2010 Volkswagen Golf

Game changer

To some folks, golf is a challenging, often frustrating game played on sunny Sundays with a bag of expensive sticks and balls. To others, it's an iconic German small car that's been around since 1977. Originally, and again recently, named the Rabbit for North America (and for a time assembled here) its U.S.-market fortunes have ebbed and flowed along with those of the company. But it has been a perennial favorite and a long-running best seller in Europe and most other markets.

Now comes the 6th-generation Golf, introduced in Europe for 2009 and arriving stateside for 2010 starting at $17,490. Available in 3- and 5-door hatchback models (VW prefers to call them 2- and 4-doors), with a choice of eager 5-cylinder gas or peppy, fuel-frugal, turbocharged "clean diesel" TDI 4-cylinder engines, it is easily the best and most refined Golf ever. As a result, a jury of international auto writers named it the 2009 "World Car of the Year."

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Exterior Styling

The 2010 Golf wears a new "face" for the Volkswagen brand (good news, since not everyone was fond of the old one) with a wide, double-bar grille that blends smoothly into angled halogen headlamps. A body-color bumper separates it from a matching lower air intake bookended (on TDI models) by round "crystalline" fog lamps. Black window trim with no side moldings keeps the side appearance clean and simple.

Around back, a subtle, body color spoiler with integrated high brake light protrudes from atop the rear hatch. The wraparound taillamps incorporate integrated clear turn signals and backup lamps along their bottom edges. Running lights blended into the lower bumper flank a black lower-fascia insert with cutouts for twin exhaust tips.

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Interior Amenities

Like its upscale division Audi, Volkswagen does finely crafted interiors, though the new Golfs we have seen have all been lined in coalmine black. Brushed metallic inserts adorn the instrument panel, door panels and center console, while bright chrome rings surround the instruments. Between the major gauges is a multi-function onboard computer display that provides key information on the selected gear, fuel economy, odometer and more.

VW also does excellent steering wheels, and the new Golf's updated three-spoke example is no exception. Even better is the lovely leather-wrapped version with multifunction controls on TDI models. All 2010 Golfs offer 8-way manually adjustable front sport seats with adjustable head rests and lumbar support. The rear seats also have adjustable head restraints, plus a center armrest and 60/40 split folding capability to maximize cargo space when needed. Heated seats come with an optional cold weather package that also adds heated windshield washer nozzles. For fair-weather touring, a full power sunroof can be ordered on all models.

The HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) controls are an ergonomic knob-and-button arrangement that complements the audio and (available) nav system controls. An 8-speaker AM/FM radio with single-disc CD player, MP3 CD readability and an auxiliary input jack comes standard on gas-engine models, while the pricier TDI cars come with a touch-screen 8-speaker system with Sirius satellite radio, in-dash six-disc CD changer with MP3 readability, theft deterrence and an auxiliary input jack.

Also standard on TDI models is a Mobile Device Interface (MDI), and a 300-Watt Dynaudio Lite premium sound system is available. Optional on all models are Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and a new touch-screen nav system with a 6.5-inch high-resolution display, integrated 30GB hard drive (10GB for navigation, 20GB for audio), DVD and WMA/MP3 CD playback, an SD memory card slot and an auxiliary jack in the center console.

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Impressive Engines

The standard 16-valve twin-cam 2.5-liter inline 5-cylinder engine pumps out a respectable 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, while the smooth and quiet 2.0-liter 4-cylinder TDI turbodiesel-the same one available in VW's notch-up Jetta sedan and coming soon in the midsize Passat-generates a more modest 140 horses and a hearty 236 lb.-ft. of torque.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the base 3-door, while the 5-door gets a 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic control, which enables manual shifting with a tap of the shifter. The manual-shift car scoots from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and delivers 22 mpg city/30 highway EPA economy. The automatic does 0-60 in 8.1-seconds with 23/30 mpg ratings.

The 16-valve SOHC TDI direct-fuel-injected turbodiesel four, starting at $21,990 in the 3-door, offers some 30 percent better fuel efficiency than comparable gasoline engines. Coupled to its standard 6-speed manual gearbox, it's good for 8.6-seconds 0-60 and 30/41 EPA economy. With the optional 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automatic with Tiptronic, it delivers identical 0-60 performance and similar economy at 30 mpg city and 42 highway.

VW's terrific DSG uses an automated dual-clutch system to instantly engage and disengage gears without a driver-activated clutch pedal. A computer engages one clutch for the next gear as the clutch from the previous gear is released. Every shift is smooth and quick without the momentary power loss while clutching and shifting a manual. The Tiptronic feature curtails automated shifting to let the driver control gear changes by either tapping the gearshift lever or using steering wheel shift paddles.

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Driving Impressions

We sampled a variety of U.S.-spec 2010 Golfs on twisty two-lanes and high-speed autobahns in their home country of Germany and found its base McPherson strut front and independent four-link rear suspensions excellent, and the TDI models' somewhat stiffer sport suspension even better. Rough-road ride was comfortably compliant, the power 4-wheel disc brakes were strong and fade free, and the typically crisp electro-mechanical, variable-assist, quick-ratio power rack-and-pinion steering gave us spot-on feel, feedback and accuracy.

To maintain stability under all conditions, the advanced ABS braking system worked seamlessly with VW's Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which marries a suite of features including Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR), Electronic Differential Lock (EDL), Hydraulic Brake Assist (HBA), and Electronic Brake-pressure Distribution (EBD).

Both engines offered more than adequate performance, but-because it is torque that gets you launched and accelerating from a stop-the amazingly quiet and civilized turbodiesel feels stronger most of the time. We look forward to extended time on U.S. roads, but we could not have been more impressed during our 2-day Teutonic test drive in Germany.

Yes, German-car parts and service can be pricey, but VW's warranty covers pretty much everything, including all scheduled maintenance, for the first three years or 36,000 miles, and the powertrain for five years or 60,000 miles. If you're thinking fuel-thrifty compact and looking at the wide selection of excellent Asian and U.S. models on the market, we recommend you widen your view to include VW's new 2010 gas or diesel Golf.

About the Author

Former automotive engineer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about the auto industry, its people and its products for major magazines, newspapers and web sites for more than 20 years.

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