Owner Review

2001 Volkswagen Golf GL review

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My 1J Golf was not a car I intended to own for six years and counting.

It was 2012 and I was wrapping up my first enjoyable full-time job to return to uni at a fresh-faced age of 21. I had earlier flicked my 2008 Subaru Impreza for multiple reasons (including my discovery of its less than stellar crash history – courtesy of the original owner) and was saving money by using the family Subaru L-series.

I was looking for something smaller, more fuel-efficient, more comfortable, and safer; airbags, ABS etc. I figured when I finished me degree I’d waltz into some schmoozy, high-paying job and buy something pricey and fantastic. Ha!

Fortunately, I was working at a car dealership and we happened to have a Candy White MkIV Golf, completely stock with a perfect service history on the yard for a reasonable price. If you have ever heard about the fabled ‘car with one little old lady owner who only takes it to church on Sundays’, this is that car.

It had been serviced on the dot, once a year, since new. It was immaculate inside and out. The foreman in our VW workshop declared it one of the tidiest used VWs he had ever seen. With just shy of 70,000km on the odo’, it certainly looked like a good car for a student. I took it home for the weekend, and on the Monday I signed on the dotted line to make it mine.

I soon found, to my chagrin, that the immaculate service history contained one slight omission. Due to the low kilometres, and the lovely nature of the previous owner (at least, I suspect, she could have been terrifying…), no-one had had the heart to tell her that this model of Golf required a new timing belt every six years.

Not savouring the thought of sitting beside the highway in shame, I replaced the timing belt, tensioners, water pump, and coolant. That, to date, was the second most expensive service bill I have ever paid on the car, at approximately $900 all up – more on the other expense later.

Why did I choose a little white Golf? Being a 6ft 4in guy who likes to drive a lot, that is a question I get asked a lot. There are several reasons. First off, my mother owned a Mark III that served faithfully for around 350,000km with no serious issues, before one too many jump-starts blew just about every computer on board. With that in mind, and an appreciation for the delicacy of European electronics, I felt that the Golf would be a safe choice.

Second, the drive. This is by no means a race car. The little 1.6 NA mill (the eight-valve, for that retro feel) that lurks beneath the bonnet pumps out a not-exactly-earth-shattering 75kW if you push it to 5600rpm, but does bring a respectable (for the time) 148Nm of torque in at 3800rpm, which is actually quite a bit earlier than in the 16-valve engine of the same capacity. With these figures, there was never a chance of me becoming a successful street racer, though thanks to the lack of traction control, lighting up the tyres is a breeze.

This little engine, which will happily rush for its redline at a moment’s notice, is mated to one of the more delightful manual gearboxes I have had the pleasure of driving, featuring a slick mechanical shift and a relatively short throw. I exclude from comparison MX-5s and similar sporty models, as the Golf has no place being treated as competition for sports cars.

This excellent gearbox allows the driver to utilise what little power the car has with ease and makes every drive enjoyable: more’s the pity that VW has by and large moved away from manuals in favour of the DSG. Importantly, the hydraulically assisted steering feels excellent, providing clear feedback to the driver, and is – at least in my opinion – perfectly weighted. It is heavy enough to not be overly reactive, but light enough that city driving is no chore.

As I noted before, it is pleasant around town. On the highway, the car hums along at whatever legal speed limit you wish, and at no point really struggles with one or two people in the car. The relatively low-down torque and good gearing help with this, and there is pull almost anywhere in the rev range. Load it up with five people and a couple of suitcases, though, and the story changes: straining would be a polite way to put it.

Third, the comfort. VW tends to make comfortable vehicles, and the Mark IV is no exception. The seats are excellent, with plenty of under thigh support, and adequate side bolstering. The ride is sublime, even in comparison to new cars. Vital for someone of my height is good adjustment for the seat height, and the Golf delivers: I have more head room in the Golf than I can get in a new Mazda 6 or Hyundai Sonata, believe it or not.

The suspension simply soaks up the bumps, no doubt with help from the tall, skinny tyres (195/70R14), which means the drive is less fatiguing than, say, my ’08 Impreza. I was going to be travelling between Brisbane and Toowoomba on a regular basis, and so being comfortable and alert was a must. Since then, I have done up to eight hours in one day with very little discomfort. The next time I took that trip, I drove a 2013 Subaru Impreza 2.0iS, which was a very different and less comfortable experience.

Fourth, the cabin. In my opinion, the cabin of the Mark IV is a great place to be. The dash is arranged in a tidy way and built from solid, premium-looking materials, including plenty of soft-touch plastics. The ergonomics are excellent, with the centre console tilted ever so slightly towards the driver, placing every control for the vehicle within easy reach, which prevents the driver from being distracted by unnecessary faffing about in search of buttons.

