BERLIN – Following an especially tense rocket launch, astronaut Wally Schirra was asked what he was thinking about during liftoff.

“This was all put together by the lowest bidder,” he quipped.

We had a Schirra moment while cruising on the autobahn during a test drive of the ’10 Volkswagen Golf. We had to make a sudden lane change and stop because of a traffic backup.

Right before we yanked the steering wheel at 115 mph (185 km/h) and stood on the brakes, we remembered the base price of our Golf was $17,490.

Fortunately, the car responded crisply and halted like a finely tuned German sports sedan. There was none of the chassis wiggling and tire screeching you would expect trying to wrestle a small car in this class to a stop from such high speed.

Not many similarly priced cars sold in the U.S. can handle high-velocity maneuvers with such composure.

We definitely would not want to try such evasive maneuvers with most of the skinny-tired “sensible” small cars the standard Golf competes with in the U.S., or the hybrid-electric vehicles that contend in the same price range as the $22,000 diesel-powered TDI version.

Superb engineering and driving dynamics have made the new sixth-generation Golf the most popular car in Europe and one of the long-time best-sellers in the world, with 26 million delivered since the first generation debuted in 1974.

But VW has had little success translating the Golf’s vast popularity to the U.S.

In Europe, the Golf is considered a midsize family vehicle, and commands prices that would shock American consumers who consider it entry-level.

In the U.S., the Golf is in the same league as the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus. It is a segment where hatchbacks have limited appeal and affordability and quality rankings trump driving dynamics.

Putting it at a further disadvantage, VW’s quality and buyer-loyalty ratings have been less than stellar, although it recently has made big improvements. A brief attempt to “Americanize” the previous-generation car by resurrecting the old “Rabbit” badge was a failure.

These factors have led the Golf to become mostly a niche car for U.S. European car fans on a budget. Through November, Civic sales topped 220,000 units and Focus deliveries were more than 145,000. Sales of the outgoing Rabbit model were about 6,100 units, about 13,000 including the sporty GTI version, according to Ward’s data.

Underscoring the challenge the hatchback Golf faces in America, sales of the mechanically similar Jetta sedan exceeded 98,000 units during the same period.

With the ’10 Golf, which hit U.S. showrooms in October, VW has decided to stick with the name known in the rest of the world.

’10 Volkswagen Golf
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 3- or 5-door hatchback
Engine 2.5L DOHC I-5 cast iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 177 lb.-ft. @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 101.5 ins. (258 cm)
Overall length 165.4 ins. (420 cm)
Overall width 70.3 ins. (178.6 cm)
Overall height 58.3 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight 2,968 lbs. (1,346 kg)
Base price $17,490
Fuel economy 23/30 (10-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Mazda3, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Kia Forte
Pros Cons
Diesel mpg Conservative styling
Great driving dynamics Boring standard engine
Finely crafted interior VW quality reputation

And, for the ’10 model year, it debuts on the North American stage with a major new advantage: a clean-diesel option that passes California’s super-tough emissions standards and can be sold in all 50 states.

The 140-hp diesel offers HEV-like fuel economy of 30/42 mpg (7.8-5.6 L/100 km) city/highway, but with 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque available at just 1,750 rpm. It blows away its frugal competitors leaving stoplights or passing on the highway.

Available on the VW Jetta sedan since last year, the diesel was just named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for the second year in a row.

The standard 170-hp 2.5L I-5 gasoline engine also delivers decent performance and economy, but it seems a bit old and grumbly compared with the 1.4L “Twincharged” gasoline engine we tested in a European version of the car. VW is mum about when they will offer that engine in the U.S.

With 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque at 4,250 rpm, the base Golf with the 2.5L hits 60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.8 seconds and gets 22/30 mpg (10.7-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway with the standard 5-speed manual. The 6-speed automatic delivers 1 mpg better in both categories and a 0-60 run is 0.3 seconds slower.

The 2.0L DOHC diesel version takes 8.6 seconds to hit 60 mph, but its added 59 lb.-ft. (80 Nm) of torque, available at much lower rpm than the gasoline engine’s torque, makes the car more responsive and fun to drive while delivering 30% better fuel economy.

A stiff, laser-welded unibody with fully independent suspension and MacPherson struts and standard anti-roll bar up front, combined with a fully independent 4-link arrangement with coil springs, telescopic shocks and another stabilizer bar in the rear, provide an agile but compliant ride at virtually all speeds.

Power-assisted 4-wheel disc brakes with vented rotors in front and solid rotors in the rear equate to plenty of stopping power. Standard antilock brakes and electronic stability control also include traction control, electronic differential lock, hydraulic brake assist and electronic brake-pressure distribution.

A full complement of safety features is standard, including six airbags and front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters; 4-door Golf models are available with rear-side thorax airbags.

The new Golf’s conservative styling does not differ much visually from its predecessor, and dimensions almost are identical, with the new model just 0.19 ins. (5 mm) shorter, 0.79 ins. (20 mm) wider and the wheelbase and height the same.

The new model does have a new front-end design that includes a wider, double-bar grille that blends into angled halogen headlamps for a sportier look. A body-colored bumper sits above a revised front fascia featuring a wide-mouthed cooling duct.

The interior, however, is a big step up in quality from the previous generation. Materials and fit and finish are best-in-class. Brushed metallic trim inserts on the dash and in door panels are standard in all models and add an elegant touch.

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system controls are handled by what VW calls a “more ergonomic” arrangement of knobs and buttons versus the more traditional dial and button layout, but it is not very intuitive. A touch-screen navigation system with a large display also is available as an option.

Despite its efficiency, upscale interior and superior driving dynamics, the Golf still faces an uphill climb in the U.S. upper small-car segment, where many consumers only want an inexpensive appliance to get them from point A to B, or an HEV that will allow them to brag about their fuel economy to the neighbors.

And if fuel economy is all you care about, the Golf TDI can’t match the 40/45 mpg (5.8-5.2 L/100 km) offered by the $24,000 Honda Civic Hybrid, the 40/43 mpg (5.8-5.5 L 100/km) offered by the $20,500 Honda Insight or the 51/48 mpg (4.6-4.9 L 100/km) delivered by the $22,400, and much larger, Toyota Prius.

Volkswagen of America Inc. CEO Stefan Jacoby says the auto maker has its sights set on industry leader Toyota Motor Corp. and plans to prevail by providing more stylish and emotional alternatives while boosting consumer confidence in the quality and reliability of VW vehicles.

Providing more emotional products than Toyota will be the easy part. Overcoming consumer concerns about quality, reliability and maintenance costs will take a much larger effort.

To this end, VW is offering 24-hour roadside assistance for three years or 36,000 miles (58,000 km), a 5-year/60,000-mile (97,000-km) powertrain warranty and a 3-year, 36,000-mile new- vehicle warranty.

The Golf also is covered by a no-charge scheduled maintenance program for three years or 36,000 miles.

dwinter@wardsauto.com