Ever since Volkswagen stopped manufacturing in Australia, the company's local history has been patchy until recently. Once almost as Australian as Holden with a best-selling range of tough cars and commercials perfectly suited to local conditions, Volkswagen struggled to find a new identity under different importers. The Golf couldn't be more different from its Beetle predecessor yet the old Beetle's unbreakable, low maintenance reputation continues to generate unrealistic expectations for the Golf.
Neglect any Golf like an old Beetle especially under sustained use on unsealed roads and it will generate repair bills that will make your eyes water. Treat a Golf as a smaller BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz and allocate a service budget to match and it will reward you with a similar level of cut above motoring.
The first Golf was assembled here at LS 1.6-litre level before ending its days here in 1980 as an imported GLS 1.6-litre. The 1.5 GLD Diesel ended in 1982. The Golf returned as an import late in the Golf II's model life from 1990 to 1992, as a tame GTI detuned for local unleaded fuel. The Golf I continued as a cabriolet alongside the Golf II hatchback range during this period.
A mainstream Golf would not return to Australian price lists until July 1994 as a Golf III GL 2.0-litre 5 Door Hatchback, again several years after it was launched in Europe. The special VR6 model had arrived several months earlier. It is only from this point until today's Gen V range that VW has maintained continuity in an Australian Golf range. The new commitment is finally making a difference in reduced parts costs, better value and extra reliability.
Because Australian sales in global terms were tiny and intermittent, valuable lessons from Volkswagen's early days were not always reflected in the latest models. The engine in the first Golf along with the manual and automatic transmissions were beautifully engineered for enormous distances as they still are today but were too often destroyed by the failure of dud plastic, rubber and other moulded components. Although the quality of VW's plastic and rubber under bonnet parts has improved significantly, a recent Golf can still fall victim to catastrophic failure or damage because a vital minor part has failed.
There are two factors compounding this. Germany's high speed autobahn focus leaves the Golf with less clearance and more front overhang than is desirable for Australian roads. While this low ride stance contributes to freeway stability and its sophisticated feel, it can also allow potholes, speed humps and stone-covered crowns to shatter or crack vital engine and transmission parts. Just as the original Mini needed a sump guard for the Cooper S and Moke versions, so does the Golf if you intend to leave the bitumen. At least VW can now offer the correct factory sump protection but the starting point is a world away from the old Beetle's go anywhere ability.
A second more insidious factor is Volkswagen's extended service intervals which can compound the damage of wear or parts failure. While this is now an industry norm, Volkswagen was one of the first to offer extended service intervals and it's therefore one of the first to reflect the consequences of some examples not seeing a service bay for 18 months or longer.
Owners who won't read their service books usually service their cars by kilometres only, not the time interval. Warnings about more frequent servicing if the car is used under certain conditions such as short trips are rarely heeded. The irony is that it is quite normal for some VW and Audi engines to empty their sumps as early as 4-5000 km. Many Golf owners coming from a Japanese model run their engines out of oil several times before they get into the habit of checking their oil level and topping it up regularly. As each sump-full of oil burns away up to three times between services, the contaminants left behind under short stop-start running will become more concentrated and can cause sludging which blocks vital oil supply lines.
Oil changes and a quick mechanical check every 5-7500 km can be cheap insurance if a Golf is used mainly for short or stop-start running. After all, they were designed to be run flat out regularly over extended distances.
Don't pay top dollar for an engine that has run without oil on several occasions. Certain components in a Golf such as brakes need more regular attention than usual and the long service intervals can lead to more damage if the car is not checked often enough.
Because German parts can cost more than what most people want to pay, there is a strong substitute parts network. Some can provide genuine savings for equivalent quality parts, others are junk and can ruin a good car. A Golf at the end of the day can provide extra crash safety, superior ride and handling, better cabin packaging and finish than most rival small hatches. In most cases, it will also require premium unleaded fuel for no better than average performance and servicing that needs to be a higher standard than usual. Most comments also apply to the Bora sedan which is the booted version of the Golf known as the Jetta in other markets.
KEY 1994-2004 GOLF CHANGES:
- Jul 1994: Entry level Golf III GL introduced for the first time since 1980 featuring 12 month/15,000 km service intervals. Look for separate light units in the front bumper and horizontal shut line between rear bumper and rear quarter panel. Engine is traditional but upgraded Golf 1984cc single overhead cam, 8-valve engine with 85kW/5400 and 186Nm/3200 on Premium Unleaded.
- Mar 1995: Golf III GL Cabriolet introduced as 2.0-litre.
- Oct 1995: Cheaper Golf III CL introduced as three-door hatch with 1781cc engine with 66kW/5500 and 145Nm/2500. Turbo Diesel TDi also launched at GL level. Various dealer incentives and Classic pack add free alloy wheels and air-conditioning from late 1995.
