The Volkswagen Golf is one of the most iconic small hatchbacks of all time. Introduced in 1974, more than 27 million have been sold, making it the world’s third best-selling car. Now, in its sixth generation, the Golf returns with a full redesign and Volkswagen’s 50-state compliant TDI clean-diesel engine under the hood. The most recent generation was launched as the Rabbit in 2007, but Volkswagen reverts back to the Golf name for 2010. We test-drove this greener Golf on its mother soil, in Deutschland, on an open-road route that took us from Wolfsburg to Dresden to Berlin.

Compare the Golf TDI!

If you’re thinking about buying a Golf TDI, you might also consider a Jetta TDI or a Honda Civic Hybrid. Compare these vehicles.

The Golf TDI powertrain utilizes an electronically controlled turbocharger and fuel injection system to achieve better fuel economy and performance than the standard gas-powered model. The 2.0-liter diesel engine provides 140 horsepower and a stout 236 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is 30 city/42 highway with a six-speed automatic transmission, and 30 city/41 highway with a six-speed manual. That’s about 30 percent better than the Golf’s 2.5-liter gas engine. Volkswagen claims the Golf’s range is just short of 600 miles on a tank of diesel.

Expect to pay about a $3,000 premium for the Golf’s diesel version. The base 2-door, 2.5-liter gas-powered Golf starts at $17,600 and the 4-door at $19,300. The Golf TDI starts at $22,200 and $22,700 for the four-door. Like the Jetta, the Golf TDI models come with a higher level of equipment.

Hybrid Comparison

Compared to conventional diesel engines, the TDI releases 95 percent fewer sooty emissions thanks to a trap and burn system—not the urea-based approach taken by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. (See our article on the “Two Paths to Clean Diesel.”

Despite the advanced clean diesel system, the Golf TDI is not as squeaky clean on emissions as the cleanest hybrids. Moreover, in terms of efficiency, the Golf TDI falls 8 mpg short of the Prius’s highway mileage rating, and 20 mpg in the city. All of the top-tier hybrids, including the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Insight, and Honda Civic Hybrid, handily beat the Golf TDI’s city mileage—bringing the in-town benefits of hybrids into sharp relief.

In fairness, a similarly equipped Prius or Fusion would cost at least a few thousand dollars more than the Golf TDI.

Efficiency, Speed and Fun

With our automatic-equipped tester, we achieved an impressive 39.8 miles per gallon (after converting from liters per 100 kilometers) on our 326-mile triangular trek between the three German cities. That exceeds all gas-powered subcompacts and displays fuel-efficiency resembling many hybrid cars—although not quite in the league of Prius and Insight especially when driven with restraint (which we admittedly lacked in Germany). Approximately 80 percent of the journey took place at highway speeds ranging anywhere from 75 miles per hour to 120 miles per hour. After all, this is the Autobahn.

If our test had occurred on more speed-limited American highways, it’s likely that our combined mileage loop would have beat the EPA’s highway rating of the car. About 20 percent of our German mileage loop occurred on smaller country roads and slower, more congested in-town traffic. At the end of our trip, the fuel gauge showed exactly one-half tank of fuel, confirming VW’s claim of a 600-mile cruising range.

Volkswagen Golf TDI

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The Golf delivers lots of spirit and fun with a healthy dose of off-the-line performance and passing power. That’s what you get when you have a small car with an abundance of diesel-driven torque. Not so much that it overwhelms the chassis, yet enough to give the driver reason to let loose in traffic (when that’s even possible on our crowded roadways).

Road Manners

In terms of drivability, the new Golf is smooth and solid. It offers a ride comparable to larger premium vehicles. This was best seen on the highway, where the Golf plowed ahead in a balanced and comfortable manner. Even at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour, the car feels extremely steady. There is virtually no small car wavering or drifting. It holds its place on the road as larger cars and trucks pass by at higher speeds, unlike many compacts and subcompacts that get blown around by bigger vehicles or lateral wind gusts.

The Golf has always been a sporty handler, but even that attribute has been improved upon, thanks to a redesigned suspension. The Golf takes tight corners and twisty roads with plenty of confidence. Body roll is minimal, and overall, the Golf feels quick and nimble.

Stylistically, the Golf stays loyal to its genetics and heritage, with some modern interpretation. The front fascia has been revised and lowered for greater aerodynamics and a sportier show. And the car’s wider stance gives it more on-road presence. A number of other small details—like updated taillights and black trim—give the Golf a cleaner, sleeker look.

As with previous generations, the interior of the Golf is much roomier than one would think from the outside. It will seat four comfortably or five in a pinch. With two passengers, expect more room for gear than a couple would ever need. Stylistically, the Golf follows Volkswagen’s philosophy of smart looks, ergonomic design and minimal waste.

The new Volkswagen Golf TDI is an excellent example of a practical and sporty diesel car for the masses. It’s efficient, powerful, and reasonably affordable. Volkswagen has had a great success with its clean diesel Jetta Sportwagen. The company should enjoy an equally enthusiastic reception to the 2010 Golf TDI, selling at a base price of about $22,000. The Golf will draw young urbanites who like getting out of the city on the weekends. And especially those who haven’t warmed up to hybrids, but want 40-plus miles per gallon with brisk highway performance.