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The History of the Golf - Part III

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The History of the Golf - Part III

Post by VWVR6T on Sun Dec 21, 2008 8:29 pm

Fourth-Generation Golf: 1999-2005

After successfully launching both its standard-setting Passat and trend-setting New Beetle in '98, Volkswagen was on a roll coming into 1999. The big question was whether the all-new Golf (and its companion, the Jetta) could sustain that momentum.

"Smoother, more stylish, all-galvanized sheet metal offers rounder edges," we wrote on our first exposure to the fourth Golf, "with a freshened face and larger, more distinctive taillamp openings. The Golf is available as a base two-door GL, an uplevel four-door GLS or sporty two-door GTI in either GLS trim or a hot GLX package. This fourth-generation Golf is slightly wider and more than 3 inches longer than its predecessor, with the wheelbase stretched 1.5 inches to 98.9. This allows for a larger interior, better rear headroom and overall legroom, and nearly a foot more cargo space."

Base power remained the 2.0-liter SOHC four making a so-so 115 hp while a 1.9-liter turbodiesel (which VW had already offered in the Passat and New Beetle) joined the lineup making 90 hp. The VR6 returned in the GTI GLX (the GTI GLS stayed with the regular 2.0-liter engine) and was now rated at 174 hp and only available with the five-speed manual transmission.

In our full test of the two-door GTI GLX and four-door Golf GLS we found much to criticize. "I found the GLS' 2.0-liter four-banger to be rather unrefined in terms of operation," wrote our tester, "and lacking low-end punch when mated to the sluggish four-speed automatic transmission, despite the fact that peak torque is made at a relatively low 2,600 rpm. Midrange acceleration for passing or merging was adequate, but downshifts from the slushbox were exactly that slushy." Other criticisms included a lack of suspension tautness on both cars and ergonomic challenges that detracted from the interior's otherwise exceptional quality. Ultimately we concluded: "With improvement to interior ergonomics, a more sporting suspension and steering ratio for the GTI GLX, and slightly de-contented versions of both cars, Volkswagen would have landed the new Golf on the fairway, within chipping distance of the green. But as it stands, the new Golf is stuck deep in the rough."

We also tested the all-new '99 Cabrio (engineered following the familiar formula that roll bar was still there) with Editor in Chief Karl Brauer reporting, "What used to be the Rabbit-based Cabriolet has been transformed into the Golf-based Cabrio, resulting in a superior convertible in every way (with the exception of the goofy 'Cabrio' name itself)." But he also found the drivetrain less than enchanting. "The stock 2.0-liter inline four makes an uninspired 115 hp at 5,200 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm. This is fewer horsepower than any of the Cabrio's competitors (but three more pound-feet of torque than the Miata). When you consider how capable the Cabrio is in terms of handling and braking, it seems almost criminal that this car receives a measly 115 horses, while far less capable ragtops like the Toyota Celica and Chevy Cavalier get 130 and 150 hp, respectively. This engine heaves the five-speed Cabrio from zero to 60 mph in a belabored 10.8 seconds. That's one of the slowest convertible times we have on record. Only the automatic versions of the Miata and Celica convertible are slower."

With the redesign still fresh, the apparent changes to the Golf family for 2000 were scant. But the evolution of the species made some significant progress at midyear as the GTI GLS now came with VW's turbocharged, 20-valve, 1.8-liter, 150-hp four as standard equipment. The "1.8T" seemed a natural in the GTI. "The turbo four delivers just enough power to make the GTI entertaining," we wrote during our first drive, "and during our run from sea level to more than 6,000 feet, elevation changes barely fazed it. This means that in cities like Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake, the GTI should scream ahead of normally aspirated cars choking on the thin atmosphere."

We also found that the suspension had evolved. "Unlike previous versions we've driven, this particular GTI also displayed an uncanny tautness, thanks to the new sport suspension. Stiffer springs and shocks, combined with a thicker rear stabilizer bar, help to keep body motions in check. Only successive undulations upset the balance when traveling at speed on the freeway, and though body roll is still present, it's satisfactorily controlled, allowing the GTI to inspire confidence when pushing hard in canyons."

