REVIEW DATE: 16 Jan 2009
Volkswagen's turbocharged TSI technology could help us see small petrol engines in a new light. Steve Walker reports.
A 1.4-litre family hatchback was once something to be avoided by all but those on the tightest of budgets. Residing near the foot of the model range, the car would come with a paucity of equipment and buyers would be lucky if it could muster 75bhp when they stamped on the throttle. Today, things have changed and a small capacity engine no longer means small performance. Volkswagen's 1.4-litre TSI engines are well capable of giving the Golf family hatch some bite.
The turbocharger used to be viewed as a somewhat crude way of extracting extra performance from an engine. Not so long ago, cubic capacity was the preferred route for the purists who'd take a big V6 over a turbocharged four-cylinder unit every day of the week - and a huge V8 over that. All of this was before efficiency became the watchword in the car industry and mpg replaced mph as the public's motoring acronym of choice. These days, the turbo has been reinvented as a high-tech method of achieving the twin goals of economy and performance from smaller engines. Volkswagen's 1.4-litre TSI units are a prime example of the turbocharger in its new role.
As often seems to be the case with Volkswagen engine designations, everything is not as it seems with the TSI powerplants. The basic option is the 120bhp 1.4 TSI engine which employs a sophisticated turbocharger to achieve maximum torque of 200Nm from 1,500rpm all the way to 4,000rpm. This equates to a smooth flow of pulling power through the rev range that's a long way from the all or nothing approach of older turbocharged units. The 0-60mph sprint takes 9.5s with this model but for a few more pounds, it's possible to step up to the 158bhp 1.4 TSI engine which can do the time trial in 8.0s. Despite the same TSI branding, this engine actually has a turbocharger and a supercharger. The supercharger works at low revs while the turbo gets up to speed, producing a similarly progressive power delivery to that of the lesser engine.
"The Volkswagen Golf is back to its very best in sixth generation guise and the 1.4-litre TSI engines are a major contributing factor"
The silky way in which the 1.4 TSI engines go about their business fits well with the wider Golf package. Volkswagen's engineers have achieved major improvements in refinement for this sixth generation car, noticeably cutting cabin noise levels and the suspension serves up a comfortable ride that's just firm enough to encourage drivers who enjoy a briskly taken corner. The 1.4 TSI engines come with a six speed manual gearbox as standard but there's also the option of Volkswagen's clever DSG twin-clutch system. It allows drivers to flick up and down the seven gears instantly with the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters or slot into fully automatic mode for a more relaxed experience.
The front end styling treatment of the MkVI Golf was first seen on the Scirocco coupe and its horizontal lines serve to make the car appear wider, lower and more planted on the road. Break out the tape measure and you'll discover that this is not merely a stylistic illusion with the latest car being 27mm wider and 34mm lower than the MkV. At the rear, the light clusters have also been stretched width ways and the bumper is predominantly body-coloured for a classier look but from whichever angle you approach it, the car couldn't be anything but a Golf.
Inside, the dash design is more of an eye-opener. The instruments are tastefully designed with obvious Audi influences and illuminate in crisp white light. The controls function with typical efficiency and the plastics quality is hard to fault compared to the Golf's family hatch rivals. Some might find the cabin lacking a spark of originality but it's certainly got an abundance of class and the execution is hard to fault. Rear legroom is adequate for tall adults so long as the front seats aren't pushed right back on their runners and a boot of 350-litres ensures the Golf's competitiveness on practicality grounds. Fold the rear seats and 1,305 litres is made available.
There are three or five-door bodystyles with the standard hatch, plus a more versatile Golf Plus variant and an estate model. The Golf trim levels offer few surprises. The 120bhp TSI engine is available with S or Match trim but you'll need to climb up to GT trim in order to get the 158bhp unit. Standard equipment includes body-coloured bumpers, door handles and mirrors plus twin exhaust pipes, ensuring that even base models look impressively upmarket. Semi-automatic air-conditioning is also standard as is speed sensitive power steering, remote central locking, seven airbags, ESP stability control, traction control and Volkswagen's Electronic Differential Lock system. At the GT level, there's 17" alloy wheels and various chrome highlights dotted around the bodywork. The seats are finished in Alcantara and there's sports suspension that rides 15mm lower for a junior GTI effect.
Volkswagen has loaded the Golf with high end gadgetry. The ParkAssist system promises that you'll never have to parallel park again as it can automatically steer you into a road side space. It works, but it might take a few practice runs before you're comfortable operating the pedals while the wheel twirls away autonomously in front of you. Less spooky are the rear view parking camera and the DVD touchscreen navigation system which is very easy to use but the ADC Automatic Distance Control, operates in a similarly disconcerting vein. Here, you engage cruise control and the car uses radar technology to maintain a set distance to the vehicle in front, braking itself if it gets too close. There's even Adaptive Chassis Control that lets you choose Sport, Comfort or Normal suspension settings on the fly.
The turbo was once primarily viewed as an aid to performance but by marrying the latest forced induction technology to a smaller petrol engine, it can produce eye-opening economy figures. The Golf's 120bhp 1.4 TSI engine can return 45.6mpg on the combined cycle which is better than the 79bhp 1.4-litre engine that opens the Golf range. Emissions of 144g/km also look strong for a 120bhp hatch and both economy and emissions can be improved further by the fitting of the DSG gearbox. The same is true of the 158bhp 1.4 TSI engine which despite performance that eclipses the MKIV Golf GTI, can return 44.8mpg with 145g/km emissions.
The Golf isn't cheap to buy when viewed in comparison to its family hatchback rivals but its inherent desirability and classless image make it a favourite with used car buyers and residual values trump those of the other cars in its class. For buyers taking a longer term view, the Golf makes sound financial sense.
Turbocharging was once a viewed as little more than a crude way of going quickly but the latest technology hints that it could be the future in small petrol-powered cars. Volkswagen's 1.4-litre TSI engines achieve powerful performance with levels of economy that you wouldn't have expected from a diesel engine in the past. In today's Golf, they do sterling work, contributing to its refinement and classy driving experience, and they'll have some buyers questioning whether a diesel model is really necessary after all.
The Volkswagen Golf is back to its very best in sixth generation guise and the 1.4-litre TSI engines are a major contributing factor to this. Volkswagen hasn't changed too much but by making valuable improvements across the board and introducing some advanced technology, it's set the Golf up as the family hatchback to beat once more.
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