The Volkswagen Golf is subtly but emphatically superior. With its air of tasteful good quality, this car has assumed a characteristic much desired by makers of mass-produced goods the world over - it is classless. Yet this doesn't make up for its high cost compared with other cars in the same class. The 2.0 litre tested here costs thousands more than its rivals, and you'll pay a premium at the bottom of the range too. On the Continent, VW has had to discount air conditioning to induce sales, and retailers in Berlin have cut Golf prices.
Yet despite its price, UK orders for the Golf appear to be holding up, although it's still early days. As for the car: as VW's advertising says, this fifth-generation Golf has been 30 years in the making, and it's the most honed version yet. Nothing surprising in that, you might think, except that the third generation Golf was inferior to the second, and the outgoing model made for a stodgy drive. But Golfs have always provided a keen combination of practicality, low-running costs, quality, safety and dependability. What separates this VW from dozens of similar hatchbacks is the trademark Golf styling, and the reassurance of its badge, which resonates with a premium aura absent from most of its competitors.
Yet if popular perception says that VW is a synonym for quality, the stark truth is that, lately, reliability surveys have marked its cars below average. That may improve with this latest model, which certainly has the air of being thoroughly engineered. The bodyshell, for instance, is 80% stiffer than before, to the benefit of noise isolation, ride and handling and crash performance, and the rear suspension is now vastly more sophisticated, correcting one of the more disappointing aspects of the outgoing model. New-generation engines offer big strides in performance, fuel economy and emissions, too - and here the Golf really does have a lead worth paying for. Predictably, it is longer, wider and higher than before, though impressively, it weighs much the same. And that means better fuel economy.
That extra room, together with a highly adjustable driver's seat, makes this a car well-suited to the long, the short and the tall, with plenty of space for companions. Apart from a slightly wilful gearchange, the Golf is an easy drive, its loping ride providing remarkably civil progress.
And it goes too. The 2.0 litre's 150bhp will dismiss 60mph in 8.6 seconds, yet it's good for 38mpg, an excellent figure, while company car taxpayers will be warmed by the discovery that this model sits in the lowest CO2 tax band. The redesigned suspension handles such brisk performance well, this Golf being a more satisfying drive than any four-cylinder version since the legendary Mk 2 GTi.
And what of interior quality, a major appeal of the previous Golf? Well, the cabin's very solidly constructed, but, unexpectedly, the lower half of the dashboard is disappointingly plasticky. Still, that this is our biggest criticism - apart from the greedy pricing - is a measure of how complete the Golf has become. It is a safe place to put your family, and a car that millions of the planet's middle class feel comfortable with. It's truly a modern Beetle.
Volkswagen Golf 2.0 FSI
Max power 150 bhp
Max torque 147 lb ft
Max speed 131 mph
0-60mph 8.6 sec
Fuel consumption 38.1 mpg
CO2 emissions 173g/km
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