The Golf line continued into 2001 with few changes as the 1.8T engine became available throughout the range. In our comparison test of six sport coupes, the GTI GLS 1.8T finished a strong (and surprising) second. "When it comes to performance, however, the GTI is less dominant," wrote editor Brent Romans. "Its turbocharged engine, a 1.8-liter four, is the same size as the (180 hp) Celica's but huffs up just 150 hp at 5,800 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 2,200 rpm. On the street, the 150 hp is not as big a detriment as you might think. There is some turbo lag below 2,000 rpm, but once you're past that, power delivery is smooth and linear. Compared to the Celica's hyperactive 1.8-liter engine, which needs to be revved to the wee of its life to get maximum performance, the GTI is much calmer when it goes about its business."

"The GTI feels faster than it really is, however. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.5 seconds, and the quarter-mile arrives in a leisurely 16.5 seconds at 84.3 mph. There are more than a few family sedans out there that can embarrass the GTI at stoplights. It might be wise to wait until the 2002 GTIs arrive, as their 1.8-liter engines will feature a boost in power, from 150 to 180 hp."

That boost in power arrived for 2002 on schedule and gave the Golf some needed gloss as its allure faded with age. The 2.8-liter VR6 was also revised to thump its torque-rich output up to a full 200 hp. A limited-edition "GTI 337" based on the 25th Anniversary GTI sold in Europe was also issued and featured 18-inch BBS wheels, a lowered suspension, a six-speed manual transmission, oversize brakes, Recaro seats, aluminum pedals, special trim and a "retro" GTI badge. Only 1,750 337s were made, none had sunroofs and all were painted silver. Why was it called "337"? Because VW's code name for the original GTI was "EA337."

The Cabrio was dropped at the end of the '02 model year as it was effectively replaced by the New Beetle Convertible.

During the 2003 model year, VW celebrated the 20th anniversary of the GTI in the United States with, you guessed it, a 20th-anniversary edition of the GTI. Essentially a slightly redecorated 337 with badges that evoked the classic Rabbit logo from the first American GTI, it seemed an appropriate 4,000-unit send-off for the Golf.

But what seems to be true is sometimes trumped by something unexpected. In the fourth-generation Golf's case that was the all-wheel-drive R32 introduced as a 2004 model. "Based on the aging Golf platform," reported Ed Hellwig in our road test, "the decked-out R32 gets a long list of upgrades that allow it to compete in a league dominated by Subaru's WRX and Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution. At the top of that list is the installation of a next-generation 3.2-liter VR6 engine that not only gives the R32 its name, it also adds a serious boost in power over the 2.8-liter VR6 found in the top-of-the-line GTI."

"Producing 240 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque, the new VR6 is not only larger in displacement it also uses an upgraded intake and exhaust system to get the increased volume of air moving in and out more quickly. The result is not only more power, but more power across a broader range of engine speeds, as this VR6 develops its peak torque between 2,800 and 3,200 rpm."

Comprehensively equipped and, unlike every other Golf in the U.S. range, made in Germany, the R32 was nowhere near cheap (pricing started at $29,100). But it was also an exciting car to drive and wasn't a boy-racer as much as a sophisticated road machine in Golf clothes. "So is it all worth it? As usual, it depends on what you're expecting. Buyers looking for an ultraquick street machine that answers to no one will be disappointed. Go head-to-head with an Evo or WRX STi and you'll get smoked. The R32 wasn't built to beat them and it won't."

The rest of the Golf line carried though the year intact and practically unchanged and will do so into 2005. But a new Golf and GTI are coming.

Fifth-Generation Golf: 2006

As this is written, the fifth-generation Golf has gone on sale in Europe but production at VW's Puebla facility for North American consumption is still months away. But what we get here will only differ from what they're getting there in detail.

The next Golf is significantly updated but still recognizable as a Golf. That means it's still front-wheel driven, still uses a conventional MacPherson strut front suspension and still offered in two- and four-door hatchback body styles. The wheelbase now stretches to a full 101.5 inches, and the base power plant is likely to be a new 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine making 150 hp (Golfs in Europe come with a range of diesel and naturally aspirated fours as well). The GTI will have a new 200-hp, 2.0-liter version of the turbocharged 20-valve four featuring direct gasoline injection coupled to a six-speed manual transmission.

During 2002 the 21,517,415th Golf was produced and the Golf passed the Beetle as the most produced model in VW history. The fifth-generation Golf will only extend that lead because, unlike Wells and the Four Fays, the Golf is a legend in its own right.

VWVR6T

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