I’ve always thought of the Volkswagen Golf as the McDonald’s Cheeseburger of the hatchback world. It’s not the tastiest, the fanciest or the most embellished option on the market, but it’s time-tested, solid and you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy one.
This has turned into a sort of love-hate relationship with the model for me because, being a fan of cars with a bit of personality, I found the Golf to be good for the wrong reasons – the ‘safe’ reasons.
It’s a good car because it has the generic hallmarks of a good car, just like the Cheeseburger has only the necessary ingredients to make it a cheeseburger. So when my family recently purchased a used 2011 Golf, I was, understandably, underwhelmed.
The original intent was a Hyundai i30, a car with a little more character, but perusing the used market for one of these quickly landed us in a state of perpetually chasing the next upgrade.
‘Sure, let’s stretch the budget to get the facelifted model. Hey, the SR is a nice upgrade over the Active. Oh, that turbo engine looks interesting…’
Soon we were well-beyond the original budget and the i30 had taken itself out of contention by how much it had improved over the years. That led us to safer options, to models that didn’t have such gaps between their model years and trim. That led us to a Golf. Sigh.
After some swift movements of a pen and the handing over of $10,995 (bang on the average used value) we took ownership of an immaculate 2011 Golf 77TSI with only 34,000km on the clock. It represented excellent value, as ours was optioned with the seven-speed DSG and metallic paint – a combined $3000 of extras that would have taken the price to $24,990 when new.
The Golf 77TSI’s exterior styling is tasteful but has no presence; you’d be mistaken for walking into one because you didn’t realise it was there. This theme continues to the inside, where Volkswagen has lavished the interior with only the most exotic shades of black.
The inside does feel bigger than it should, with ample room for rear passengers and decent boot space. The fit and finish of the interior is excellent and the door makes that satisfying thud you expect from a Volkswagen, but the cost-saving to bring the Golf down to meet its Mazda3 rival is evident in the materials used.
The rubber steering wheel, for example, has no control for cruise or sound which makes it look like it belongs in something much older. But it does have a five-star ANCAP safety rating, dual climate control, an eight-speaker sound system (that lacks connectivity), rain-sensing wipers and hill hold. The Golf is an impressive feat of working within a budget, and everything that has been included has been done well and adds to the car.
Turn the key and the only clue the engine has come alive is a second of sound and a jump of the tachometer. After that there is silence and stillness – it is an impressively smooth and quiet engine.
The DSG transmission works well, but it can occasionally feel like an L-plater still learning how to drive a manual. It struggles at lower throttle inputs on inclines – hesitating to release the clutch if there aren’t enough revs, and letting it out quick enough to cause a slight shudder when there are, and this is only exacerbated with any angle in the steering.
Getting moving for the first time, I was most prepared to be disappointed by the 77TSI’s tiny 1.2-litre turbo engine, but it ends up being one of the car’s saving graces. On the road, the Golf’s listed 77kW (denoted in its 77TSI name) and 175Nm figures seem like they might be typos as the car surges forward from anything above 1500rpm.
It’s a seriously punchy engine for its displacement and thirst, and matched to the DSG’s seven close gears, is perfectly suited to do what 99 per cent of people are going to ask of it to do 99 per cent of the time: be nippy at low speeds with part-throttle.
The manual shift mode works with surprising haste, but the Sport mode is all but a waste of time, only shifting down below 2000rpm and up at 3000rpm, where the turbo feels like it’s already getting a bit puffed. Drive mode is good for commuting, but it does put a little too much emphasis on economy and a little too much faith in the tiny 1.2L, shifting itself into the highest gear it can at any given time, sometimes leading to hesitation and delay when you need a sudden bit of push. It does automatically downshift to aid in engine braking when coming to a stop though, which is a really nice touch.
The brakes are touchy and feel like they belong on a heavier car. They inspire confidence on the highway, but can be a little grabby at lower speeds. The 77TSI’s electric steering is nicely weighted, but the chassis is uninspiring. You will feel every one of its 1280kg as the nose pushes through corners.
The problem is only worsened the more you ask and it isn’t helped by the 15-inch wheels wrapped in tall, thin 195x65 economy tyres. The ride overall is a bit enigmatic: it feels oddly similar to the same-era GTI over road imperfections, but with none of the competence in the corners.
The ride is solid, stable and comfortable, but the 77TSI ends up feeling like its big brother (that rides on a much lower profile tyre) right up until you ask it to turn like a GTI. This isn’t so much of a problem with the car as it is a preferential thing for me: I just expect a car with a somewhat-sporty ride in a straight line to have one in the corners as well.
Overall, the package is well-balanced and tuned. The car doesn’t stand out or fall short significantly in any department and is a serious bargain as a used car. Time will tell how the DSG survives into the higher mileage, but for now, the ease of the engine and ride, the intuitive interior controls and how it gets all the basics right will please most owners.
The car is a worthy addition to the longstanding Golf lineage, and just goes to show: follow that old winning recipe of slapping together a nice powertrain, safety, solid build and ride quality and you’ve got yourself a Cheeseburger. Sorry – I mean you’ve got yourself a Volkswagen Golf 77TSI.