The instruments are clear and easy to read, and I love the blue/red combo that VW favoured back at the turn of the century. I still firmly believe that the interior in this car holds up against new cars, due to its simple, timeless design. Naturally, with age, the bits of the interior that are exposed to constant touching (door handles, handbrake, gear shifter) have fatigued, but by comparison to much newer vehicles from other manufacturers such as Mazda, Subaru, Hyundai, and even newer Volkswagens, it has aged with a grace only otherwise seen in Keanu Reeves.

Practicality-wise, for a single 21-year-old student, it was perfect too. It could house two adults in air-conditioned comfort in the front on long trips, and the rear seats were comfortable too, if somewhat limited in the leg room department. The boot, despite housing a full-size spare (yes, full-size, despite the Mark III having a space-saver), snugly fits two adult suitcases, or a week’s groceries. With the back seats down, small furniture isn’t impossible either. As a 27-year-old man with aspirations towards bigger and better things, perhaps it is getting a little cramped…

In terms of fuel economy, the car isn’t bad. Around town, I see approximately 600km per tank (which is 55L for those keeping track at home). On the highway, I did once manage an impressive 900km before the fuel light came on. The harder you drive, of course, the more the car drinks, and I am regularly guilty of a lead foot.

Strong points, but what did I change to make it liveable? The only major change was the sound system. I swapped out the original VW CD player (which is in a box somewhere) for an Alpine double-DIN head unit with Bluetooth calling and streaming – which even in new cars was pretty flashy in 2012 – along with 5.5-inch Focal speakers in the front, and a 10-inch compact subwoofer attached to the back of the folding back seats. To this day, I still love this set-up.

I swapped out the Michelin XM2s that were on it for Yokohama AE01s. This was down to the OG tyres being a little old and hard, which with no traction control on board resulted in exciting cornering in even the slightest drizzle. The Yokohamas fixed that, and grip beautifully wet or dry.

But what about the expensive servicing and unreliable nature of Volkswagen? As to the cost of servicing, I have always been fortunate. Both with working in the motor industry, and knowing the right people, I have never, ever, paid full price for servicing or repairs. The only two mishaps the Golf has had were a terminally sticky throttle body, which takes first prize for expenses on the car at $1200, and a failed window motor in the driver’s door. Those two have been the only cause of fervent dislike of the car on my part.

The throttle body, because it happened at low(ish) kilometres, and it cost a frightful amount for an impoverished student. The window motor, because of its cruel timing. I was closing the driver’s window at 5pm when it failed, leaving the window open. I was about to drive home to Toowoomba from Saint Lucia, Brisbane that night, in June, for an unavoidable appointment. But it's okay! It only started raining just after I left Brisbane, so I was only soaked and freezing for about 100km...

Cost-wise, I went into the ownership of the car with an expectation for higher costs, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by most of the expenses. I think this is where most people go wrong, as in comparison to many of their Asian competitors, the servicing and parts costs of VWs are higher. Also, fuel costs – 95RON or higher, only. I suggest everyone experiences this car trying to run on 91RON at least once. The bowel-clenching terror of the engine suddenly dying halfway through a busy intersection is one hell of a way to wake up in the morning.

Again, however, this is about knowing your car. I firmly believe that if you look after your vehicle, it’ll look after you. As such, one bout of cost-cutting with fuel taught me an important lesson: don’t.

Outside of the above concerns, the vehicle has been reasonable to maintain. I’ve replaced the front brake pads and rotors once; the rears are nearly due. My first set of Yokohamas lasted 60,000km, and the ES32s I have put on will probably last just as well. Other than that, routine servicing has been all that has been needed. For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, I have noted a recent oil leak from around the oil filler. This is a slight weep and will probably still be there when I get rid of the car.

The build quality of the car is excellent. As noted earlier, the interior of the car has stood the test of the time well. The vast majority of the vehicle is the same. I would, in fact, contend that this vehicle is better built than the current Golf as, technology aside, it feels sturdier. Rather than flimsy check-straps on the doors, for example, the doors’ opening stages are controlled by a multi-barrelled arrangement that simply needs lubrication at every service.

The Candy White paint has lasted practically unblemished, despite four-and-a-half years being parked outside under trees. I also feel I can trust the mechanical components on the car, as they are just that – mechanical. There is no fly-by-wire on the car. The most sophisticated thing in the car (besides the Alpine head unit and yours truly) is the ABS, which works. I check. Regularly.

What does the future hold for the Golf? Honestly, not much. I drive a couple of kilometres to and from work every day, but my partner’s new Corolla does most of the other transport duties. This is a relatively new development, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Golf resents me for it. Replacement is on the cards, for a few reasons: size, power, technology, and safety are all considerations.

As for what I am considering? Well, Subaru Outback, Skoda Octavia VRS wagon, or, should the lottery go my way, an Alfa Romeo Giulia QV, because everyone should have an unachievable dream.

Overall, the Golf has done what I needed it to do. It has provided an engaging drive, a pleasant cabin, good reliability and cost-effectiveness, and has done that without skimping on comfort. Would I recommend one to others, though? That’s tricky. This model is getting old, and with age inevitably will come problems.