April 29, 2012

Go Away

What I really mean is, please join me (and thousands of families) for Screen Free Week 2012. Turn off your screens and turn on Life. Ditch the commercials.

Think of it as a Digital Detox, the way you might eat fruit only, for a week, as a food cleanse, to give your body a break from all the sugar, fats, meat and other hard-to-digest ingredients of our modern diet.

This year, Screen Free Week is happening 30 April to 6 May. It was originally named TV-Turnoff Week, but has been expanded to include all the screens from which it seems so hard to tear ourselves away.

I know: for some of us it is impossible to go completely screen free: the screen might be part of our job description, moms need to receive timely mesages from school, and so on. But we can at least cut our screen time to the absolute minimum, cut all "recreational" use and focus our eyes at infinity instead of at 24 inches.


I'm looking forward to:

Use a few muscles other than the ones in my thumbs or index finger.

Bake bread; go to the library; garden; generally hang out with my children.

Make music. Mmm - maybe not on a kalimba.

Do spring cleaning. In my case that's good for a Screen Free Month.

Go outside: barbeque - biking - badminton

Have a date with my mate.

Meet some neighbours.

Maybe even build a cello box.


What: you're still here?
Go away: let's get moving. Enjoy your screen-freedom, see you when it's over, May 7. Or not. We might like it so much we'll decide to extend our screen vacation.

April 25, 2012

Review: 2012 Audi A3 Sportback

My dad has a friend in Germany, a mechanical engineer who is also an outstanding cook. He once treated my family to an eye-opening preparation of trout, with the even more eye-opening explanation that he wanted to share a particular bottle of Pouilly Fuissé with us, and that he had chosen the trout recipe to go with it. It was the first time I had seen anyone choose the food to accompany the bottle of wine.

Perhaps the automotive equivalent of that would be to choose the engine first, and then the skin to go with it. In that spirit, my search for a family car had started to form a vortex around the frugal 2.0L TDI diesel engine fielded by the Volkswagen Group (who don't offer the even more frugal 1.6L TDI in the US).

The 2.0L TDI is part of a platform shared by the Audi A3, the VW Golf, as well as the Golf Variant, known in the US as the Jetta Sportwagon. Indeed, a whole family of models including the VW Beetle, the Škoda Octavia and the SEAT Altea. What drew me to the A3 was the option of leather seats, which may help avoid the toxic outgassing of synthetic car interiors, so I went to visit the local Audi dealer.

What is designated the A3 in the US is actually the A3 Sportback, a five-door hatchback that's slightly longer overall (by 4 inches) than the Golf but less large than the Jetta Sportwagon. A cello might fit in the A3's trunk more comfortably than in the back of a Golf, so I brought the cello to the dealership to check the fit.

As it turned out, I never did find out. Just asking for the A3 started me off on the wrong foot: the dealer told me that they had none on the showroom floor, and none on the lot to show, having sold out their stock to the last specimen.

I thought to myself that either that was not a smart move on the part of the dealership, or someone was desperate enough for that last A3 that they made an offer the dealer couldn't refuse. The latter would be in line with the recent popularity of cars in the US that are both small and powered by diesel, judging by the soaring sales numbers. As it was, the best they could do for me was to see if one of their employees personally owned an A3 and whether they might be willing to unlock it for me to see if the cello would fit. Odd that a dealer wouldn't know what his colleagues are driving.

The conversation really went south when I asked about the possibility of buying a diesel A3 with standard transmission. This dealer saw fit to tell me that Audi doesn't make the 2.0L TDI with a standard shift. I'm sorry: even if I weren't CelloMom, who has been avidly researching everything automotive, you still can't tell me that Audi makes an automatic-only version of any of its models. All I have to do is go to audi.de to get the scoop.

Besides, it is only in the US that a shift stick on a dealer lot is like the proverbial needle in a haystack. In the rest of the world, "standard" transmission still means manual, and automatic transmission comes at a premium price.

The audiusa.com site does list only an automatic version of the A3 2.0 TDI, but since they are made in Germany anyway I thought I would inquire about the possibility of shipping an odd one from Ingolstadt with a standard transmission. I mentioned, perhaps foolishly, the advantages: a standard-shift car is less expensive to buy and and its higher fuel economy is friendlier on the planet, which also means it's less expensive to run.

I had expected a firm No. What I got was a lecture on how I couldn't beat, in a standard-shift car, the fuel efficiency of an automatic transmission anyway. Whoa. Perhaps that dealer was having an off day. Perhaps he could tell an upstart mom when he saw one - it's hard to deny I am one. Perhaps he was peeved that the last A3 had been sold and now he has nothing to show this eager customer. (And I had declined to look at the A4, knowing it would be too large for me). For my part I was peeved by his attitude, and I daresay I didn't improve his mood by pointing out to him that it's trivial to find out that in Europe the standard transmission A3 got the coveted "A" label for CO2 emissions, whereas the automatic was good for only a "B". Meaning the standard transmission does beat the automatic for fuel efficiency.

For the record (see table below), Audi's German website shows that for the same trim, the automatic version is € 1,750 ($2,300) more expensive than the manual version, and that its fuel efficiency is lower: 48mpg compared to 53mpg for the manual. These official numbers overestimate the fuel efficiency, which are reported by real-life drivers in the UK to be 38mpg (auto) compared to 44mpg (manual). In the US the specs quote an average fuel economy of 34mpg for the auto transmission, but the EPA test tends to understate the fuel economy of diesel engines.

Since this dealer was insisting that a manual-transmission version of this car does not exist, he couldn't very well accomodate a request for a special import, could he?.

Pity. Unlike CelloDad, I must have that stick. And the next-nearest Audi dealer is nearly an hour away: too far. And that is how our family ended up with a Golf TDI.


