1999 Volkswagen Golf GLS: The Thrill Is Gone


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From the March 1999 issue of Car and Driver.

However much we rhapsodize about the mystical bond between drivers and certain special automobiles, at some point a car has to deliver on some fundamental functions, specifically, its ability to haul people and cargo reliably and efficiently. Measured against that practical standard, it’s tough to come up with a more rational car than Volkswagen’s new Golf. Which may have a lot to do with its posi­tion as the third-bestselling car in history, behind the Beetle and the Toyota Corolla, and ahead of Henry Ford’s sainted Model T. And even though we tend to value dri­verly virtues over practical ones—that’s why we prefer Miatas to, say, Malibus—­the sensible-shoes dimension is mitigated a little here by the fun-to-drive factor.

How much fun is this car to drive? Well, not as much as the roarty GTI VR6. The 2.0-liter SOHC eight-valve four that’s standard equipment in the five-door Golf has been thoroughly overhauled, but it’s distinctly short on snort. Still, for drivers who draw pleasure from the kind of precision and straight-line sta­bility that come from autobahn breeding, the Golf does fairly well. And does it with the added bonus of providing surprisingly supple ride quality, quiet operation, and a long list of luxo features. And when needed, it has an amazing appetite for cargo.

HIGHS: Supple ride quality, capacious cargo maw, driver command features.

That last is the great virtue of front-­drive hatchbacks, of course. And that’s why the basic Golf design has changed so little in a quarter-century. You don’t have to squint very hard to see the relationship between the Giorgetto Giugiaro original, introduced in May 1974, and the latest renewal, now embarked on its fourth generation. The edges have been softened, and the mechan­ical elements are more refined, but the only fundamental change over the years has been carefully controlled growth. Since its debut a quarter-century ago, the wheelbase of the five-door Golf has been stretched 4.4 inches, its overall length has increased 8.1 inches, its width has expanded by 4.9 inches, and the roof is just 1.2 inches taller. It is also, however, almost 1000 pounds heavier.

You can thank your friendly federal government for much of the extra mass, which can be attributed to crashworthiness and other safety-related standards. On the other hand, the expanding dimensions have also expanded the Golf’s capacity for stuff. In 1975, the Golf/Rabbit five-door could hold 35.7 cubic feet of assorted goods once the rear seats were folded flat. The latest version can ingest precisely 41.9 cubic feet of cargo, according to Volks­wagen. That’s almost as much as you can cram into a new five-door Chevy Tracker sport-utility vehicle.

Given the new Golf’s expanded dimensions—almost three inches longer, 1.6 inches wider, and a half-inch taller than the Golf III—VW could have created even more space for lamps, furniture, stuffed owls, chain saws, and the other small freight people are prone to haul around, but a parallel priority was increasing the habitability of the rear seat. Thus, rear-seat legroom has expanded by 1.8 inches, and there’s also a tad more headroom. It’s still snug behind the front seats, but that’s something that can be said for almost any compact sedan you care to name —unless you name one of Chrysler’s Neon twins.

However, there’s plenty of room up front, and the seats are worthy of a BMW: Well shaped and nicely padded, they have excellent lateral support and lots of adjustability. When you combine those virtues with a steering column that tilts and telescopes, plus a pedal layout that practically begs you to practice your heel-and-toe technique, you have a setup that wouldn’t be out of place in a World Rally Championship car.

Some secondary elements of the control layout don’t play quite as well. For example, the rotary seatback rake­-adjustment knobs are hard to reach and generally unpopular with American drivers. The audio controls—VW seems to have a universal system common to a number of its current cars—are irritatingly small, and because the system is mounted low, just below a small storage bin, they’re even more irritatingly tricky to use while driving. That bin, for its part, is just below a panel that conceals a brace of pop-out cupholders—clever in design but awk­ward to employ when the car is moving, the contents of the cup are hot, and you can only devote one arm to the task.

LOWS: Tepid power, ropy shifting, verges on pricey.

