Clearly, Volkswagen has an identity problem in North America. For the past few years, it hasn't been able to decide whether to call its best-selling compact a Golf or a Rabbit. The theory is that Volkswagen USA – under advice from its advertising agency – opted to use the Rabbit moniker because it felt that buyers down south would be more familiar with that name and gravitate to showrooms more readily. It sounded more "American" than Golf. So, a couple of years ago, it became the Rabbit in the States , the Rabbit/Golf in Canada, and the Golf everywhere else. This nomenclature waffling extended to the lively Golf GTi sport hatchback, which became known simply as the GTi, presumably to avoid any connections with Rabbit…..or something.
For 2010, the Golf has morphed yet again. It is now the Golf everywhere in the world….no more Rabbit, in other words, and its stablemate, the Jetta wagon, is now the Golf Wagon. Just to confuse things even more, the City Golf (the previous generation of Golf, sold only in Canada) will be offered here for 2010, but is probably headed for oblivion after that. Stay with me now; the Jetta sedan will carry on as before for the time being, but for Golf, it's a brand new ballgame. Apparently.
Throughout all the confusion, the Golf has remained a front-runner for Volkswagen, topping sales charts in Europe and elsewhere on a regular basis. Indeed, in places like Russia, Brazil, and China, it's selling better than ever, and is perennially one of the most popular cars in the world. In 2009, it was named as World Car Of The Year by a panel of automotive journalists from 22 different countries. For those who keep track of these things, Canada is Volkswagen's 14th largest market, and the company sold some 40,000 cars here last year, most of them Golfs/Rabbits.
On the receiving end of a restyling job for the upcoming model year, the Golf will be offered as a three or five-door hatchback, and the aforementioned wagon. It can be had with either a five cylinder gas engine, a turbodiesel, and, with the GTi, a turbocharged two litre four cylinder. These drivetrains remain essentially unchanged from last year.
Visually, the most noticeable change is the front end treatment, which VW of Canada product strategist, Edgar Oliver, calls the "new face of Volkswagen". Highlights include re-sculpted headlight clusters, and a grille re-do. All models also receive the silent treatment for 2010, with a new bonded windscreen, double-sealed windows, and an under-engine cover, all of which are designed to decrease drivetrain and NVH noise. The result is "the quietest Golf ever," according to Edgar Oliver. In the case of the GTi, it is a really quiet automobile, because the one I test-drove around Mont Tremblant race-track blew up and left me stranded. More on that in a bit.
Unchanged are typical Golf attributes, such as superior fuel economy, well above-average braking and handling, and interior ergonomics that are among the best in the industry. One of my favourite little interior goodies, a knackle seat-adjuster, has been retained in some models as well. A knackle is that wheel at the back of the seat bottom that allows you to infinitely adjust the seat back by dialing it forward or back. The vast majority of cars these days have a lever, or are electrically powered. Give me a knackle every time.
But I digress. All Golf hatchbacks and GTi models are built in Wolfsburg, Germany, while the Golf wagon emanates from Mexico. It is now officially the largest Golf VW has ever built, and, in TDI form, is the only diesel wagon sold in the compact market segment. Despite the name change, it's remarkably similar in feel and size to the discontinued Jetta wagon, and can be had with the five-banger or turbo-diesel…..depending upon the trim level. For reasons that are unclear, VW Canada will not offer the TDI drivetrain with its base models, and that includes the three-door hatchback and Trendline versions.
All things considered, the TDI combo is the most useable in this series, and in its previous incarnation as the Jetta, three-quarters of this model sold were equipped with this drivetrain. "Toyota gets all the publicity with their Prius," observed VW Group Canada president, John White at the vehicle launch in Montreal, "but we sell as many clean diesels in a month as they do."
Now, about that GTi. In all the time I've been writing about cars and on all the tracks I've spent time on – around the world – I've never had a car let go on me like this. In this case, we were a couple of hot laps into a five-lap jaunt around Tremblant, led by Indy Car/NASCAR driver, Patrick Carpentier, when some nasty smoke began to billow out of the engine bay, accompanied by a noise that can best be described as nuts and bolts being thrown into a blender. Onlookers say they could hear it back in the pits. Anyway, the car rolled to a stop halfway through the course and that was that. No word yet on what happened, but I suspect either a turbocharger meltdown or catastrophic engine failure. Volkswagen has promised to get back to me with what happened after they've had the chance to tear the engine down and trouble-shoot.