Volkswagen Golf Mk V 2004 Road Test

Thu, 22 Jan 2004

No car is as important to any car maker as the new 2004 Golf Mk V is to Volkswagen.

That famous David Bailey, Paula Hamilton commercial, “Few things in life are as reliable as a Volkswagen” was for a Mk II Golf. But the Mk III was a step back. And though the Mk IV was an improvement, it has hardly been the last word in reliability. VW had pushed living on past reputation as far as it could. The cars still carry status a Focus owner can only dream of, yet the public probably wouldn’t have forgiven another Golf that didn’t really live up to it.

Happily the Mk V does. If you’d never ever driven a Golf before and your perception was of a rock-solid piece of superb German engineering, the Mk V meets this precisely. It looks good. It feels good. And it drives very well indeed.

We tried three versions: the 105PS 1.9 TDI PD, the 140PS 2.0 GT TDI 16v, and the 115PS 1.6 FSI.

The 1.9 TDI sits on sensible 195/65 R15 tyres, which absorb some road shock, but the ride quality is firm rather than compliant. Much firmer than the Mazda 3, for example. But that’s part of the hewn from solid character of the car.

It handles well, it goes as well as a lower powered TDI ever did, the gearchange is positive, the seats are comfortable, there’s a huge range of seat and steering wheel adjustment, the trim looks carved from a coal face, the instruments light up with a posh blue glow. The variable power steering is light when you’re manoeuvring and firm when you’re cracking on. It’s the kind of car that won’t send you giggling with glee, but will leave you smiling with satisfaction. Month, after month, after month. Just one criticism: there’s a fair amount of dashboard reflection in the windscreen which Mazda managed to avoid in the Mazda 3.

Onwards and upward, then, to the 2.0 GT TDI 16v, which has all the qualities of the TDI and brings a smile to your face. It has one of the best matched engines and gearboxes I’ve ever driven. Though there’s no steam engine low-end torque allowing you to slid your foot off the clutch in 2nd without stalling, once you’re on the move there’s a gear for every eventuality and no need to visit all of them on your way up or down the box. You find yourself ‘block changing’ perfectly naturally, dropping it onto the wide band of peak torque from 1,750 to 2,500rpm very easily indeed. There’s absolutely none of that straining at the leash violent aggression you get from old fashioned all or nothing TDIs that your really have to keep between 2,000 and 3,000rpm. This one will sing all the way from 1,500 to 5,000 very pleasantly indeed. All the advantages and economy of a diesel, then, with some of the character of a good petrol engine. And geared at around 34mph per 1,000 rpm in 6th, you’re barely ticking over at our ridiculous motorway speed limit.

Our last and final ride was the 1.6 FSI, which stands for ‘Fuel Stratified Injection’. The idea is to more precisely meter the fuel in the manner of a direct injected diesel giving more power at wide throttle openings and better economy on light throttle.

This makes it a very nice 1.6. It obviously lacks anything even approaching the torque of the 2.0 GT TDI. But it’s a pleasant petrol engine with a decent stack of six ratios to help it along and does not feel in the least underpowered. When you think that the old Mk IV GTI had no more than 115bhp and a five-speed box you could regard the 1.6 FSI as something of a bargain.

As with the new Audi A3 and the VW Touran MPV, technical enhancements over the Mk IV that give the Mk V such a solid feel include a massively stiffer (80% stiffer) body structure, a different mounting system for the front suspension, multi link fully independent rear suspension and electro mechanical power steering (explained in the A3 test on this site).

The main thing is, the VW Golf is now where is should have been in its Mk III and Mk IV incarnations, but wasn’t. In terms of strength and that hewn from solid feel it is genuinely back at the top of the class.

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