How should you feel when a car that provides genuine pleasure is made by a company that lied to the world?
I love cars, and I love driving. But as someone who lives and works in one of the most car-unfriendly cities in the world (London) I gave up on ownership, for a while at least, two years ago. I know this might sound like heresy on here, but to be honest I got tired of paying ridiculous insurance, an exorbitant annual parking fee to my local council just to park outside my own home, and then a congestion charge whenever I wanted to drive into the city centre, which mostly involved sitting in terrible traffic anyway.
So, I took the difficult decision to give up my Audi A5, make more use of our genuinely excellent public transportation facilities and - shock horror - cycle to work every day. I’ve saved money, improved my fitness and, most of the time, I’ve not really missed having instant access to a car.
When I need a car, I hire one, and this has worked pretty well for the past couple of years. It’s given me the opportunity to try out a wide range of models, including BMW’s excellent 4 series, Audi’s solid and attractive A3, and Peugeot’s flawed yet still wonderful RCZ.
But, recently I’ve been seriously thinking about ownership again - I’m doing more and more photography, and lugging a lot of kit around doesn’t really work on the bus or tube... So, when I hire a car now, I also consider them as potential ownership prospects for the future.
Which brings us to my most recent rental. For the past 6 days I’ve been driving a VW Golf, the 1.6 TDi BlueMotion. This car has inspired conflicting emotions, most of which can be summed up with the following question: should the sins of the father be visited upon the son?
Before I try to decide what my answer, as a potential future VW customer, is to this hugely subjective question, it’s worth trying to do a slightly more objective assessment of the car itself.
The latest generation Golf is basically an ‘ok’ looking car from the outside. I find it kind of dull, but I think that’s the point. If you want a more shouty or ostentatious car, then VAG offers the Seat Leon and Audi A3 respectively. Golfs (apart from the GTi perhaps) have always been deliberately unobtrusive and this model is no different. This particular car had the bog-standard 15” alloys and halogen headlamps, both of which fitted in with it’s no-nonsense persona.
The interior is a genuinely pleasant place to be, although whoever from Avis specified this car’s options was clearly crazy. Who orders front and rear parking sensors, auto-folding wing mirrors, adaptive cruise control, but only a five-speed gearbox? Still, at least it was a manual, and a decent manual too. The shift is really smooth and the clutch is light, but with good feel.
Three pedals, but only five gears...
Of course there was no Sat-Nav. Because it’s a rental, and they still want you to hire their ridiculous Sat-Nav box that’s completely irrelevant now that most people have Google Maps on their phone… On this note, thank you VW for installing a USB connector. Seriously how can anyone - I’m looking at you Audi - get away with not including at least one USB connector in a new car in 2016?
The auto-hold electronic handbrake is the best I’ve ever experienced. It comes on and off seamlessly, never grabs (unlike the amazingly bad system on a Hyundai Santa Fe I suffered through a few months ago) and works really well with the Start-Stop system in traffic. Weirdly though, I noticed that the brake lights stay on when the auto-hold is engaged and you take your foot off the pedal. Seems odd to me - surely when you take your foot off the brake pedal the light should go off?
The 1.6 TDi is not a fast car. And when it’s cold it sounds pretty rattly too. Once warmed up though the 110hp diesel is fairly refined, and pulls pretty well. Use the gearbox properly and it’s reasonably nippy. The Golf handles nicely too. The taller tyres on the 15” wheels absorb the bumps pretty well. The car feels pleasantly neutral, with a decent amount of steering weight lending confidence through the twisty stuff. The brakes feel solid, and as I said, the electronic handbrake is the best I’ve encountered.
The Golf proves a comfortable place to be in. The seats are decently supportive, it’s really easy to find a good driving position and, after long journeys on both motorways and tight country roads I never felt too tired or sore. The interior looks and feels well constructed, the steering wheel is a beauty, and the standard stereo system sounds excellent, happily satisfying my childish need for more bass (no treble).
This Golf quietly grew on me during the time I had it. Of course, it’s not the kind of car to make your heart skip a beat when you walk up to it, or set the pulse racing when you get behind the wheel. But it kept on quietly, efficiently doing what I wanted it to do. It felt solid, dependable and with that tasteful interior and engaging driving experience, it was a pleasure to spend time in. It reminded me of the simple pleasure of driving, and of how easy it could be to grow to love a little car that does its job well.
But then I’d remember its parent company, and the enormous lie VAG has perpetrated on consumers, governments, hell all of us around the world. I’d look at that shiny badge in the centre of the steering wheel and I would think, no matter how good this individual car is, no matter how much it has impressed and grown on me over the past week, could I really invest in a marque that’s so tarnished?
For me, it’s a difficult question, and a real one as I plan to be back in the market in the near future. And of course, it’s not just about the Volkswagen brand. As a former Audi owner, I’m acutely aware this issue involves Audi too, as well as Seat and Skoda (I’m not quite in the Lamborghini, Bentley or Bugatti market just yet…).
Ultimately for this consumer, while VW continue to fudge the whole issue of ‘dieselgate’ I can’t consider spending my money on their product, no matter how good an individual car is. I really enjoyed my time with you little Golf, but your parents have ruined it for us.