A standard 1.4-litre kicks off the range, but with only 75bhp on offer, it feels weedy and doesn't offer enough power for confident overtaking. The entry-level FSI is a 1.6-litre. Volkswagen claims this petrol engine has diesel-like economy with petrol refinement, but in practice, you'll need a delicate right foot to get near the claimed figures. A 1.4 TSI model was launched in summer 2006 and despite the small engine size it's available with 140bhp and 170bhp - that's because it uses Volkswagen's latest engine technology that combines a supercharger with a turbo.
Both outputs are excellent to drive, offering quick-off-the-mark performance, instant response and power when you need it. They're economical too, as the fuel-hungry supercharging equipment cuts out when it's not needed - mainly at higher speeds. It's possible to get 38mpg and above in everyday driving, which makes the 1.4 TSI a faster, cheaper and quieter alternative to a diesel.
But Golf's three diesels are superb, offering low fuel consumption, pace and power. The 2.0 SDI is a bit old fashioned, gutless and often hard work, so go for a 1.9 TDI or 2.0 TDI - they're fast, torquey and fuel efficient, albeit noisy. The 1.9-litre gets 105bhp or 115bhp, while the 2.0-litre is available with 140bhp and - from July 2006 - 170bhp.
A tweaked version of the 1.9-litre TDI is used in the Bluemotion model and along with longer gearing, helps to deliver lower emissions of 119g/km and an impressive economy figure of 63mpg - plus there's no difference in performance over the standard 1.9 TDI. The Golf comes with either a five or six-speed manual and an excellent semi-automatic system called DSG.
The 200bhp 2.0-litre GTI and 240bhp V6-powered Golf R32 are covered in separate reviews.
Comfortable, assured and predictable sums up the Golf. It's not quite as involving as the Ford Focus or as agile as the Honda Civic but it's enjoyable nonetheless and has excellent road manners. The suspension is well controlled over most road surfaces and makes for a hushed and smooth ride, reflecting the Golf's refined and grown-up nature. The slick gearbox offers quick and precise changes while the steering is nicely weighted and offers decent feedback.
You can adjust the steering wheel for height and reach while the driver's seat is multi-adjustable too, which makes for a comfortable driving position. As well as being attractive, the dashboard is functional with large, easy-to-use buttons and - where fitted - a simple sat nav system. All the controls are close to the driver for on-the-move adjustments and the screen is close enough so you don't have to squint.
The system is a bit slow however, but cars from March 2008 come with a much faster and slicker system. The sat nav directions - as well as average fuel consumption, radio station, time and range are displayed in a panel in the instrument cluster, so you only have to momentarily take your eyes off the road.
There's generous legroom in the back for two and there should be few problems for three children while front passengers get a good amount of leg, head and shoulder room. The seats are on the firm side, but supportive for longer trips plus the cabin is very refined, with wind, road and engine noise (in the petrols) well suppressed. It feels more sophisticated at night than most small hatchbacks, with soothing blue backlit dials and displays.