Volkswagen Canada is shooting the lights out with the reinvented, sixth-generation Golf. So far this year, sales are up almost 200 per cent on the year, the company says. Wow!
The Golf, of course, is not simply one car; it's a lineup of two- and four-door hatchbacks, along with a pretty nifty station wagon.
There are also diesel and gas engines, five- and six-speed manual transmissions, a six-speed automatic and even VW's marvellous DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) manual/automatic. Prices range from $20,175 to $30,175.
As you can see, the Golf array is comprehensive, to say the least.
In all this, the wagon is the sleeper Golf. The gas version with five-speed manual comes with the teaser price of $22,675, but almost no one will buy it. At the other end, the TDI diesel Highline ($31,875) is a richly loaded wagon with that slick-shifting DSG. It will be a bit pricey for most buyers.
But the Comfortline TDI with the DSG hits the sweet spot at $28,274. It's a compelling, well-equipped small wagon with a smart chassis, excellent seats and combined fuel economy of 5.8 litres/100 km. You'll go 1,000-plus km between diesel fill-ups.
On top of that, this is as clean a diesel as you can buy right now. No, not exactly gasoline-electric hybrid clean; but it is at least as clean as your average gasoline passenger car.
Diesel aside, what sets this wagon apart from the competition is the chassis - in particular the suspension and its tuning. When the pavement is bad, the suspension soaks up the bumps and clunks. When the roads are smooth and interesting, the ride becomes fairly entertaining for what is, in essence, a family car.
You won't necessarily be tempted to fling it into snaky corners and if you do, you'll elicit body lean that will test your ab and oblique muscles. But overall, this is a steady performer, with quick, nicely weighted steering. Alas, the soft brake pedal is a disappointment.
For engines, let me just reiterate: the one you want is not the 2.5-litre five-cylinder rated at 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. There is nothing wrong with this power plant; it handles the car's 1,500 kg quite nicely. VW says the Golf with this engine will do 0-100 km/h in eight seconds or so.
But the diesel is a stunner. The horsepower rating is not much to look at (140), but that torque number (236 lb-ft at a very low 1,750 rpm) is what you'd get from a good-sized V-6 today - one that slurps down twice the fuel. There is just so much get-up-and-go with this diesel. VW's direct-injection, turbocharged unit really is state of the art in modest-sized diesels.
Consider what the competition offers. The Hyundai Elantra Touring ($22,899 for a loaded GLS Sport with automatic transmission) has a gasoline-fed inline four-banger rated at 138 hp/136 lb-ft. Believe me, the Golf TDI is a much livelier performer.
Another potential rival is Subaru's Impreza five-door. Consider the Impreza 2.5i with the Sport Package and automatic transmission at $26,695. Its four-cylinder comes in at 170 hp/170 lb-ft. Again, the Golf diesel is far stronger in the torque department, which gives the VW a more robust feel both in traffic and on the highway, where at speed the engine is turning over well below 2,000 rpm.
That's the performance story and it's a good one. And safety? There is a full array of airbags - front, side and overhead curtain - along with stability control, electronic brake force distribution (to maximize braking effectiveness) and a robust safety cage. Yes, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Golf a Top Safety Pick.
As for the cabin, it's not overly big, but adequate for four adults, two front, two back. The Golf wagon has a bit less head and leg room than the Elantra Touring and the Impreza, but it's not a huge difference. On the other hand, the Golf wagon has 960 litres of cargo room, considerably more than these other two (689 L for the Elantra, 538 L for the Impreza).
What really sets the Golf apart - and dramatically so - is the VW's seating. These seats are brilliant. VW somehow manages to provide firm but not bench-like cushioning. Even the cloth upholstery is attractive.
Moreover, the driver's seat offers good thigh support and is height-adjustable. But changing the angle of the seatback requires an awkward reach back to turn a knob. If you are heavy, older, arthritic or just ornery, this system is really, really irritating. VW will tell you that the knob allows minute adjustments that are impossible on most cars with easy-to-reach levers. But that does not make the knob any easier to reach.
The dashboard layout is also very simple and effective. The gauges pop out with clarity and various controls are wonderfully intuitive. An auxiliary jack for your MP3 player is standard, as is the eight-speaker sound in this model. What's missing is storage space; there just isn't enough of it for your odds and sods. Worse, smallish cup holders are very irritating for caffeine addicts who go big or go to sleep.
What might be troubling for some buyers is VW's reliability. It's been an issue for years, if you believe some of the research. The auto maker was rated third to last in J. D. Power & Associates' 2010 Vehicle Dependability Study, which looked at how 2007 models had held up. At least VW improved from second to last in 2009.
On the other hand, Consumer Reports magazine says the Golf wagon's reliability is average and recommends it. In fact, the Golf wagon is CR's highest-rated small hatchback/wagon. If nothing else, the Golf comes with a four-year/80,000-km, bumper-to-bumper warranty.
VW really went to town in remaking the Golf and that is surely the biggest reason why buyers are jumping aboard. This Golf wagon, meanwhile, the diesel version with the best transmission, is powerful yet fuel efficient; practical, yet (relatively) fun to drive; comfortable yet not the roomiest in its class for passengers; and safe yet hardly dull.
There is a charm here, and the price is reasonable, too. It's a combination that sells.
2010 Volkswagen Golf Wagon Comfortline DSG
Type: Compact station wagon
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel
Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/236 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed DSG automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/4.6 highway; diesel fuel
Alternatives: Subaru Impreza wagon, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber, Suzuki SX-4, Mazda3 Sport