar almost sank after the current XJ bombed and now we have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second-generation Mazda3 – and nobody bats an eyelid anymore.

A keen eye is surely necessary to pick the new Golf IV from the 5.5-year-old Golf V, but closer scrutiny reveals some impressively tight panel gaps, ultra crisp surfacing and a great deal of attention to detail around the front end – surely the car’s most successful angle.

But we are talking about the Golf, so there is no point complaining about the lack of styling inspiration. This car is all about the two-box shape, wide C-pillars and large headlights, just as every one before it.

Familiarity is the theme inside too, with the same basic dimensions of the old car dictating identical numbers for head, shoulder, and legroom measurements.

Or, in other words, there is ample space up front, and sufficient room if you are one of the outboard occupants in the back. The middle position – all hard and elevated – is ideal for short trips only – unless you’re small with a plump posterior.

Meanwhile, a comfortable driving position is incredibly easy to discover no matter what shape or size you are, thanks to a fine set of front seats, as well as a steering wheel that reaches and telescopes with a range to broadly match the seat’s adjustability.

At 350 litres, the luggage area is still as wide and as deep as ever, extending when the rear seats are folded down to 1305 litres.

Wisely Volkswagen has fitted the child-seat anchorage points behind the rear-seat backrests, while there are securing hooks, a 12-volt outlet and light residing within the boot. A space-saver spare sits under that mouse-fur-like floor.

All good, and all just like you got in the old Golf, in all likelihood.

Look carefully, however, and you will realise that Volkswagen has not been resting on its laurels, despite the alleged fact that the company had to cut manufacturing costs severely because the old Golf was far too expensive to build.

For starters, the doors open wide and have an appealing heft to them. The glass area is larger (and deeper) so it is easier for all – especially children – to see out. Now that’s progress.

Volkswagen also fits 10 per cent thicker glass, as well as a sound-deadening film, to help lower the Golf’s decibel count. Along with other noise-quelling measures, it all means the cabin is as quiet as any small car you are likely to encounter – super-quiet, in fact.

Every surface feels solid and well assembled (in Germany this time, rather than in South Africa). Like the Golf before last (MkIV: 1998 to 2004 in Australia), there is an inviting tactility to many of the plastics inside. Nothing really stands out, but everything is consistently of a high standard.

Gaze into the instrumentation binnacle and the clear white dial markings against a black background calls to mind recent Audis. Owners of the Golf IV and V may rue the dropping of the signature blue dash lighting, but white is better.

If you are coming up to the Golf from a cheaper car you might be astounded at how smart and opulent it all seems … business class on a budget.

We marvelled at the various trip-computer functions between the speedometer and tachometer. There are lots of items to scroll through, including an electronic speedometer readout and – when the optional satellite navigation is fitted – directional arrows so the driver can keep eyes at the straight-ahead.

The three-spoke steering wheel on our Sport-specification 118TSI Comfortline model felt deliciously smooth the buttons on the centre console press in with a satisfying weight and the glovebox glides open as if painstakingly engineered to do so. Until recently, even a Mercedes interior would have lagged behind this People’s Car.

For proof, check out the door cappings: flocked bottle holder surrounds slick metallic handles spongy soft armrests soft-feel contrasting trim stylised design. Let your eyes wander some more at the expensive-looking chrome finishes scattered throughout the fascia. It reveals yet again an almost obsessional pursuit of perceived quality for the money.

As one observer quipped, the feel-good factor in the Golf would leave a seven-year-old limousine like a BMW 7 Series for dead. It’s one of the ways that this car has crept up the social ladder.

Those in the rear aren’t forgotten either, enjoying overhead reading lights, face-ventilation outlets (matching the ample supply of climate controlled weather available for those up front), a set of cupholders, overhead grab handles, map pockets and door storage compartments.

Other than the unrelenting darkness of the trim, and the fact that this cabin is generic Volkswagen, there is little to criticise inside and much to praise. Falling in the latter category are the driver’s repositioned power window/mirror/door lock switches, intelligent armrest placement and plethora of storage options.

Ticking the many available options is one of the Golf buyer’s biggest temptations – and traps.

Our car was fitted with the $1400 Park Assist function that uses the also-optional front and rear parking radar system to find and then electronically turn the steering wheel into a parallel parking spot – while your friends marvel at the magic of it all.

A couple of times, the car’s back wheel ‘kerbed’ the gutter, but otherwise this innovation works. On the other hand, it will surely render a generation of drivers useless at parallel parking.

Two-thumbs up go to the intuitive and accurate satellite navigation system, heated seats, Sport-spec ‘sports’ front seats (that are supremely comfortable, hugely supportive and seductively rich in aroma when finished in leather) and ultra-clear rear-parking camera, that lives under the VW roundel situated right in the middle of the car’s rump, to stay clean when not needed. All, too, are expensive extras.

So is the Golf’s available sunroof, which mostly works well for having a knob to control it, but it needs a more decisive notch to let the user know when the ‘roof is closed. It is all-too-easy to leave it open when you think it is otherwise.

