2003 Volkswagen Golf GTI VR6
2003 Volkswagen Golf GTI VR6. Photo: Russell Purcell
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By Jeremy Cato

This past February Volkswagen AG mishandled an issue with faulty ignition coils and that gave the latest generation Volkswagen Golf something of an undeserved black eye. VW voluntarily recalled some 850,000 VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda cars globally – primarily 2001 and 2002 model cars with four-cylinder, turbocharged 1.8-litre engines – because the insulation material of the coils led to the plastic becoming brittle, which in turn could result in spark plug failure. This has proven to be a particular issue in cold climates.

The greatest challenge for VW has been to get enough replacement parts from the tiny German company (Bremi Auto-Elektrik) which supplies the coils. With not enough parts immediately on hand, some owners have had to wait for repairs. Waiting is not popular in our time-starved 21st-century world.

Coil issues aside, there is much to like about the Golf which was last completely restyled and re-engineered for the 1999 model year. (An all-new Golf is going on sale in Europe this fall and will come to North America next year.)

The Golf has a high-quality feel for a car in its price class. The handling is nimble, the ride comfortable and quiet. Pop the hood or dig around under the rear hatch and you’ll find a compact that is very nicely finished.

These features were reflected in a new survey of thousands of owners by the research firm Strategic Vision. The Golf finished first in the 2003 Total Quality Awards, with a score of 885 – compared to the compact segment average of 864. The research firm J.D. Power and Associates rates the Golf slightly above average for overall quality. However, Consumer Reports in its latest 2003 auto issue does not recommend the Golf, saying “reliability has fallen off.”

What this column’s research has found since the 1999 model arrived is a handful of Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) pointing to a few service issues and just two safety recalls of note (see Buyer’s Alerts). So based on the total picture, looking at all the quality and pricing research available, I’d argue that a used Golf should prove to be a pretty decent car.

Certainly nearly-new Golfs seem to be holding their value well. As always with a used car, a mechanical inspection is a must.

The 99-and-newer Golfs (two- and four-door hatchback) are nice looking automobiles, less boxy than their predecessors. In driving, the Golf feels tight. Part of that is because of the sturdy chassis and part is also the result of the thick, durable materials VW has used – not to mention the thin, precise gaps between body panels. When test driving a used Golf, expect a ride free of squeaks, rattles and groans. The critical element there is a very solid body structure, one very well engineered.

During its run, the most recent version of the Golf has been offered with a 1.9-litre I4 TDI diesel (90 hp but 155 foot-pounds of torque), a 2.0-litre gas engine (115-122 hp), a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (150-180 hp) and even a 172-200 horsepower V6.

If fuel economy is vitally important, the TDI is very, very good – state-of-the-art for diesels in cars. If performance matters most, go for the V6.

Personally, I feel the V6-powered cars are the ones to have. This is a solid little engine, with lots of guts from the get-go. The base four-banger is another story. To be kind, it’s simply anaemic. As for the diesel, the astonishingly good fuel economy numbers are matched by very good torque output. I’m reluctant to recommend the turbo because it has more parts and there is always the potential for heat issues associated with turbocharging.

Regardless, all Golfs from this era come with four-wheel disc brakes for excellent stopping power, at least 15-inch wheels for good road grip, a telescoping steering column, height-adjustable driver and passenger seat and power door locks with remote entry.

In recent years most automakers have offered deep discounts and generous incentives on their products. VW hasn’t, and that means used car prices have held up quite well. So you’ll be hard-pressed to find a great used bargain out there. On the other hand, anything you buy will hold onto its value relatively well.

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