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.
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