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2003 volkswagen golf 4th gen my03 generation review

Volkswagen is back as a major brand in Australia and the Golf has been principally responsible for its revival.

Volkswagen’s original 1974 Mark 1 Golf design bridged the gap between Mini-sized economy cars and conventional sedans like the Ford Escort.

Since then, as demand for hatchbacks expanded so did the Golf range. The front-wheel drive VW was available with three or five doors and its GTi version became the darling of economy-minded performance lovers. As the second ‘oil shock’ of the late 1970s arrived and taxation regimes changed (especially in Europe), the range grew to include diesel models.

Whichever way the market moved, the Golf seemed able to adapt but it took until the 21st Century before Australia was offered Golf-style motoring in all its variations.

The Mark 4 Golf that appeared in 1998 began the task of reviving Australian Volkswagen sales. Preceding models had been cellar-dwellers of the sales charts, with the brand in 1997 holding only 0.9 per cent of the passenger car market.

By 2007 that share had reached 3.6 per cent with Golf sales, including the highly-regarded GTi, contributing 40 per cent of brand’s volume. That and other high-performance Volkswagens will be the subjects of a separate ‘hot hatch’ Buying Used review to come.

With the arrival of Gen 4, the Golf range was finally free of the old and inefficient 1.8-litre engine that had been in use since the 1980s. Its replacement had only 1.6 litres but delivered an extra 8kW of power and used less fuel. GLE Gen 4s initially shared a punchy 20-valve 1.8-litre with the Audi A3 but during 1999 that was changed to a less-powerful, single-cam 2.0-litre.

Pricing had for years been a problem for local VW distributors and so it proved with early Gen 4 models. After hitting the market in 1998 at $28,990, the five-door GL was slashed within two years by $2000. At the same time a GLE with four-speed automatic transmission came back from $37,000 to $33,890. Hardly surprising then that buyers and finance companies were wary of VW resale values.

For 2002, the range was revamped with a price-leader 1.6S manual at $25,990, while the better-equipped 1.6SE began at $29,490 and reached $33,900 for the 2.0-litre automatic.

Golf’s Cabriolet remained part of the range until 2003, but with more than $50,000 being asked for this relic of the 1990s (it was based on Golf 3) very few were sold.

During 2003-04 a 2.0-litre Sport model with 16-inch alloy wheels, traction control and climate-control air-con further expanded the Golf’s appeal.

The Golf 5 (Gen 5, Mark 5 – the terms seem interchangeable) took Volkswagen’s biggest seller into a totally new market sphere. The revamped and smartly restyled shape came in three new trim levels, with a new 2.0-litre petrol and two turbodiesel engines.

Golf 5s came in Trendline, Comfortline and Sportline versions with prices beginning at $25,490 for the 1.6 Trendline and rising to just beyond $35,000 for a 2.0-litre Sportline. Options could take a fully-equipped Golf to more than $40,000.

This car was longer and wider than the Gen 4, with more passenger space and its structure stiffened by 80 per cent. In combination with a new four-link rear suspension, the improved rigidity produced more compliant handling and greater occupant protection.

A new 2.0-litre FSI petrol engine with an extraordinary 11.5:1 compression ratio and direct fuel-injection delivered a 25kW improvement on the unit it replaced. Turbodiesels came in 1.9-litre (77kW) form and the powerhouse 2.0-litre with double overhead camshafts, 16 valves and 103kW.

Adding a further boost in sophistication was VW’s six-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) twin-clutch automated manual transmission that took the FSI model from 0-100km/h in 9.1 seconds (almost two seconds faster than the GLE auto) and helped 2.0 TDI owners terrify non-diesel dragracers with an 8.3 second time.

Equipment levels even in the low-cost Trendline included air-conditioning, power windows, antilock brakes with brake assist. An engine immobiliser was standard and higher-spec cars added alloy wheels, CD player, improved seats with leather steering covers and a trip-computer.

There really is no typical model among the Golf’s extensive range and that diversity has been pivotal to the model’s success.

None of the 1.6-litre cars are strong performers but they get the job of urban commuting or intercity jaunts done comfortably and with decent reliability. Seats in the base-model Gen 4 look and feel like waiting-room chairs but the dash layout and adjustable steering wheel provide compensation.

Interior space is good for a car of the Golf’s dimensions and, even without folding the split rear seat, the boot is surprisingly roomy.

Early suspension that dealt happily with low-speed, urban bumps could be found out of its depth as speeds rose and the challenges posed by rural bitumen or unsealed surfaces became more severe.

The transition from Gen 4 to Gen 5 Golf may have been outwardly subtle but immediately apparent to experienced drivers. From the car became the standard against which the best Japanese and European small-car designs were judged.

With the 2.0-litre TDI engine, an oil-burning Golf gave away just 7kW to the same-sized petrol engine but delivered a massive 320Nm of torque against the petrol engine’s 200Nm and did it from 1500rpm. Midrange (80-120km/h) acceleration in the DSG-equipped 2.0-litre diesel showed it to be almost a second faster than the FSI and away from the lights it recorded 0-60km/h in 3.8 seconds.

Peak engine speed in the diesel is 4400rpm and at 100km/h it is turning at a frugal 2000rpm. Fuel economy is in the vicinity of 6.0L/100km, with the FSI returning 7.7L/100km.

Be aware when making a decision between the two models that the recommended fuel for 2.0-litre Gen 5 engines is 98 Octane PULP which is sometimes hard to find and more expensive than freely-available diesel.

Golf suspension still delivered a solid and supple low-speed ride but had been revamped in conjunction with lower-profile tyres. The electrically-assisted steering will suit the needs of most drivers but was criticised for some lack of straight-head feel and nervousness in high-speed bends.

A final word about safety. No matter which series Golf you choose it will likely offer greater levels of passive safety than most in its size and price-bracket. Gen 4s came with dual airbags and antilock brakes, traction control and electronic brake force distribution on some.

When the Gen 5 cars arrived they delivered those features across the range plus curtain airbags.

The Golf was once scored as the highest-ever ranking in its category under stringent European safety testing and also a Five Star ranking in local ANCAP evaluation.

>> Recent publicity surrounding engine-management failures applies to post-2008 models. Earlier Golf engines are typically reliable, providing service intervals are observed and correct lubricants used. This is especially important for diesels.

>> Testers have identified intermittent shudders from the DSG automatic transmission when manoeuvring at show speeds of parking and overseas owners report erratic behaviour (loss of drive, sudden engine speed spikes). The best advice when considering a DSG car is to test drive under different conditions.

>> Gen 5s from VW’s South African plant may suffer from a variety of niggly durability issues. These include sticky or shuddering electric windows, cabin plastics working loose, light failures and intermittent starting problems. After carrying out a full pre-purchase component check including window and air-conditioning operation, scan the interior for any missing or damaged parts. Professional inspection will help identify potentially expensive electrical failures

>> Make sure that the Steering Check warning light illuminates when the ignition is switched on and goes off once the engine starts. If this light stays on it can signal an electrical problem but also warns of more serious problems with the steering rack. Both need to be checked by a VW dealer or specialist.

Design & Function: 16/20
Safety: 17/20
Practicality: 15/20
Value for Money: 16/20
Wow Factor: 12/20
SCORE: 76/100