2000 Volkswagen Golf

My friend and rally navigator Christina Voldner is, to put it mildly, Golf-obsessed. There are Golf pictures plastered all over her wall, there are model Golfs parked on her shelves, and her computer's hourglass pointer has been replaced by a spinning VW logo. Her screen saver? A Golf assembly line, of course.

She was on the verge of buying last year's Wolfsburg-edition Golf last summer when I told her she would want to wait for the new, forth-generation model (and its Jetta cousin) to arrive.

Not only did the new car look better to me, but the European press was raving about its beautifully designed interior and luxury-car quality.

Somehow I — and a convenient lack of funds — managed to convince her to hold on to her 1985 Toyota Corolla just a little bit longer.

So it was with not a little trepidation that I pulled up in front of her place in a bright red new Golf.

I needn't have worried.

The new Golf, for starters, offers more room to load all that stuff, with an 80 mm increase in length, a wider track and better rear headroom. The stuff gets treated a lot better than before, because the trunk's fully-lined and of a more useful shape. "I could fit in there," Voldner tells me, folding herself into the trunk. "I don't think I could do that in the old one."

"Uh, watch those grocery bag hooks when you get out," I say, cringing.

Up front where people normally put themselves, the new car is similarly impressive. "Though I don't think there was anything really wrong with the old car's interior," she says, staring hypnotized at the silicon-damped grab handle, "this is a lot better. The plastics feel more expensive, and I love the blue and red backlighting. Even in the window and lock switches, which is a nice touch."

The dashboard, my biggest peeve with the old Golf, is now curvy and rattle-free, and both of the comfortable front seats are height-adjustable.

The interior still isn't perfect. "Why," she asks, "does the driver get one-touch controls for all the windows, and not the passengers?" And why is the cupholder mounted so high, blocking your view of the stereo and ventilation controls when it's in use? "The blind spot's bigger than the last car," she adds.

True, I concede, but the chunky rear pillar has always been a Golf hallmark. It's dealt with brilliantly here, framed in a double Scurve defined by the shutlines of the rear door and hatch.

The overall look, though clearly still Golfish, is much more pleasing than the old car's — its stance is wider, the wheels (up to 15-inchers from 14) are bigger, and the detailing, down to the jewel-like side marker lights, is in a different league altogether.

Even the places you don't normally look are a sensory delight: whereas in most vehicles you'd find a mess of spot welds, poorly applied stickers and various protruding bits, all you see (and fondle, if nobody's looking) is smooth, perfectly finished metal. It's as if the car's been hewn out of a single piece of steel.

Volkswagen offers three familiar engines in the new Golf and Jetta: a gruff 2.0 L four, a surprisingly refined 1.9 L direct-injection turbodiesel and a 2.8 L VR-6.

The VR-6 is by far the most fun, with torque all over the place, newly sharpened throttle response and an interesting, warbly engine note. Its manual shifter is also superior to the other engines'.

Unfortunately, the only Golf you can get with a VR-6 is the top-of-the-line GTI GLX two-door.

All gen-four Golfs and Jettas share well-controlled ride motions and rubbery-though-accurate steering. Driven really hard, they under-steer and squeal their tires way more than I'd like, but feel just about perfect under all other conditions.

Why not a Jetta, then, which is as well-made as the Golf, and has a real trunk?

"For one thing, it'll be more expensive than the Golf," Voldner says. "And I just prefer the practicality of a

hatchback. Plus, the Golf looks better."

The standard eight-speaker stereo also sounds a lot better in the hatchback than in the sedan (perhaps because of better acoustics), and the side windows don't mist up nearly as easily.

Both, unfortunately, share the weakest and least effective windshield-washer jets I've ever come across.

The Jetta has a couple of small-but-notable pluses: a netted cubby in the trunk for your jug of washer fluid, and clever Passat-like venetian blind air registers.

Good as the Golf is, pricing is going to be a problem for a lot of potential buyers. At $18,950 to start for a base Golf GL two-door, without air conditioning, it's about $3,000 more than last year's model.

The four-door, available only in power-everything GLS trim, runs $21,800. The turbodiesel adds $1,500. An automatic transmission is another $1,100.

The VR-6-equipped GTI? A numbing $29,800 — $700 more than a base-model Passat.

You can tell where all the extra money goes, though: in terms of build quality, solidity and luxury, VW has seriously raised the bar in the compact class with both the Golf and Jetta.

All that VW needs for it to enter my fantasies is a four-door hatch with a VR-6, a combination that, frustratingly, is sold in Europe, and even offers a high-tech 4-Motion all-wheel-drive

system as an option.

It would make a darn fine — and darn pricey — rally car.

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