Volkswagen Golf 90 TSI

words - Stephen Ottley
It may be the entry-level model but this new turbo Golf still packs a punch

Volkswagen Golf 90 TSI

Road Test

RRP: $25,990
Price as tested: $27,890
(includes sunroof $1900)
Crash rating: Five-star ANCAP
Fuel: 98 RON
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 6.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 149
Also consider: Mazda3 Neo (more here), Ford Focus CL (more here), Toyota Corolla Ascent, Hyundai i30 SX (more here)

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.5/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.0/5.0
X-factor: 4.0/5.0

About our ratings

As the owner of a Mk V Golf this was a most keenly anticipated road test. It was a chance to see what progress had been made since I laid down my own cash and see just how far Volkswagen's iconic hatch has come in the intervening time.

Having previously sampled a version of the same 1.4-litre turbocharged TSI engine in the Audi A3 Sportback (more here) how that engine transferred to the Golf was the most intriguing element. That's largely because the biggest disappointment/frustration in my own Golf is the lacklustre performance of the 1.6-litre naturally-aspirated four.

Fuel economy was one of the biggest considerations when my wife and I purchased the car and on that front it has lived up to its side of the bargain. Its lack of low-end punch, however, has become increasingly frustrating during our time with the car -- and left me yearning for the 2.0-litre variant on more than one occasion.

But the first thing I noticed about the new engine was just how quiet it was. Coming to a stop while exiting a driveway the engine noise almost completely disappears -- almost as if VW has employed start/stop technology. The company hasn't but instead has managed to produce an incredibly refined engine for this class of car.

It doesn't take long for the new powerplant to reveal its true party piece though -- torque and plenty of it.

On paper the new engine has a 52Nm advantage (and a 16kW improvement, over the 1.6) and you can feel every one of those Newton-metres. With the full quota of 200Nm on tap from as low as 1500rpm there is an almost instant urge from the engine -- exactly what the old 1.6 lacked. Not only that, but the engine has a great raspy 'note' when you give it some revs.

That though is the major highlight of the new Golf. The rest of the car feels very similar to the Mk V. Volkswagen's team of engineers and designers has changed almost every aspect of the car but only in very subtle ways. Given there was nothing especially wrong with the old car this tactic makes a lot of sense, but it means the new car lacks the impact you expect from a new generation model.

Picking the changes requires paying special attention.

The interior has been refined with new soft-touch materials now used more extensively. The new three-spoke steering wheel is an upgrade over the old four-spoke example and the dash has been freshened too.

One of the more notable changes is the new stereo and air-conditioning controls. The stereo is now easier to use (my own car still baffles me sometimes with its seemingly random controls!) and looks nicer. New air-con dials give the cabin a more sophisticated feel as well.

Not every change is for the better, however... One of our favourite features on our car is the storage tray that sits atop the centre console but it has been deleted on the new model. On the flipside the door pockets are lined now which is one of several nice little touches that combine to give the interior a better feeling of quality.

But in order to offer all these upgrades and a similar price to the old model, something had to give. In the case of the 90 TSI that means Hankook tyres which simply do not feel anywhere remotely as good as the Michelins fitted as standard on the Mk V. Yes, the Michelin tyres are more expensive (something that has led to some hefty service bills during our ownership) but tyres are not an area in which to cut corners in this author's opinion.

A run through a series of sweeping bends and a moderate but in no way excessive speed had the Golf sliding around on what felt like the limit of the Hankook rubber. Not only does this leave you feeling less safe it also limits the otherwise impressive Golf chassis. [Ed's note: the cars at the Golf VI's international launch (here) wore Continental rubber almost exclusively.]

And that is a crime because it remains one of the best chassis in the hatch segment. It is a genuinely fun and enjoyable car to drive; not something that all its rivals can lay claim to. The steering is well balanced, the brakes are good and the car feels solid on the road.

One major difference between the two specifications of Golf was the gearbox. My Mk V runs the six-speed automatic while our test car was fitted with the six-speed manual. While the old auto is a good gearbox the new model is available with an optional seven-speed DSG.

If you prefer to swap your own cogs, then the VW manual is a great choice. It has a nice smooth action and sharp feel which makes it a pleasure to use.

Perhaps the most significant change for the new car is nothing about the car itself but where it is built. My Mk V came out of South Africa and lived up to the disappointing quality reports that emerged at the time of launch. Servicing has been expensive and the car has chewed through consumables at a steady rate.

The last two routine services have cost over $1000 each which is something to seriously consider when buying a small car. The new Golf is built in Germany again and VW is quietly hoping quality will benefit from the move.

If I was to upgrade to a new Golf I'd be happy with the 90 TSI but not without a new set of better rubber. While you can argue that all the small changes add up to a worthwhile update, it's still not enough to have me rushing to my local VW dealer.

That said, the 90 TSI is worth serious consideration for hatch buyers -- with the latest entry-level model, Golf remains one of the best, if not the best, performers in its class.

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Published : Wednesday, 13 May 2009
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