Then brace yourself for an excruciatingly difficult choice. A segment already rich with talent is about to be flooded by a wave of very impressive new cars. The Mazda3 Sport has just landed and Opel’s dramatic new Astra arrives in October. Soon there will also be a new Focus to battle it out with Toyota’s popular RunX and our current champ, the Renault Mégane. But they will all end up being compared with the car we are testing here, Volkswagen’s new Golf. This has, for three decades now, been the benchmark.
It is easy therefore to understand why Golf 5 looks so much like a, well… Golf. From the four round headlights (each pair under a cover) to the broad C-pillars and the long roof, there’s no mistaking this for anything else. There are subtle differences though, such as the more muscular shoulders and the Phaeton-inspired rear lights.
Niftiest of all is the tailgate badge that swivels and doubles as a handle… However, it’s all a bit lost on Joe Public, most of whom didn’t even notice the very important new car parked next to them… Our test team found the Golf attractive, but lacking flair in a segment where style has become increasingly important.
The previous generation Golf was frequently criticised for having “stodgy” handling, especially after the arrival of the sharp-handling Ford Focus. In a clear attempt to reposition Golf 5 as a sportier drive, the decision was made early in the development phase to drop the torsion beam rear axle and opt for a multi-link set-up instead. The benefit of mult-ilink suspension is that it allows the longitudinal and side forces acting on a car to be separated, with the result that the suspension can be made relatively soft (to improve comfort), without sacrificing good body control and handling. We’ll find out if it works a little later…
The previous car’s front MacPherson strut design has been reworked, and has benefited from the addition of a new stabiliser bar attachment, among other improvements.
Volkswagen says Golf 5′s static body rigidity is 80 per cent up on its predecessor’s, yet it weighs, on average, only 50 kg more. It has also grown wider (by 24 mm), higher (41 mm) and longer (55 mm). The wheelbase has been increased by 67 mm, with most of that utilised to improve rear passenger space. Rear legroom is up by 52 mm, and headroom by 24 mm. Seated behind the driver, the extra space is immediately obvious.
The improvements in space are less noticeable in front (headroom up by 8 mm), but the previous model was hardly cramped, anyway. There are good levels of leg-, shoulder- and elbow room.
Whereas Golf 4 had a fairly sombre facia design, with most of the controls positioned lower on the hangdown section, Golf 5′s dashboard was clearly inspired
by the airy feel of MPV layouts. The controls are mounted higher and are spread out more, and space has been freed up below the centre of the facia for Audi TT-inspired leg braces.
Instrumentation is straightforward – a large speedo and rev counter flanking smaller gauges for water temperature and fuel levels. A digital display gives the driver access to information such as fuel consumption and tank range. Golf fans will be glad to hear that the instruments still light up in funky blue and red at night.
Golf 4 raised the level of perceived quality in this class to a standard previously reserved for luxury cars. It is this aspect that has become a Golf benchmark and a strong selling point. Unfortunately, most of our testers were not convinced that new Golf matches the old in this regard. Make no mistake, the look and feel of most fittings put most other cars in this segment to shame, but as a whole, new Golf’s facia somehow manages to look cheaper than its predecessor’s. During the local launch, some cars rattled, and we were very keen to find out whether our test unit would do the same. There were no quality glitches when it arrived, but two minor rattles did develop during the test, especially when driving over rougher road surfaces, which also brought to our attention fairly high levels of road noise.
In terms of passenger comfort, however, there is little to fault. We’ve already mentioned the generous space, but the seats also make a significant contribution. The front chairs are height adjustable and have lumbar support. They are soft, and good side bolstering prevents one from sliding around during cornering. A padded adjustable armrest (covering either a storage box or the optional six-disc CD changer) is fitted between the front seats. The steering wheel is height and reach-adjustable, but there are no remote audio controls, unlike most rivals.
Rear passengers have dual reading lights, two drink holders, and a fold-out armrest that also gives access to the load-through facility. The rear backrest is split 60:40, allowing the boot to be expanded from 256 dm3 to a total of 1 008.
Standard features include: electric windows, automatic anti-dazzle rear-view mirror, rain sensing wipers, cruise control, radio/CD front-loader, coming home/leaving lights function, powered and heated mirrors, remote selective central locking, semi-automatic air-conditioner and automatic headlight control.
Dual front airbags are fitted, along with front side airbags and curtain airbags front and rear. Golf 5 achieved a five-star rating in recent EuroNCAP crash tests. The Golf’s braking system consists of 280 mm ventilated discs in front and 250 mm solid discs at the rear. ABS and EBD are standard, as is ASR (anti-slip regulator). During our 100 km/h to zero emergency braking routine, we achieved an excellent average stopping time of 2,87 seconds.
Power is provided by an uprated 1,6-litre, four-cylinder engine with two valves per cylinder. It develops 75 kW at 5 600 r/min and 148 N.m of torque at 3 800. The five-speed manual gearbox that retains that typical Golf feel. Shifts through the well-defined, but tightly positioned gates are smooth.
Out on the test strip, with the ASR deactivated, the Golf reached 100 km/h in 12,45 seconds, about a second off the claimed time. The 181 km/h top speed is also lower than claimed. As a comparison, our overtaking acceleration times were slightly worse than those achieved by the Toyota RunX 160 RX in December 2003.
The 1,6-litre engine proved thirstier than we had anticipated. We recorded a fuel index figure of 9,89 litres/100 km, which equates to 10,11 km/litre. On a 55-litre tankful, expect a range of 556 km.
But enough of the facts and figures. What is the Golf like to drive? Firstly, with generous adjustment of seat and wheel, everyone will be able to find a good man/machine interface. Small details add to the enjoyment of everyday driving – extendable sun visors, for example, can’t cost very much to develop, but few cars have them, and the ones fitted to the Golf are of great help. The two drink holders in the centre console can be divided by a piece of metal that also doubles as a bottle opener.
Out on the road, the new electromechanical power steering system is noticeably lighter than the previous car’s and doesn’t feel too artificial, although one tester described it as “aloof”. We think it is a good compromise between sporty directness and ease of use, especially considering the wide target audience.
But the biggest improvement comes from the new suspension. Where the previous car suffered from early understeer and body roll, Golf 5 remains faithful to the chosen line far longer and, whilst doing so, retains impressive composure. It is a very stable car, and one that can be quite entertaining over a twisty stretch. More feedback from the helm would be welcome, however. Crucially, the firmer, sportier handling has not come at the expense of ride quality.