VW Golf is still above par

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Like almost all of us, I know someone who has just lost their job to this hideous recession. Twenty years service, a new BMW 5-series company car every other year and the right to sleep peacefully extinguished in one awkward conversation with a thin-lipped, sharp-suited, gimlet-eyed manager from the top floor.

The redundancy, however, was good, which is why an only middle-aged Lotus Elise now lurks in his garage. But he knows his chances of finding a new job at his age in the financial services industry will not be the matter of a moment. In the meantime he needs a car in which to get around and, if employment proves impossible, to be his companion for perhaps very many years as he sets up shop on his own. After 10 brand new cars in two decades he feels unsuited to the second-hand market, so he asked me what he should get. I said a Golf.

He did ring back both to apologise for being so rude and to explain that Golfs were what his girlfriends’ mothers used to drive in his courting days. He did not, does not and, I strongly suspect, will never see himself as a Golf kind of guy.

But he should drive one. For over 30 years, the Golf has maintained consistently high standards better than any car I can think of, with the possible exception of my chum’s fleet of BMW 5-series. I’m not talking about GTIs which have lurched from great to ghastly and all the way back to really rather good in this time, but the kind bought by most people in general, and the mothers of former squeezes in particular.

I’ve just driven one for no reason other than it was the first of the sixth generation I had encountered and my knowledge of the more important cars on the market, and therefore my ability to do my job, was incomplete without it. But despite the fact that this is the fifth generation of Golf I have assessed professionally and the undeniable truth that VW has always pursued a highly conservative and evolutionary approach with its most precious product, it left me in almost as much awe as the new Porsche 911GT3 you’ll read about elsewhere on these pages.

It was not the most humble Golf you can buy, but a mid-range model with a lightly turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine developing 122bhp, the theory being that this way you can achieve the power output of a normally aspirated 1.6-litre motor with superior torque and power delivery characteristics as well as better economy and emissions. And so it proved: its performance was nothing special, but the smoothness and sophistication with which it was supplied clearly was.

But that was just one quite small contributing factor that makes me consider it one of the most accomplished cars at any price point in the market. What is most remarkable about this small, innocuous car is the astonishing calibre of engineering that has been visited upon every area of endeavour.

The driving environment, both in its arrangement and the quality of its fittings, would not disgrace the interior of a car costing £10,000 more. Indeed there are VWs you can buy that do cost £10,000 more than this whose cabins are very little better.

More impressive still is its mechanical refinement at speed. The engine is all but inaudible at a steady motorway cruise and not for the usual reason that it’s been drowned out by the din from the tyres and the wind. Although it can be quite vocal if you floor the accelerator, on part-throttle its smoothness and lack of drama are an example to all others in its class.

But what struck me most was its ride comfort. I’ve spent the last year using a Mercedes-Benz CLS as everyday transport and there is no doubt in my mind that this shopping car rides better than that luxury coupé, despite costing around one third of the price. Nor does this reflect badly on the CLS which, by most normal standards, rides more than well enough.

Another surprise lay in the fact that this degree of suspension suppleness has not been achieved at the price of soggy handling. It may not feel quite as incisive as the perennial standard setter in this field, Ford’s ever-excellent Focus, but it’s not far behind.

Finally it still has what all Golfs have had for the last 35 years, namely a standard of construction quite beyond anything else in the class. You can buy one for £13,500 and I would be very surprised if it didn’t still feel tight and together a decade and 100,000 fault-free miles later.

When I think of all the mediocre cars with which it has to compete – the Peugeot 308, Renault Mégane and Vauxhall Astra to name just three of the more obvious under-achievers in the class – the Golf appears as even more outstanding value than ever.

It is practical, frugal, clean and sensible cars like this that you’d hope the Government’s scrappage scheme would support, but as we are now used to seeing, they have launched another empty vessel. As you read this, the scheme will have been running for some time and doubtless those companies making the very cheapest budget transport will be delighted by the short-term sales hike it will bring. But by being so mean with the sums involved, by ignoring the fact that scoring a two grand discount off most new cars is already as quick and easy as blinking, by making the purchase apply only to brand new cars (rather than year-old ones as they do in Germany) and the sale only to cars that are 10 years or older, the scheme will create, at the very best, a short, sharp spike in sales of niche products rather than something of real and lasting use. More people buy cars in the Golf/Focus class than any other and I suspect that to the vast majority of them, the value of the scheme will be worthless.