- Oct 1996: Golf III CL three-door is replaced by Golf III CL five-door.
- Sep 1998: Golf III Cabriolet is given Golf IV styling tweaks and continues as CL 1.8 and GL 2.0 with earlier engines.
- Oct 1998: Golf IV introduced as GL 1.6, GLE 1.8 and GTI Turbo. Entry GL 1595cc engine is new all alloy engine with 74kW/6800 and 145Nm/3800 and proves high-revving at speed. New GLE 1.8 engine is 5-valve Audi A4 engine with 1781cc, twin-cam and 20 valves for 92kW/5800 and 173Nm/3950. Pick new style by indicators mounted in headlight units and unusual shut line between rear guard and bumper that follows rear door line.
- July 1999: Complex 1.8 engine is dropped from GLE and earlier; simpler 2.0 litre from Golf III GL is revived for new Golf IV GLE 2.0. Power drops by 7kW but similar torque peak occurs at 2400 rpm for better response at Australian speeds. GTI gains side airbags.
- Nov 1999: Limited edition Rally pack available on GL and GLE.
- Aug 2000: Running changes to trim and colours. Base Golf CL cabriolet dropped.
- Mar 2002: Major model shuffle sees Golf GL 1.6 replaced by 1.6S and 1.6SE. GLE 2.0 is also dropped and replaced by 2.0S and 2.0SE. Entry level features ABS, dual airbags, air-con, central locking as standard. GTI also upgraded.
- May 2003: GL Cabriolet phased out. Range simplified to Golf 1.6 Generation (prev SE level), 2.0 Generation (prev S level) and 2.0 Sport (prev SE level). All are effectively higher-spec runout packages.
- Aug 2004: Replaced by Golf V.
KEY GOLF CHECK POINTS:
Each engine brings specific concerns but 1.6 has alloy block, not cast iron of the 1.8 or 2.0. If the 1.6 is overheated, the alloy block can crack between the bores as well as the head forcing replacement of the complete engine in some cases.
Skipped oil changes can lead to premature valve stem seal wear which on the 20 valve engine can increase oil consumption dramatically. It’s relatively easy and cheap to repair. Listen for serious engine rattles if you suspect sludging or running without oil.
There are a number of failures that can generate engine overheating. This must be avoided at all costs as it can also cook the plastic parts in the auto transmission and cause it to fail as well. The drive belts need earlier pre-emptive replacement than usual. All coolant hoses, plastic fittings and thermostat need routine inspection in case they split or fail.
The most common failure is generated by the plastic/aluminium radiator. It features an unusual drain tap that could rattle open and drop the coolant if it is not closed properly by owners or service personnel during a coolant change or repair. Some mechanics are glueing it closed as a precaution. Golf owners should instinctively look for fluid spills each time they drive away from a car park – it could save thousands.
The occasional ECU or sensor failure can cause stalling or rough running but the Golf is better than most European rivals especially Astra in this area. Cam belt intervals are shorter than some so check if it is due or has been missed.
Before these models hit the recycler’s yards, a cracked auto transmission casing from nudging a kerb was enough to write-off a near new VW when a complete brand new transmission was required to fix it. It was not uncommon for unscrupulous operators to buy the write-off and bog up the crack then pass it off as a near new car with no visible signs of a crash repair. Leave no stone unturned in finding out why there are gaps in service and registration history.
If an engine sump has been grounded and damaged, check quality of repair or replacement.
Clutch levers are known to snap and plastic gearbox selector parts can break. Check engagement of reverse.
Brakes and Suspension
Golf driveshafts, shock absorbers and bushes are better than most. Hard driving will generate wear and odd groans and thumps from tired parts so check any noises.
Big shock for most owners is that Golf brakes need new rotors roughly every pad change for major expense. Rear drums on earlier base models need routine checking for fluid leaks as they never work hard. Regular brake fluid change is critical to avoid big dollar hydraulics failures.
Check for even tyre wear and make sure that alloy wheels are not buckled or damaged.
VW was one of the first to change to eco-friendly water borne paint which seems more vulnerable to chips and damage from fall-out. If parked outdoors, regular polishing is critical.
Golf III ancillary light positioning in bumper impact area was not clever so expect cracks and nudge parking damage. Check all lights as they can be expensive.
Golf will take bigger wallop in back than most but check fit and sealing of rear hatch. Gas struts supporting hatch and bonnet may need replacing. Clever rear washer jet has water line that can detach and cause water damage in rear cabin area so check all rear trim.
Low profile tyres and fancy alloys on some later models are vulnerable to kerb damage. Flared wheel arches attract dings and scrapes. Low hanging front spoiler is easily grounded. Check for underbody damage behind front spoiler as this may preview more serious mechanical damage.
All switch gear needs to be carefully checked. Remote door locks can get dozy. Power windows also fail and are fiddly and expensive to replace when they come as a sub-assembly.