The gas engine has more horsepower on paper, but the 2011 Volkswagen Golf's diesel engine gets our nod for superior all-around performance.
The Golf TDI burns fuel more efficiently and gets better suspension tuning to boot. It may have lower numbers, at 140 hp, but with its 236 lb-ft of torque, the TDI is just a touch slower to 60 mph than the five-cylinder Golf, while its superior torque gives it quicker launch feel. There's just a little diesel clatter and it adds to the distinctive driving experience, even. While it delivers 30/42 mpg, the TDI also puts down a competitive 0-60 mph time of 8.6 seconds. The diesel also comes with a choice of manual or dual-clutch gearbox; we think VW's paddle-shifted DSG box is one of the best transmissions you can buy, and here it has the same quick changes up or down through the diesel's narrower powerband.
The five-cylinder gas engine won't thrill users, but it's adequate. With 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, it's unexciting and flat in response to the throttle. The vague-feeling five-speed manual that comes with as standard equipment with the three-door Golf is better swapped out for VW's better six-speed automatic; the five-door only comes with the automatic. It's a bit quicker to 60 mph with this engine, about a half-second quicker, and fuel economy can be as high as 23/33 mpg, but the five-cylinder Golf just doesn't feel as engaging.
The Golf's handling, no matter which version you choose, is a strong point. Its electric power steering is well-sorted for good driving feel, and the ride is taut, not jarring. Diesels are set a bit more sporty, and it's not punishing at all. The front strut and independent rear suspension absorb big bumps with nary a crash or bang, and braking on the cars tested feels strong and controllable.