On the other hand, the appearance of the Golf’s interior is almost beyond reproach—a stylish combination of tex­tures, patterns, contrasts, and quality materials, augmented by thoughtful touches. For example, there are remov­able rubber liners at the bottom of the map pockets to keep stuff from rattling and also to allow for cleaning. And there’s a comprehensive first-aid kit tucked away above the left-rear wheel well. And speaking of safety, all Golfs (and Jettas) come with side airbags for front-seat passengers, and anti-lock brakes. Both features were optional in the previous generation.

Okay, we said something about fun to drive, right? Good news, bad news. Like most of its predecessors, the new Golf feels like a German car. There’s that unique tension in its sinews, and a sense of athletic poise and balance. That’s tempered somewhat by concessions to ride comfort—relatively soft spring rates and shock damping—and steering that’s a little lighter than we’d associate with the rally car we men­tioned earlier. But let’s not confuse civ­ilized ride quality and good road-noise isolation with mushy responses. Thanks to its new unit body, shared with the Jetta among others, the new Golf is some 250 pounds heavier than its predecessor, but if its responses are slightly slower, they’re still precise and pre­dictable. If you read understeer into pre­dictability, you’d be correct—but it’s moderate understeer.

The bad news: Enjoying this car means totally renouncing any power dreams that may have been lurking in your subcon­scious. VW’s redesign of the standard 2.0-liter gas engine (a high-mileage 1.9-liter turbo-diesel is also available) was aimed at improved emissions performance and better packageability—remember that the designers had to shoehorn this unit into the New Beetle, too. As a result, output is unchanged at 115 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque, although peak torque comes on at 2600 rpm rather than 3200. Compound that with a significant weight gain—not to mention the addition of a vague five-speed manual gearshift, an apparent Golf tradition—and you have acceleration that’s just this side of glacial. When we tested a third-generation Golf (July 1994), it managed to tow itself to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds—not exactly Neon ter­ritory, but acceptable. This Golf took 10.6 seconds to hit 60, another sport-ute simi­larity but one we think falls outside the realm of acceptability.

Getting the output of this engine up to competitive levels would have required a new DOHC multivalve cylinder head. VW was simply unwilling to take on that cost, particularly with Audi’s proven 1.8-liter DOHC 20-valve four in the inventory and soon to become an option in the Beetle.

VERDICT: High quality, unparalleled practicality, but the thrill is gone.

With that engine, we think it would be much easier to appreciate the other virtues of this hefty hatchback. Not to mention its rather hefty price—$16,875 for the base five-door GLS (the GL three-door costs $1450 less). Power windows that go down or up with one touch are neat, and we like a six-speaker stereo as much as the next guy. But we’d swap all the goodies for about 25 horsepower.

Car and Driver

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1999 Volkswagen Golf GLS
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback


Base/As Tested: $16,875/$18,170
Options: Luxury package (power sunroof, aluminum wheels), $1000; 6-disc CD changer, $295

SOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection

Displacement: 121 in3, 1987 cm3

Power: 115 hp @ 5200 rpm

Torque: 122 lb-ft @ 2600 rpm 

5-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: control arms/multilink

Brakes, F/R: 10.1-in vented disc/7.9-in disc

Tires: Michelin Energy MXV4 Plus


Wheelbase: 98.9 in

Length: 163.3 in

Width: 68.3 in
Height: 56.7 in

Passenger Volume, F/R: 49/38 ft3
Cargo Volume: 18 ft3
Curb Weight: 2844 lb


60 mph: 10.6 sec

1/4-Mile: 18.0 sec @ 77 mph
100 mph: 38.3 sec

Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 11.5 sec

Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 9.9 sec

Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 10.6 sec

Top Speed (drag ltd): 115 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 176 ft

Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.76 g 


Observed: 24 mpg

City/Highway: 24/31 mpg 


Headshot of Tony Swan

Tony was smart, well read, funny, irascible, cantankerous, opinionated, friendly, difficult, charming, honest, and eminently interesting to be around.

He loved cars, car people, and words… but most of all, he loved racing. The Car and Driver writer, editor, and racer passed away in 2018 at age 78.

Remembering Tony

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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