VW Golf CL
Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Haney Louka

A question of value

The new-for-2003 Golf CL attempts to define the answer to a truly subjective question: what makes a car a good value?

Looking at the economy segment of the market, it seems that automakers subscribe to one of two possible ideologies: “maximum refinement” or “lots of bells and whistles.”

For 2003, the new Golf CL attempts to belong to both camps. While it succeeds admirably at the former, adding all of the desirable bells and whistles tends to decrease the value quotient compared with other entries in the segment.

With the possible exception of styling, value is one of the most subjective – and therefore difficult-aspects of a new vehicle to evaluate. And that’s particularly true in the more hotly contested areas of the market, such as the heavily populated economy segment to which this $17,950 Golf CL belongs.

What’s in and what’s extra

VW Golf CL

VW Golf CL

VW Golf CL

VW Golf CL

VW Golf CL
Click image to enlarge

It’s interesting that I happened to drive the Hyundai Elantra GT right before getting behind the wheel of the Golf, as the prices of the two hatchbacks are within a few hundred dollars of each other, but they seem to be polar opposites in their execution. The Elantra was equipped with leather seats, sunroof, alloy wheels, CD player, and just about every other goody that can be had in this class. The Golf? Well, it had air conditioning.

So at first glance, the Golf CL may seem low on amenities. But look a little deeper, and the standard equipment list includes a few surprises: fully galvanized metal; 15-inch tires with a full-size spare; anti-theft engine immobilizer; map lights all around; illuminated visor mirrors on both sides; eight-speaker stereo; rear cargo cover; and more.

And thankfully there’s little question that safety is at the forefront of VW designers’ priorities: standard on the CL are front and side airbags and four wheel disc brakes with anti-lock.

Then there are the little things that make this sub-$20K vee-dub feel more expensive than it is: the damped motion of the grab handles and glove box door, funky blue and red backlighting throughout the dash, chrome interior accents, and top quality materials that would be at home in any Audi. Outside, there’s little to differentiate this entry model from ones costing almost twice as much. In fact, one could replace the standard 15-inchers with a set of larger alloys and fool just about everybody into believing it’s a $30,000 car.

The Golf CL offers some options to please those looking for more comfort and safety: the aforementioned air conditioning, automatic transmission, CD player, stability control, and side curtain airbags. It’s impressive that such leading edge active and passive safety features can be had on this model, as many manufacturers don’t even offer them as options in cars below a certain price point.

Call me spoiled, but I had trouble getting used to the manual-locking doors on this Golf. It’s not that I’m too lazy to reach across the car and unlock the other doors. Well, actually, I am. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. In this car the only way to unlock them from inside is by pulling on the door latch. So unlocking the right rear door from the driver’s seat is a manoeuvre that would make a contortionist blush. My other niggle has to do with the rear liftgate: it has an exterior handle, which is a good thing. But the lack of an interior release means that to get something out of the back, the engine has to be turned off and the key used to unlock the hatch.

The Driving Experience

This is where the Golf’s refinement really makes itself known. Well weighted steering is felt through the tilt-and-telescoping wheel. Braking, courtesy of discs all around, is confident and sure. And the clutch and shifter go together like salmon maki and wasabi.

The Golf’s 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine has been a staple of VW models for years. It’s a torquey motor that revs smoothly, but it’s not especially quiet or sporty in carrying out its business. Output numbers measure 115 hp at 5,200 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,600 rpm. While the horse headcount is low, this motor’s torque curve is quite robust: most competitors’ torque peaks are in the 4,000-rpm range. The result on the road is a car that feels more powerful than the numbers suggest. Volkswagen’s official performance figures for 0-60 mph (97 km/h) is 10.4 seconds.

Ride quality, while not a strength of more expensive Golfs and Jettas in their respective classes because of the short 99-inch wheelbase, is very good when compared with other cars that command approximately $20K. Bumps are soaked up and suitably diluted by the time they reach the passengers, and control of body motions is acceptable if a little on the soft side.

I always make a subjective measurement of road noise on my test vehicles, and I’ve found the perfect location: Winnipeg’s Academy Road. The worn concrete surface is just the right texture to cause reverberations throughout the passenger compartments of many cars. But the Golf’s intrinsic refinement came through here, allowing only a distant rumble inside the cabin.

Transport Canada rates fuel consumption in the Golf CL at a class-average 9.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.8 on the highway.

To Sum It Up

If value to you is bells and whistles and features for the money, then this Golf will probably not do the trick. More options can clearly be had elsewhere for less dough. But if it’s the refinement and joy of driving that are intrinsically designed into this Golf CL that represent value to you, I strongly suggest you take one for a spin.

Shopping Around

While the market is flush with new four door hatches, the Golf has been a fixture in VW’s Canadian lineup since the Rabbit left in 1984. Some of these newcomers include:

  • Ford Focus ZX5 ($21,260)
  • Hyundai Elantra GT ($18,495)
  • Mazda Protégé5 ($19,895)

Technical Data: 2003 VW Golf CL

Base price $17,950
Price as tested $19,245
Type 4-door, 5-passenger hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre inline-4, SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder
Horsepower 115 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 122 lb-ft. @ 2,600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires P195/65HR-15 all-season
Curb weight 1,296 kg (2,857 lb)
Wheelbase 2,511 mm (98.9 in.)
Length 4,189 mm (164.9 in.)
Height 1,439 mm (56.7 in.)
Trunk capacity 18 cu. ft. (41.8 cu. ft. with rear seat folded)
Fuel consumption City: 9.7 L/100 km (29 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
  Hwy:.8 L/100 km (42 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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