I'll admit that I'm not the best person to comment on the Golf, for one big reason: the transmission. I'm still new enough at driving a stick that I can't blame the car for most of my stalls and jerky shifts.
With that said, the TDI's weak point does seem to be that transmission: even with the superb engine's lump of low-end torque it doesn't pull away from a stop quite as smoothly as I'd expected. After having driven Jetta TDI a while back with the DSG, I'd say the Golf with one clutch has a bit more lag than the TDI with the dual-clutch. Save the money you'd otherwise spend on the Dynaudio stereo (the base one is more than adequate) and spend it on the snappy autobox instead.
Overall, the car is very good. The VW Golf TDI is a package deal, a car that truly is the sum of its parts. No one part of the car feels like it's been the victim of aggressive cost-cutting.
With all the gripes coming from us auto writers about VW's bargain basement models (I'm looking at you, Jetta and Passat), the Golf is one of the last of VW's smaller offerings that offers the fantastic interior and exterior quality that made us fall in love with Volkswagen.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
Ben shouldn't feel bad about having a hard time with the manual transmission in the Golf TDI. I've been driving stick-shift cars since the 1970s, and when I drove this TDI, I stalled it more than once, both pulling away from a stop in first gear and at low speed in second gear. I don't consider myself a novice at using a clutch pedal by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something about this transmission that made me feel like a klutz. Once underway, however, the Golf TDI acquits itself quite well. It's nimble around town, cruises effortlessly on the highway, and gets very good fuel economy. The interior is far from luxurious, but the materials are decent and the ergonomics are very good. Controls are minimal -- just three dials for climate control and a stereo that is simple to operate.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
This is the ultimate daily driver. I achieved an average of better than 45 mpg on a drive from Chicago to Monroe, Michigan, and that was without even trying (meaning lots of driving in excess of 80 mph). The only changes I'd like to make to the order sheet include opting for the four-door, and adding the bi-xenon headlights for $700 and the cold weather package for a very reasonable $225. Heated seats go a long way in a diesel VW because it takes the engine so long to heat up on cold winter days. Audi adds a small electric space heater to the A3 TDI to hide that fact, but Volkswagen only offers heated seats.
I know Volkswagen is chasing market share with the new, more Americanized Jetta and Passat, and I'm willing to tolerate that so long as cars like the Golf remain very German and fun to drive. There's an exceptional balance between ride quality and sportiness in the Golf that gives it an edge over most other commuter cars. Even the TDI responds well when you enthusiastically attack an off-ramp, and the engine revs surprisingly quickly for a diesel. It's not as energetic as the GTI, but that's a reasonable trade-off to gain a 50 percent improvement in highway mileage.
The Golf will never be as popular as the Jetta or the Passat are expected to be, but Volkswagen seems committed to this niche, with products like the Golf R coming to the States. I just hope enough enthusiasts remain committed to Volkswagen to justify the effort required to keep the fun cars headed our way.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The Volkswagen Golf, especially in TDI form, is a hugely appealing package. It strikes a near-perfect balance between sportiness and everyday livability, between fun and frugality, while offering enough interior space to accommodate four adults in comfort, at least on short trips. The quality of the interior finishes isn't quite as good as in my 2009 GTI, but it still looks neat and stylish and the firm and supportive seats are some of the most comfortable offered on a sub-$30,000 car.
Like Phil, if I were building my own Golf, I'd choose the four-door for the added utility and because I prefer its exterior proportions. The manual in this car is less rewarding than the one in its hot-hatch sibling but it's light and direct, and easy to use. Without question, I would choose it over the pricey DSG autobox and put the $1100 I saved toward the heated seats -- an absolute necessity in a diesel if you live where it's cold -- and the bi-xenon headlights. So I guess Phil and I would have matching TDIs.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Whether it has a five-cylinder, a turbocharged four-cylinder, or a diesel engine, the Volkswagen Golf is an excellent compact car. The common threads among all three models are a fantastic interior, exceptional steering, and a beautifully tuned suspension. The only decision you need to make is whether you value price, performance, or efficiency the most.
I remember struggling with our Four Seasons Jetta TDI's clutch the first time I drove it, but now that it's familiar, I actually like the weight, travel, and feel of the pedal in this Golf TDI. However, this engine does rely heavily on its turbocharger for even moderate acceleration. If you allow the clutch to hook up too soon when taking off from a stoplight, the engine bogs down and you're locked into a tortoise-like pace until you hit 1500 rpm. Any owner will quickly learn to compensate by letting the clutch out with the appropriate progression.
Even as hybrids become more lively with each new model, diesels remain the frugal and fun alternative for people who like to drive. While it isn't fast, this Golf TDI produces gobs of torque at any rpm, making it perfect for squirting through city traffic. Working the six-speed manual to keep the engine spinning fast but avoiding the 5000-rpm redline keeps the driver engaged and entertained.
During my night with this two-door Golf TDI, I visited a friend who is shopping for a diesel Jetta SportWagen. I'd spend my money on the more nimble Golf, but he liked the fact that the Jetta doubles the cargo capacity while returning the same excellent 30/42-mpg rating. Either way -- Jetta TDI SportWagen or Golf TDI -- he'll end up with a great car.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor