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1996 volkswagen golf review



Pro: Excellent road manners, roomy interior, fun to drive.

What’s New: Last year's two-door Golf Sport and GTI VR6 models become a separate nameplate called simply the GTI. Meanwhile, Volkswagen trims down the remaining Golf lineup, leaving only the four-door GL hatchback for 1996. Upgrades include a smoother shifting automatic transmission, new cloth upholstery, the addition of a glovebox, retractor locking seatbelts (for more secure child-seat installation), easier-to-use height adjustment for the front belts, a central locking switch on the dash and a warning tone to remind you that you've left the headlights on. Additionally, VW removes the Roman numeral "III" designation from the Golf's exterior badging and adds Catalina Blue as an exterior color.

Review: The Golf is the descendant of the wondercar that started the econobox trend in the U.S. In 1975, Volkswagen introduced the Rabbit to Americans (elsewhere, this car was known as the Golf). Stubby and blocky in style, the Rabbit was inexpensive, fun to drive, and sipped fuel. Unfortunately, it also broke down, rusted quickly, and cost more than most were willing to pay to maintain. A switch to production in the United States doomed the Rabbit, and VW finally replaced it with an all-new hatchback -- this time bearing the Golf name -- in 1985.

The Golf was similarly stubby and blocky in style, inexpensive, fun to drive and sipped fuel. It too broke, rusted and cost extra to maintain. VW aficionados swore by them, though, claiming that once you found a mechanic who could fix one properly, VW ownership was like a cool club that only the automotively astute wanted to join.

Great for aficionados, but Volkswagen needed a broader customer base to keep afloat in the States. The third-generation Golf is stubby and blocky in style. It is fun to drive. It sips fuel, though not as frugally as it should. It is affordable. It is also supposed to dispel reliability fears by offering a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain, which VW advertises heavily. Since its arrival in 1993, we haven't heard any horror stories about maintenance costs, breakdowns or rust, so maybe this Golf will do the trick for Volkswagen.

Then again, VW must contend with a U.S. market that historically, at least, has dismissed hatchbacks as bargain-basement vehicles. However, Volkswagen sales have been on the upswing since the car was introduced, and VW management is beginning to pay closer attention to the desires of American consumers.

For 1996, VW splits its hatchback ranks into distinct Golf and GTI lineups; last year's two-door Golf Sport and GTI VR6 go to the performance-oriented GTI side, while the four-door GL hatchback remains on the practical Golf side. The Golf GL is powered by the familiar 2.0-liter inline four that manages 115 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy isn't great for an economy car -- the Golf is rated at 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway with a manual and 22/28 with an automatic.

In mid-1995, Volkswagen promised that Golf buyers would have another engine choice for 1996 -- a 1.9-liter Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) diesel four-cylinder capable of delivering nearly 50 mpg on the highway, along with considerably more low-end power. However, this engine option was delayed, and TDI models weren't readily available to U.S. buyers until the Golf was redesigned midway through the 1999 model year.

Standard features in the Golf GL include dual front airbags, power locks, an alarm system, height adjustable seatbelts, 14-inch wheels, a 60/40-split folding rear seat (yielding 41 cubic feet of cargo space) and a rear window wiper and defroster. New this year are a glovebox, retractor locking seatbelts (so you can get your kids' car seats snugged down more securely) and a central locking switch. Features that most people are sure to want, like air conditioning, a stereo with a cassette player (and eight speakers) and antilock brakes, are all on the options list, along with luxuries like a CD changer and power moonroof.

Our experience has shown that the Golf would be a rewarding car to own and drive. Though not particularly speedy, it keeps up in traffic with no problem and feels stable at highway speeds. Unlike most economy cars, the Golf's suspension and steering communicate with the driver, and even in the guise of a four-door hatchback with seating for five and 17 cubic feet of luggage capacity (with the rear seats in use), it could actually be called fun to drive. Certainly, the Golf lacks the stellar reliability record of competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but for those seeking a bit more individuality and fun in an economy car, it might be worth the risk.