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2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI: Ignore at your low-mileage peril

Posted by Bill Griffith  May 7, 2010 03:42 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

Automakers generally feel compelled to have an offering in every market segment. However, in the US, they've pretty much ignored the compact diesel department, a niche Volkswagen is only too happy to have to itself.

Today's test car, a 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI, is testament to VW's perseverance to market a 50-state compliant diesel. To this driver, the surprise is that more Americans aren't coming home from their international travels and looking to buy the diesels they've experienced abroad.

The Golf is a car built for a day when gas prices climb above $3.50 a gallon and folks are looking for an upscale smaller car that can achieve 35 or more miles per gallon. Savvy buyers aren't waiting.

When the Golf arrived, I was disappointed that it had the dual-clutch automatic transmission (an extra $1,100). My fear was that the automatic wouldn't make good use of the low-end torque that makes diesels so much fun to drive. Wrong! The automatic was really tuned to the car, working smoothly through the gears while accelerating and being programmed to provide engine braking while decelerating. I'm not big on paddle shifting because I tend to forget it's in manual mode and over-rev the engine in first. However, this one shifted quickly and smoothly when used manually.

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The TDI is rated between 30 miles per gallon (city) and 42 (highway). I carelessly forgot to note the odometer reading with the tank full, but it made four 70-mile roundtrips to Boston from Newburyport, plus a half-dozen other decent-length trips on barely more than half of the 14.5-gallon tank. My Kentucky-windage guess is we got in the 38 mpg range, though the on-board computer was saying 43.2 mpg.

VW officials point out that the TDI emits 25 percent less greenhouse gas and achieves more than 30 percent better fuel economy than comparable gasoline engines. Only a reassuring bit of clatter lets you know this is a diesel.

The Golf or Rabbit, as it's been marketed several times in the US, is now in its sixth generation so it's clear that VW has had something going here for a quarter-century.

Our test car had a base price of $21,990. Besides the automatic transmission, it had a touchscreen navigation system ($1,750), power sunroof ($1,000), Bluetooth connectivity ($199), and a $225 cold weather package (heated seats and washer nozzles). With a $750 destination charge, the bottom line was $27,014.

If prospective buyers have doubts on reliability, VW is offering free scheduled maintenance services for three years or 36,000 miles, a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain warranty, and three-year new vehicle warranty.

In addition, my taxman, Tom Feenan of Feenan Financial in Quincy, reminds me that the automatic version of the Golf still qualifies for a $1,700 tax credit and the manual version qualifies for a $1,300 credit.

On the road, the Golf handles tautly, thanks to four-wheel independent suspension. The steering, an electro-mechanical rack-and-pinion system, is ideal. It's quick through turns but easy to keep on a steady track on the highway.

Both driver's and passenger's seats are manually adjustable. I found it easy to find a comfortable driving position with good legroom and visibility. Mrs. G, in the midst of a bout with the shingles while undergoing other daily hospital treatments, is wont to ride with her seatback in a reclining position. She wasn't pleased at having a difficult-to-turn wheel to achieve that spot.

She did appreciate the sunroof during this warmer-than-normal spring weather.

The instrument panel features a pair of circles (tach, speedometer) with temperature gauge in one and the hardly-moving fuel gauge in the other. In between is the multifunction computer display. I had it in Italian for a day before sitting down with the manual to get it set up properly and change the clock to daylight time.

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I've driven enough VWs to be familiar with their cruise control system, something I tend to use regularly. Neither the climate nor navigation controls are particularly user-friendly. In fact, I'd pass on the navigation system and opt for a portable unit.

The standard iPod connection, which is tucked into the center armrest, is a welcome touch.

VW has done a nice job with the styling, starting with the familiar two-bar grille, angled headlights, and neat oval fog lamps up front. The wide stance and black treatment around the windows helps carry a clean-but-not-slab-sided line right around the rear where an aggressive-looking double exhaust pipe says "goodbye."

It looks like a car that will perform impressively ... and it doesn't disappoint.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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