- MT Expert
2004 Volkswagen Golf 1.6 SE FSI 5d
The review car
The Volkswagen Golf comes in myriads of possible variants. We reviewed the relatively low-end Volkswagen Golf 1.6 SE FSI with 5 doors and an automatic transmission.
The Golf has a large number of followers - for an excellent reason. The newest incarnation of the VW Golf is hardly going to change that, either. The Golf was the most popular car in Europe in 2004. Selling nearly 570,000 vehicles, it was around 72,000 units ahead of its nearest rival.
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As such, the Golf has something to live up to, and the newest model of the Golf has become a very grown-up car: It would appear that Volkswagen have left the ‘fun' cars to Seat and Skoda (both owned by Volkswagen, of course), and instead moved along to become a mini-premium brand in its own right.
One can't but help feeling that the Golf is aimed squarely at price-conscious road-warriors. With handsome looks, an extremely solid build and refined driving qualities, it seems as if Volkswagen is ignoring its biggest UK competitor - the Ford Focus - and instead aims for its up-market cousins: The Audi A3 and BMW 1-series.
The car we tried was unusual from most our test models, in that it was a 6-speed auto ‘box, so it makes sense to tell you about that: It was excellent. The transmission took a little getting used to, though, as it changed gears at rather different points than what we are used to. Personal preference, perhaps, but we would have enjoyed staying in the lower gears for longer (or at least a little closer to the red-line than Volkswagen's automatic transmission decided for us).
That aside, there were some excellent upsides to the automatic as well: Gearchanges were faster and smoother than most drivers can muster by hand, and the driving experience becomes a lot less involved - a good thing, if you can't really be bothered, and would rather concentrate on the road. Of course, there are downsides, too: The automatic transmission version of this car manages 3.3 miles per gallon less than the manual transmission.
As is customary, especially for the small-class vehicles, the Golf is in a state of constant growth: What started off as a small car is now comfortably a small family car (with first Polo, then the Fox and Lupo taking over its small-car badge). As such, we were somewhat surprised that the current Golf is still offered in a 1.4 litre variant. Sure, the insurance group 4E may be a temptation to some buyers, but it makes the Golf a very strained machine.
In our review car, the 1.6 litre engine performed well with up to 2 passengers, a yapping dog (named Gomez) in the back seat and a full boot, but acceleration starts becoming cumbersome when the car is loaded with any more than that.
Driving the Golf 1.6 was pure pleasure: The suspension was a little on the hard side for crumbling British roads, but the little Volkswagen embraces the roads with vehemence that normally isn't seen in large hatchbacks. This means that even with a 1.6 litre engine and an auto ‘box, the car can be driven quite hard.
Motorway cruising is a distinguished pleasure in the Golf: The pilot's seat is on the firm side, but comfortable enough to run 5-6 hour drives. The front seats offer plenty of space even for tall drivers, but the drivers' seat and steering wheel adjust easily enough to accommodate those who aren't cursed with 6-foot-plus height.
On the road, the Golf is a safe choice - with the current model, Volkswagen saw its first ever 5 NCAP star result, not least due to a stronger construction, and airbags everywhere. All cars come with traction control and ABS brakes as standard.
Design and usability
The new Golf starts a series of new designs - most notably the Jetta, Passat and Golf. As a result the cars look spot-on. The larger design means they are spaceous on the inside, too: 4 adults fit in without much trouble (although not with a lot of space to spare). 2 adults and 3 kids fit in no problem.
Who is it for?
A tough one - the Golf is a changing brand, and it would be good for a wide variety of drivers. If it's big enough and falls in your price bracket, certainly take one for a test drive. You may be positively surprised.
So, should you buy one?
Of course you should - half a million Europeans in a single year can't be wrong: The newest Golf is the best Golf ever, and it's wonderfully useful, too. It is worth keeping tabs on the new Vauxhall Astra and the Ford Focus as well, though - they aren't quite as good as the Golf, but you may still like them better.
Which model would we choose?
We didn't dislike the automatic transmission, but the 1.6 litre engine could really have done with a manual, so you can get the most from it. The TDI diesels are of excellent quality, but the 2.0 STI feels as if it is starting to be a bit long in the teeth.
For motorway cruising, the 53.3 mpg 1.9 litre TDI is a magnificent choice. For full-out luxury, the 2.0 litre GT TDI is a small miracle in comfort-for-money terms.
Of the petrol models, the 1.6 litre is capable enough for most users, but with the magnificent Diesels VW is churning out at the moment, we'd suggest going for the 1.9 TDI instead.