There goes another one -- a Mercedes-Benz S-class, doing at least 100 mph, shoulders aside my Volkswagen Golf TDI on a rain-lashed German autobahn.
It's not like I can't keep up, as the diesel-driven Golf will soon prove. But for now, I'm transfixed by the trip computer, which displays a Toyota Prius-like 52 mpg, the result of a long 60-mph cruise. This is not my favored autobahn pace, but fuel-conscious minds back home need to know. And with the world joining hands in recession and energy anxiety, might the frugal-yet-fancy Golf finally speak international hatchback love in a language Americans can understand?
If the Golf is a fixture on every soccer-loving continent (VW has moved more than 25 million over five generations), it's been largely an afterthought here, except among hatchback nerds or GTI fanatics who proclaim its virtues with Jehovah's Witness gusto. "The U.S. is just not a hatchback market," admits Stefan Jacoby, VW's North American CEO. "They've always been seen as low-end entry cars."
The revival of the Rabbit name here didn't help, and that musty moniker has again been shed for 2010. Yet, more than ever, the redesigned Golf's neatest trick is to boggle the minds of Americans who grew up in Dodge Omnis or Chevy Chevettes. Ten minutes in the Golf, and those folks will be amazed that an affordable hatch could look, drive, and feel this good.
The looks are familiar but are crisply updated, including a slim two-bar grille and a lovely, subtle geometry where the hood and headlamps swell into expanded wheel arches. Inside, the Golf shows off rigorous fit and finish yet relaxes with better materials, friendlier climate controls, and a less anvil-like upper dash.
The rest is pure VW, as comforting as a hausfrau dishing up wurst and potatoes: the Euro-sculpted seats in high-quality woven fabric, the upright driving position, the sober logic of the controls. In the Golf's traditional analog realm, the arrival of a touch-screen navigation system is like seeing Madonna playing Oktoberfest. Some things never change, though: VW's rotary hand crank to adjust the front seatback is still an awkward reach, but the knob itself is no longer carpal-tunnel stiff. Exterior and interior dimension changes are minimal. The Golf's rear seats still accept two gangly adults, with a center three-point belt for a theoretical third.
Propulsion choices are a gasoline 2.5-liter five-cylinder with 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque or a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder with 140 hp and 236 lb-ft -- torque that's fully online at 1750 rpm. It's here that things get tricky, but the choices are simple, in a way that won't please all Golf fans.