OK, this is nit picking, since the Golf’s overall interior presentation is just so thoughtfully thorough for the price. But can the same be said about the driving experience?

Except for the rather languid performance of the old 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol model, the previous model was near the top of its class in driveability.

But the 118TSI model here is the direct replacement for the lauded 2.0FSI four-cylinder petrol unit (there’s also a base 90TSI Trendline to take over the base model duties), and it has awfully big shoes to fill.

On paper, then, its 1390cc capacity – a shortfall of more than 0.5 litres – might put some punters off.

In reality, however, with 118kW of power available at a peaky 5900rpm (thanks to a turbocharger) and 240Nm of torque spreading itself between 1750 and 4500rpm (due to a Roots type supercharger), this 1.4-litre twin-charger unit is a cracker.

Our trick was to have novices drive the 118TSI for a while before revealing just how small an engine it is – and we were always met with incredulous looks. Forget Jekyll and Hyde: this car’s performance potential seems supernatural.

Floor it, and the twin-charger Golf leaps into life after a moment’s hesitation, chirping the front wheels and lunging forward with a ferocious vigour.

Mated to the all-new seven-speed dual-clutch manual ‘7DSG’ gearbox (a sweet-shifting six-speed manual is also available for a hefty saving), progress is astoundingly smooth, with peerlessly imperceptible up-changes on the move, met with a minimum of mechanical noise and fuss.

If you’re in the 80km/h cruising region and you want to overtake, engine response continues to be rapid and refined, with performance that will have you questioning that old ‘no substitute for cubic inches’ chestnut.

That we experienced fuel consumption well below 8.0L/100km is icing on a frankly unbelievably decadent cake, meaning that the 118TSI is at least 25 per cent more economical than the old 2.0FSI – with correspondingly reduced CO2 emissions thrown in for good measure.

It all sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Sadly then, experience in inner-urban/city areas does reveal cracks.

If you want to press on in heavy traffic, the 7DSG can feel jerky and slow-witted at first, and then tiresomely languid if caught off-boost. Forget about those split-second lane-changes to grab a rapidly diminishing gap in the traffic. At idle, the twin-charger, sound asleep, is still preparing to stir into action. Plant your foot down and it feels as if it is metaphorically butting out a fag before rolling up its collective sleeves.

There is an annoying elasticity to the way that it deals the drive to the front wheels in such circumstances, with an all-or-nothing lunge that requires an alert driver to be on the brakes and gas pedal at the same time, and so the super-smooth Golf suddenly becomes anything but.

Put the 7DSG in ‘S’ for sport mode and it holds on to the gears for longer, but again – in heavier traffic – care needs to be taken, as you suddenly have too much power on your hands.

We were left, after a period, longing for the measured and effortless power delivery of a larger-capacity engine … or the more controllable ways of the manual 118TSI. We think Volkswagen’s engineers still have their work cut out here.

And all the while we are thinking: “Will we find 98RON ultra-premium unleaded when we are next down in Lorne?” (The answer is no, actually, but you can run this with reduced performance on Premium 95 RON petrol). That range-extending fuel parsimony is probably a necessity in suchlike situations.

On the other hand, we were delighted that – even when the Golf was embarrassing us with its unintentional wheel spin after waiting for what seemed like an eternity for it to get going – the steering didn’t tug here or there. Torque steer, on the dry roads we tested the 118TSI over at least, is non-existent.

Indeed, wearing Michelin 225/45 R17 tyres, the Comfortline Sport rode astoundingly well for rubber of this size, with a firm yet controlled attitude over a variety of surfaces.

Yet, you just know that the MacPherson strut front and independent four-link rear axle is making the hard work of keeping the Golf agile and yet flat and flowing through corners.

Feel and feedback are on the soft side of sharp (a Focus’ helm is far sportier and involving than this), but the Volkswagen rises to the occasion like a thoroughbred by remaining superbly stable and sure-footed as speeds rise – and with a strong and progressively responsive set of brakes to match.

Remember, as Germany’s bestseller, this car needs to handle the rough and tumble of 200km/h-plus autobahn speeds time and again.

Which segues nicely into just how utterly grown-up the 118TSI feels when driven across the whole gamut of road conditions.

Unless you are frustrated by the lack of sufficient low-speed flow in heavy traffic, you will find this car like an elixir of refinement and class that is simply unparalleled for its size, let alone price and positioning. Certainly, a BMW 1 Series is not as cushy inside, the Mercedes B-class seems utilitarian in comparison and the hard-riding Audi A3 is simply not as comfortable.

Our Golf could have cost as little as $32,990 before on-road costs, but the price with all the aforementioned options plus a few others blew it out to at least $46,190 plus on-road costs.

Yet, the truth is, the $50,000 118TSI pretty much cuts it because it is such a compelling package, dispelling yet another myth that the Golf cannot possibly represent good value for money. Simply, luxury just doesn’t come any cheaper.

Our verdict, though, might surprise you: save your money and go for the entry 90TSI, or go for the ultra-smooth and indecently civilised 103TDI turbo-diesel in 6DSG guise, from $35,690.

It just might be the seminal model among the current crop of Golf VIs.

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