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Volkswagen Golf Mk5 Car Review | February 2, 2004

Driven February 2004

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By the time you get to the fifth incarnation of a car, you should really be getting the hang of things, and as VW has been building the Golf for 30 years, you'd expect the formula to be pretty refined by now. So it's no surprise that with all this practice, VW can justifiably claim to be building the best all-round hatch, albeit it at a price.

I was a big fan of the previous Golf, not least of all because it saved my skin when I had a big accident in one. I liked the build quality, the anonymous design and the image that went with the car - although the dynamics were far from class leading even if they were at least adequate all round. VW had taken the Golf so far with the Mk4, that by the time the company came to figure out what to do with its successor, there weren't many tricks left up its sleeve.

Jumping into the new car it's hard to identify any useful improvements. The instrumentation looks the same, as is most of the switchgear. But space has improved, and as the new car is longer, wider and taller, it's no surprise that the cabin is one of the most spacious in its class. It's now possible to sit a quartet of six-footers in there, comfortably. Equipment levels have gone up overall, but they're still far from generous - and prices aren't exactly on the bargain side of cheap.

As is so often the way, your money is going on all those things you can't see, such as the stiffest bodyshell in the class. Not only does that improve refinement but it also makes the car much safer if you have a prang in it. All cars get traction control, brake assist, ESP, ABS and airbags for front seat passengers. Throw in a pair of Isofix mountings in the back, active head restraints and five sets of three-point seatbelts and you've got a car you'd almost enjoy stuffing.

It's when it comes to equipment that the new Golf seems poor value, although at least you can specify pretty much whatever you want, as long as you've got the readies. Buy a range-topping 2.0 GT FSi with the six-speed automatic gearbox and you'll have to find £19,500 - and a few pricey options will soon take that perilously close to £25,000. For a four-cylinder Golf, that's madness, but for some people the VW badge is enough of a draw, and what price safety?

Dynamically the new Golf is a big step forward on the old car, with an impressive ride and outstanding high-speed stability. VW has never been praised for its chassis, and with an all-new multi-link rear suspension and a new electro-mechanical steering system, it still errs on the safe side rather than the fun. But that's no bad thing for anyone who wants mere transport (albeit pricey transport), and with discs all round the brakes never feel as though they're struggling to keep up.

Engine choices are wide ranging, with petrol units available in 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0-litre flavours - and even then there are different states of tune on offer. Diesel choice is between 1.9 and 2.0-litre powerplants - go for the bigger option and you'll get a six-speed gearbox rather than a five. Not only is this all-new diesel engine cleaner, but it also offers 140bhp in place of the 105 on tap from the 1.9-litre unit - and you can really feel the difference.

If it's power you're after, the 2.0-litre GT FSi is the pick of the bunch with its 150 horses - at least until the 200bhp GTi bursts onto the scene at the end of this year. And even that will be eclipsed by an R32 model that'll appear by spring 2005. The five-door Golf is already on sale, but the five-door doesn't arrive until March, which is the same time that the DSG-equipped Golf also goes on sale. This gearbox will be available with TDi cars only, but as it's such a great transmission and the 2.0-litre Tdi is such a great engine, that should make quite a combination. It's all a far cry from that 1974 car.

Richard Dredge

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