With either two or four doors, the gasoline-powered Golf is fastest to 60 mph. VW estimates 7.8 seconds with the five-speed manual and 8.1 seconds for the six-speed Tiptronic automatic, versus 8.6 seconds for the diesel with either the standard six-speed manual or the dual-clutch, paddle-smacking DSG automatic.
The diesel-only DSG and six-speed are the first clues to VW's marketing mind-set: All the good stuff to flatter VW's diesel loyalists but none for the little piggies who pump gasoline, with the EPA estimating city/highway mileage at 23/30 mpg for the automatic 2.5 and 30/42 mpg for the DSG diesel. For the two-door diesel, which starts at $22,690 (add $1100 for DSG), an all-or-nothing equipment level is reminiscent of some Lexus hybrids -- dangling the fuel-saving carrot only to beat prospects with a pricey stick of features that not all will want.
Buyers of the Golf 2.5, whose $18,190 base price undercuts the TDI's by a hefty $4500, are similarly forced into the economy box. Nearly all the sporty or deluxe goodies - from the diesel's standard sport suspension, seventeen-inch wheels, leather-clad, multifunction steering wheel, uplevel audio, foglamps, plus optional DSG, nav system, and xenon headlamps - aren't available on the gasoline version.
The engines also give aural aesthetes a Sophie's Choice: the drone of the five-cylinder gas engine or the moan of the low-revving diesel. Fortunately, both versions are remarkably quiet inside, the result of serious effort in sound deadening. For the diesel, fuel savings and a federal conservation credit of up to $1700 help soften the sticker's blow. And as with the Jetta TDI, 0-to-60-mph stats do no justice to the diesel's sturdy passing power.
Picking up the pace to 70 mph, the TDI still tops 40 mpg. At 80, it hums at a quiet 2800 rpm, about 400 fewer than the gasoline model. And en route from VW's Wolfsburg HQ to Berlin, the sky clears, puddles evaporate, and the TDI becomes a pesky fly on the flanks of haughty German sedans. Working the paddles, I average nearly 100 mph over an hour, topping out at 123 mph. Even at this never-in-America pace, the Golf returns a satisfying 32 mpg. Through it all, the VW is oak-tree planted and its cabin serene, with no hint of engine strain or occupant fatigue. Try that in a Prius.
Detouring through centuries-old farm country, the TDI does reveal that it's no road-slashing GTI -- or even a Mazda 3. The electric power steering is accurate and the suspension game, but the package surrenders under high-g fire. Yet for enthusiasts who can't swing a GTI, the TDI becomes the fallback, thanks to its lavish torque and equipment. As long as your hatch budget clears twenty grand, that's a comfy fallback-- hybrid-like highway mileage and honest good times, wrapped in a versatile, grown-up package.
All that's left is to regale friends and neighbors -- and maybe your senator -- about the wonders of diesel.
On Sale: Now
Price: $18,190/$22,690 (2.5/TDI)
Engines: 2.0L turbo-diesel I-4, 140 hp, 236 lb-ft; 2.5L I-5, 170 hp, 177 lb-ft