There is no mistaking the Volkswagen Golf for any other vehicle. That same basic shape has been carried over for more than three decades.
While VW aficionados can easily distinguish between the different generations, each change has been subtle, allowing the core character to remain. That point was brought home to me when my test vehicle, a 2013 Golf TDI five-door, was parked alongside a 2002 Golf five door.
While the design may be evolutionary, the currentnew Golf is vastly changed inside and beneath that familiar skin. The interior now has a distinctly premium feel with levels of fit and finish that reek of attention to detail.
That older model, built in Brazil, was not so impressive in this regard. In fact it and its siblings from that era caused a great deal of grief for the German company, plunging it waaaay down in the initial and long-term quality rankings.
VW caught that problem in its infancy and, like the South Koreans, has made huge progress in quality in a very short period of time. Once again buying a Volkswagen Golf means having a rock-solid vehicle that is likely to remain squeak, rattle and trouble-free for a long period of time and distance.
The Golf five-door (actually four doors and a hatch) is a perfect example of a multi-purpose vehicle.
Long before there were such things as SUVs and CUVs, Golf owners had the ability to change their car from a five-passenger sedan to a cargo hauling champ by simply folding down the rear seat.
The space accessible through that large rear hatch is amazing and equivalent to, if not more than, that in most of the current generation of compact CUVs.
The current Golf is available in several trim levels. My test vehicle had the Wolfsburg Edition package, which included an eight-speaker audio system with satellite radio, USB and aux inputs, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, heated front seats and mirrors, cruise control and unique 17-inch alloy wheels.
The exterior boasted a spoiler lifted from the GTi, which also provided the seats – without the tartan covers. Sadly, VW does not see fit to include a rear-view camera or navigation system at the rather lofty price point this trim level occupies.
The test car boasted what is arguably one the best engines in the world – in my opinion. The 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel is exceptionally frugal and has a reputation for lasting for hundreds of thousands of kilometres with minimal maintenance beyond fluid changes.
It also provides an amazing amount of useful, and by that I mean instant, response and plenty of punch the moment you step on the accelerator pedl.
There is no need to shift down – manually or automatically – to get into the meat of the torque band because that point of maximum output is at a lowly 1,750 rpm. The result is effortless acceleration under all normal driving conditions.
The new Golf diesel has eliminated the bugaboos that trashed earlier efforts to sell diesel passenger cars in North America – smell, smoke and sound.
The noise created by combustion occurring under such high pressures has been reduced to the point it is comparable to many of today’s direct injection gasoline engines. And there is virtually no smoke and/or particulate emissions.
My tester was equipped with VW’s excellent six-speed DSG (Dual Shaft Gearbox), in which the gears are mounted on two shafts that incorporate a pair of internal clutches.
While underway in one gear, the transmission selects the next and snaps off shifts like a manual transmission, with incredible speed and precision. Yet it behaves like a normal automatic in all but a few situations, without a cumbersome and fuel-wasting torque converter.
A telling tale
To once again cite a first-hand experience during the test period, during an early morning walk I was passing a house with an older Jetta TDI in the driveway.
As I drew near, the garage door opened and a man walked out, unlocked and got into the Jetta. In the meantime I saw the brake lights of a brand new Golf TDI flash and it then backed out of the garage. The door went down and the pair proceeded to drive off.
Two factors were immediately evident as the cars, separated by at least a decade if not more,drove away from a cold start: 1) The older model was loud as it accelerated past; and 2) it was trailing a slightly discernible but readily smelled cloud.
The new Golf was all but silent with no sign or smell of anything in that fresh morning air. If I had been blindfolded I could have easily thought the newer Golf was any of the new generation of gasoline engines with direct injection – which tend to make a similar sound to as diesel.
There is a reason they call this new generation "clean diesels."
I’ll also bet the owners of those two have noticed a distinct difference in fuel consumption between the older and current models.
While fuel prices are all over the map across this great country, at the time of this writing diesel was three cents a litre less expensive than regular.
On average, diesel engines squeeze 20-25% more energy from a given unit of fuel. Factor both those facts into the equation and the TDI become even more impressive!
Then there is the issue of low maintenance costs. Diesel engines don't have spark plugs and all the attendant wiring and complex ignition systems. Instead they squeeze the fuel/air mixture to the point it self-ignites.
This high pressure demands diesel engines to be more rugged. Add low maintenance and ruggedness and you get long life and exceptional resale value.
So one can begin to understand why diesels are the engines of choice for passenger vehicle in most markets around the world where fuel prices are of even greater concern than they are here.
More clean diesels
With higher quality fuel now becoming available throughout North America and the German manufacturers leading the way, a new batch of “clean” diesels is about to hit the market here.
Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have offered diesels here for decades, with Audi and BMW joining the club more recently.
And, for the first time, we are seeing a serious effort by the North American and Japanese brands.
Chevrolet is bringing us a European-based diesel in the Cruze, you can get a Jeep Grand Cherokee with an Italian-sourced diesel engine and soon that same four-cylinder unit will be available in light duty Ram pickups. Mazda is also introducing a SkyActiv diesel to this market in the Mazda6 mid-size sedan.
Not about to rest on its laurels, Volkswagen recently announced a next generation diesel to replace the 2.0-litre unit currently used in the Golf and a variety of other VW and Audi vehicles, beginning in the second half of 2014.
So if you haven't tried a diesel lately, do yourself a favour. Drive one.