SAN FRANCISCO — I admire a car company that stages a test drive of a major new product in some of the worst traffic in the country. It shows confidence, a belief that the car in question is a bona fide daily warrior, designed and engineered to maneuver through tough urban traffic, and to do that while delivering maximum passenger comfort and safety and good fuel economy.
That is what Volkswagen did here in the introduction of its 2015 Golf and its many iterations — the gasoline-fed TSI and diesel-fueled TDI and their several trim levels (limited Launch edition for the TSI, along with base S, mid-level SE and top-grade SEL for TSI and TDI models, plus the performance-oriented GTI in the TSI line). Also, the gas-electric Golf Hybrid and all-electric e-Golf.
The 2015 launch marks the seventh generation of the VW Golf brand in the United States and the 40th year the car has been sold on these shores. The 2015 lineup signals VW's intention to make good on its promise to eventually overtake Japan's Toyota in global automotive sales, and to do so by giving Toyota a fierce run for its money in North America, leading with a Volkswagen product that is a true "people's car" — affordable, attractively designed, accommodating, comfortable, safe, well-engineered and, yes, fun to drive on city streets and on those rare roads free of traffic.
It is a challenging goal, perhaps reachable, maybe not. Toyota is no slouch, and the Japanese company is known for meeting global challengers head-on — matching them car for car, technological advance for advance.
But after spending several days in VW's newest products, scheduled to enter U.S. dealerships this summer — June through August — I am convinced that Volkswagen, Europe's largest car company, has a fighting chance. The German company's approach to this market, as represented by the new Golf, makes good sense.
— Offer a car that is attractive inside and out. Make it small enough to move well in a city but large enough to accommodate a family of five.
— Load it with standard equipment, including fuel-efficient, turbocharged gasoline (TSI) and diesel (TDI) four-cylinder engines. Increase the fuel economy and torque of both while simultaneously decreasing fuel consumption in comparison with previous models.
The new TSI is equipped with a 1.8-liter, turbocharged (forced air), direct-injection, four-cylinder gasoline engine that replaces the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder gasoline engine in previous Golf models. Yet, it delivers 20 percent better fuel economy (36 miles per gallon on the highway) and almost identical horsepower and torque — 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque.
— Bonus: The new TSI gasoline engine, although turbocharged, runs perfectly on regular-grade fuel — no need to pay more for higher octane.
And then there is my favorite — the 2-liter, diesel-fueled TDI, which delivers 42 miles per gallon on the highway, 150 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. That one has truly discernible get-up-and-go. Its low fuel consumption confers the added benefit of peace of mind in go-nowhere traffic. You don't feel as if you are sitting there throwing away money.
I spent most of my time here in the TDI and TSI, running in morning and late-afternoon rush-hour traffic. Car manufacturers traditionally try to avoid that kind of congestion to show off their new wares. But VW wanted to make a point: The new Golf is a real car made for the real-world driving by real people with non-luxurious incomes, people who nonetheless need and want a car that serves them well and reliably with a sense of style.
You made your point, Volkswagen. Here is betting your new Golf models will sell well.