It was always going to be an intriguing car. Like the Beetle before it, the Volkswagen Golf is a car whose place in both car culture and wider society transcends the marketing intentions of its creators. There are Golf clubs, Golf magazines, Golf specialists. No rival car has such a strong identity.
The first Golf was made for nine years (a version of it is still built in South Africa). The second had a similar production life, but the third, visually flabby after the confident cut of the first two, was made for just six years. The styling on the fourth is crisp and sharp - almost a caricature of what makes a Golf look like a Golf. Its VW badges are bigger than any Beastie Boys' fan ever plundered. The rear side pillar is as thick as ever, but now framed into a styling feature by a bold pair of zig-zag cut-lines, and big, round wheel-arches filled by uncommonly large wheels.
Inside, the familiar meets the new. There's none of the claustrophobic coal-holeness of the Golf Mk2. Nor does the dashboard bulge in front of you as it did in the Mk3, but the surface textures and feeling of solid quality are as comfortably ahead of rivals' efforts as ever. This time, we have soft-feel finishes on many normally hard plastic mouldings, cloth trim where others are vinyl-clad (the windscreen pillars, for example), and a low-set dashboard whose top extends far forward to the base of a laid-back windscreen. The waistline is low, too, all making for a light, airy cabin.
Neat touches abound. There are pop-out pairs of cup-holders front and rear, and a rear ashtray closed off by a pair of quarter-cylindrical covers which clamp together clam-fashion, and the instruments are backlit in eerie blue by night. The firm front seats are height-adjustable by means of a pump-action ratcheting lever; the steering wheel can be adjusted in and out as well as up and down; and - thank goodness - the stereo system is Volkswagen's own, not the fiddly Sony set inflicted on UK Volkswagen buyers.
A passenger airbag is standard; side airbags are optional. The brakes have both anti-lock system and automatic electronic regulation of the braking effort required by each wheel, and the rear seats incorporate the Isofix system for attaching a child seat. If fate has lined you up for a crash, the Golf is a good car to have it in.
Engines range from a 1.4-litre unit to a 2.3-litre motor, with five cylinders arranged in a V. In between come two 1.8-litre, 20-valve engines (one for the GTI and a turbo-charged version for the GTI Plus), a pair of TDI turbo-diesels, and a 100bhp 1.6, as fitted to the well-equipped Golf SE you see here. Nowadays it has a variable-resonance inlet system, improving its pulling power at low speeds, and is mainly made of weight-saving aluminium.
Not exactly a state-of-the-art engine, it pulls the Golf along sufficiently briskly to stave off a craving for more muscle power. It can get a little raucous if you work it hard, but most of the time it's sweet enough. The clutch bites annoyingly far up the pedal's arc of movement, though.
The standard tyre size, even for this up-range SE, is an unfashionably podgy 175/80 R14. These balloon-like tyres give a supple ride over sharp bumps - no Golf has travelled more smoothly - but squeal embarrassingly easily if you take a corner with gusto. Keen drivers will prefer the optional alloy wheels with 195/65 R15 tyres. Either way, the Golf feels safe and solidly planted on a twisty road, but seldom stodgy. French rivals string bends together more fluidly, though, and are more fun to drive.
But none of them is as well made or finished, or has as strong a personality. A Golf has always seemed like a family friend, and the new one is as faithful as ever. And to back up the faith, you get a three-year warranty and the galvanised body has a 12-year guarantee against disintegration. Just what you need for a long-term relationship.
Price: pounds 14,820. Engine: 1,595cc, 4 cylinders, 8 valves, 100bhp at 5,600rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 117mph, 0-60 in 10.9sec, 32-37mpg.
Audi A3 1.6: pounds 14,825. Three-door body, prestigious badge, but underneath it's almost identical to the Golf, and inside it's more sparsely equipped.
Citroen Xsara 1.6i SX: pounds 13,720. Cheaper than Golf and more fun through corners, but slower and not nearly as pleasing to look at or sit in.
Fiat Brava 1.6 ELX: pounds 13,748. Eye-catching, lively, well equipped, but lumpy over bumps. Thick pillars and narrow rear window impede the view out.
Peugeot 306 1.6 GLX: pounds 14,145. Supple over bumps, sharp through bends, uncommonly good-looking, but not particularly quick, and feels cheap inside.
Renault Megane 1.6 RXE: pounds 13,965. Interior is full of hard plastics, but oval-themed Renault looks intriguing, is comfortable and fun to drive.Reuse content