Successive versions of VW’s 30-year-old Golf have not always been the fastest, best-handling and best-equipped, and certainly not the cheapest C-segment hatches, but when the inevitable ‘distant relative is looking for a new small car and wonders what you’d recommend’ question rears its head in an Autocar household, it’s the Golf that invariably wins out.
That combination of desirability, reliability and the promise of residuals firmer than a Hollywood starlet’s chest, was usually enough to put it ahead of its more athletic rivals in our estimations, and the much-improved Mk5 Golf has only cemented its position as best private buy.
But if the Golf is – for the moment – the best hatch on sale, which one should that random relative buy? Probably not the 1.4-litre petrol or 2.0-litre SDi, which most drivers could find a little pedestrian and are only available in basic S trim. Nor the 2.0-litre FSI petrol or 2.0-litre TDi diesel which, while quick and frugal, will cost the wrong side of £18k in five-door form.
That leaves the 1.6 FSI and 1.9 TDi. You’ll save £890 up front choosing the car that sips from the petrol pump, but its engine is slightly coarse, like so many direct-injection units, and its inferior fuel consumption and fractionally lower residuals will soon eat into that initial saving.
Unlike the bigger 2.0 TDi, the smaller diesel sticks with the old eight-valve engine, but has cleaned up its act enough to meet Euro4 emissions standards, which means it’s exempt from the three per cent company car tax loading. Just 104bhp and 184lb ft isn’t huge by modern turbodiesel standards so progress is less than startling, but there’s more than enough urge to cope with most situations and the wonderfully even spread of torque and a five-speed-only ’box makes it a relaxing car to pilot. More so on the standard 15-inch wheels and corresponding 195/65 tyres, which soak up the imperfections that sports springs, 17s and low-profiles allow through, although there’s an inevitable pay-off in grip and body control.
At over £16,000 for the SE, it’s not cheap or fast, but it is incredibly sensible. Then again, for £150 less you could have the Seat Leon TDi Cupra.