Motors: Volkswagen Golf is a rough ride

Volkswagen’s car of the year isn’t quite flawless, finds Frederic Manby

TODAY we, or at least I, praise the Volkswagen Golf. This family hatchback (and saloon/estate/convertible siblings) is one of the most successful cars of the past 40 years. The latest hatchback has just been voted the European Car of The Year (aka COTY) for 2013. The decision was delivered by media judges at the Geneva Motor Show. This actually should read COTY 2012 because all the eligible cars had to be on sale in 2012. Fiat group products have won most COTY awards since the inception in 1964, won by the Rover 2000.

Despite gloomy financial news, most car­makers still manage a megastar launch for ­important models. California is popular with Bentley, Audi and cash-strapped Aston Martin. The media critics perceived as most important can command bespoke, tailored, all expenses paid sorties to drive a new car. Frankly, you do not need to burn a year’s worth of heating oil to go to California or Australia to drive a car made in Crewe or Ingoldstadt. It smacks of undue freebyism.

European and home country launches are the norm for most new cars. In October Volkswagen took several hundred media people to Sardinia for the “international” launch of this new Golf. It was a 24-hour programme by private jets, staying at a magnificent luxury hotel where the lawns ran down past lagoon swim pools, an open-sided gym with muscle-boggling machines, onwards to a cove and private beach. Diving platforms bobbed in the sea. On the way, on a plinth in one of the pools, was the Golf.

By this time I had already driven the car for an hour or so from the airport to a Michelin standard meal at the hotel. I could have continued driving after lunch but spent the rest of the day in the sea and talking to VW experts. There was nothing else these well-surfaced Sardinian roads and curves could tell me about the Golf. I wrote: “It is the most impressive new car at any price I have driven this year.”

There was always the proviso, the threat to its composure from the rotten, unkempt, truck-crushed, frost-pitted roads of Britain. The other week I found out that the Golf, while still endowed with the qualities already praised, has rear suspension unable to mollify the rotten roads.

Prices start at £16,285 for the 1.2 TSI petrol three-door. My test car was the 1.6, 104bhp SE with five doors and five manual gears, and an on-road price of £20,500. This modern diesel engine is also used in the Audi A3 and the 2013 Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon – all of which share a newly introduced, common to all front-wheel-drive architecture. This saves loads of money in design time and stock.

It also removes some of the pecking order of the marques. Audi still holds the posher ground with better interior trim, followed by the Golf and then a sort of tie between Skoda and Seat. Price gaps have narrowed and give customers the choice of, say, an entry trim A3 or a mid-trim Octavia.

If you could do the equivalent of a blindfold wine tasting (which exposes many a wine buff accustomed to knowing what they are tasting) and drive each car you may find the differences are negligible. After all, they are two pairs of twins.

This will read as a snub to the Golf but I have already decided what may be my first new car since I bought a Citroen Dyane 40 years ago. It is the estate version of the Octavia, which arrives soon. I can get a sub 100g/km diesel for less than £19,000. Yes, there will be a Golf estate but it will cost more.

My factory demo Golf was rated at 61.4mpg urban, a massive 85.6 mpg extra urban and an overall 74.3mpg, with an average 99g/km CO2. As you might expect, I saw nothing like those figures on the trip computer. «

Verdict: Exemplar of a solid, quiet, safe, enjoyable and conservatively styled hatchback.