The sixth-generation Volkswagen Golf, heralded by European automotive media as World Car of the Year, finally comes to U.S. showrooms this fall and instantly is the most fuel-efficient nonhybrid compact car for 2010.
The top fuel mileage rating for the 2010 Golf is 30 miles per gallon in city driving and 42 mpg on the highway. This is for a Golf with diesel four-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission.
The Golf's real claim to fame -- its decades-long reputation as a fun, sporty, little hatchback -- remains.
In fact, the Golf, with its fuel-sipping engine -- a 2-liter turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel -- generates the most torque at the lowest engine rpm of any small, sporty, nonluxury hatchback.
The peak torque of 236 foot-pounds comes on by 1,750 rpm, which explains why the heads of passengers in the 2010 Golf TDI can push back into the seats when the driver pulls away from city stop signs. The power can come on so quickly, the driver had better pay close attention to the speedometer.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price including destination charge is $18,190, which is $1,190 higher than last year's base model.
This price is for a two-door Golf with 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter, gasoline-powered, five-cylinder, manual transmission and a fuel economy rating of 22/30 mpg. Torque tops out at 177 foot-pounds at a high rpm of 4,250.
The most prized Golf -- with a 140-horsepower, turbodiesel engine under the hood -- has a starting retail price of $22,890 with six-speed manual transmission.
A diesel Golf with six-speed automatic starts at $23,989. This is a Direct-Shift Gearbox automatic with sequential shift that a driver can operate without using a clutch pedal. DSG transmissions, also sometimes called "manual automatics," are better than regular transmissions for fuel economy and faster shift times.
The new Golf's modern "clean diesel" meets emissions standards in all 50 states, including California's stringent standards.
Last year's Golf was called the Rabbit -- a moniker that was on the first generation of this car in the 1970s. VW officials went back to the more well-known Golf name for 2010.
The new Golf is restyled, but it's more of an update to last year's look. Casual car buyers might not even notice how the 2010 Golf is styled to look wider and lower to the ground than last year's car.
What they will notice is that the look overall is clean and free of embellishments. Inside, all controls and gauges are well-arranged and within easy reach.
Golfs are offered with choice of five-cylinder gasoline engine or four-cylinder diesel, a choice of manual or automatic transmission, and a choice of two- or four-door hatchback body.
I prefer the four-door Golf, which was the test car, because access to the second-row seats is much easier than it is in the two-door.
But both models offer more passenger room in the back seat than what you'd expect by just peering in through a side window. The back seat has 38.5 inches of headroom.
Legroom in the back seat was acceptable at 35.5 inches, but if the front seats are back a long way on their tracks, rear legroom shrinks precipitously.
There's a sizable hump in the middle of the rear-seat floor, so anyone sitting in the middle must contend with it. It's much better back there to just have two people.
The best place to sit is behind the steering wheel. Steering is responsive to driver inputs. The suspension keeps the car surprisingly poised and comfortable on turns, yet also is tuned to prevent a harsh, overly sporty ride.
When I pressed the accelerator pedal, the test diesel Golf with automatic zoomed forward and tapped the torque readily.
I appreciated that the torque doesn't shut down after 1,750 rpms. It stays at the peak to 2,500 rpm, which provides good power to the next gear shift.
Engine sounds were strong, too, and the typical buzzy sounds that come from a four cylinder weren't so pronounced here. Instead, there was a near-growl from the engine.
The Golf is front-wheel drive; front wheels pulled the car impressively through standing water and in the rain. During acceleration, the steering wheel does not pull strongly to either side.
Major safety equipment, such as curtain air bags, traction control and electronic stability control and antilock brakes, is standard. The Golf is one of the few nonluxury cars to offer the option of side-mounted air bags for the outsides of the back seats, at as price of $350.
Keep in mind that the Golf comes with VW's three-year/36,000-mile free scheduled maintenance program, so services such as regular oil changes are taken care of at dealers free.
THE VEHICLE: 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI, a front-wheel-drive, two- or four-door, five-passenger, diesel, compact hatchback
BASE PRICE: $21,990 for two-door manual TDI; $22,590 for four-door manual model; $23,090 for two-door automatic; $23,690 for four-door, diesel automatic (tested)
DESTINATION CHARGE: $700
PRICE AS TESTED: $24,589
ENGINE: 2-liter, turbocharged and direct injection, diesel four-cylinder
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed Direct-Shift Gearbox automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway
TOP SPEED: 125 mph
LENGTH: 165.4 inches
WHEELBASE: 101.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,041 pounds
BUILT IN: Germany