I suppose that once small cars come into their own in the US, consumer choice will broaden. As it is, the Audi A3 is offered in the US in just a few choices : two trims, "Premium" and "Premium Plus", and two engines, the 2.0L TDI diesel (auto transmission only) and the 2.0 TFSI gasoline (manual, S-tronic auto or Quattro all-wheel drive).

In contrast, the German page for the A3 Sportback offers a wonderfully bewildering array of possibilities: a total of seventy-five combinations of four trim levels, 1.6L and 2.0L TDI diesel engines, and 1.2L, 1.4L, 1.8L and 2.0L TFSI gasoline engines. Choice of manual transmission, S-tronic auto or Quattro. It's exhilirating just to scroll, and scroll, down the list. This is what I call consumer choice.

It doesn't end there: there are corresponding lists for the three-door A3, the three-door S3, the five-door S3 Sportback, the open-top A3 Cabriolet, the over-the-top RS 3 Sportback. Check it out: have a ball.

I was ready to call the American "Premium" trim designation a choice example of grade inflation, like calling the smallest available coffee cup "tall", but after some digging came to the conclusion that the naming is accurate, and probably comes with a premium price tag attached to it. Here is a list of items that are options on the German A3 page but which come "standard" in the US "Premium" trim, together with the price in Euro.

€ 1750 Auto transmission
€   600 Metallic paint
€ 1680 17" alloy wheels (upgrade from 16")
€ 1655 Leather seats (non sport)

From my quick and probably incomplete peek, here's € 5,685 ($ 7,500) in "options". (Apparently air conditioning is no longer a real option even in Germany: you get it standard.) Remember, the German prices include a hefty tax. But if you decide you can do without any or all of that, too bad: you get to buy it anyway. It's that supersizing trick at work.

Scrolling through the German options, I spied one that I would find sorely tempting: leather upholstery all over the interior (€ 1,015). Getting away from the synthetic materials altogether would be worth it to me. One day I will find out whether or not that is included in the US "Premium" version: but not, I suppose, at my local Audi dealer.


Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI, Auto vs. Manual Transmission.

2.0 TDI S-tronic
2.0 TDI 6-speed
Type Attraction Attraction
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5 "B" EURO5 "A"
MSRP € 28,000 € 26,250
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 5.8 / 4.4 L/100km 5.5 / 3.8 L/100km
Avg. quoted 4.9 L/100km (48mpg) 4.4 L/100km (53mpg)
Avg. actual 38 mpg 44 mpg

2.0L Turbodiesel

2.0L Turbodiesel
Power 140 HP @ 4200rpm 140HP @ 4200rpm
Gears 6-spd Auto 6-spd Manual
Fuel Diesel Diesel
Length, mm(in) 4292mm (168.9 in)  
Width, mm(in) 1765mm (78.5 in)  
Height, mm(in) 1423mm (56.0 in)  
Weight, kg(lbs) 1460kg (3219 lbs) 1435kg (3164 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 370L  
Turning radius, m(ft) 10.7m  
Top speed, kph(mph) 210 kph 210 kph

April 22, 2012

For Earth Day, pledge to turn off your TV

There are really very few "must-haves".

Food & water, shelter, your loved ones nearby, and a few other things. But an trade-in to the latest version of your cellphone? One more shirt to join the two hundred already jostling for space in your closet? "Sport" wheels on your car: the ones that really only make a difference if you actually took the car out on a race track? A particular brand of car?

Think about it carefully: where did you pick up the idea that you "must have" those things? Often you will find that it was planted in your brain (and the brains of your friends) by advertising. Advertising is companies' direct access to that button in your psyche that makes you open your wallet for even the most dubious purchases. It is relentless. And a lot of it comes through television.

So by turning off the TV you block the continual assault on your senses, and your common sense, by that endless string of commercials.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not into "minimalist" living, with one pair of jeans, one sleeping bag and one bowl and spoon. I like my comfort, thanks, and I like a good product. I just prefer to decide on my own just what is a good product, and when (and whether) I need it. I don't need to be told that by a company that makes the product. Besides, in my opinion these days companies are not out to make a product: they're out to make a profit. On us.

Going TV-free does get easier as you get used to it and make a new routine, but it can be tough at first. Especially for children, for whom it is especially important that they get peeled off their screens and booted outside. There is medical research that shows that children who play outside, even just an hour a day, are significantly less near-sighted than children who stay inside. Just for that it's worth it. And there are all the other benefits. Try the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood for some ideas on how to start, even if you don't have children.

Every fish-themed picnic bowl you don't buy, every cellphone upgrade that you skip, every short-lived plastic toy you pass by, is a win for the planet. I will contain myself and say nothing about 400HP throbbing gas guzzlers.

Happy Earth Day! Let's make something of it, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows.

April 19, 2012

Hoofpicks: not just for horses

I like to move around, and that is why I'm acutely aware of the importance of the sine qua non of my locomotion: my feet. I have difficult feet: very difficult feet. Between the broadness inherited from my dad, and the bunions inherited from my mom, finding a pair of shoes that fit is a major triumph. If the shoes don't fit well, my feet will tell me so, without much subtlety.

Perhaps that's why I'm also acutely aware of the sine qua non of my automotive conveyance: the wheels of my car. Your car can have the smoothest-running purring engine: you'll still get nowhere without a set of wheels that are in good shape. Hence my fixation with tire pressure, and keeping the rims circular.

See this widget? It's a hoof pick. You can get it for less than $2 at any equine supply store. It has a strong rounded point on one side, that you use to pry stones and other sharpies out of the horse's hoof, then you can flip it over and brush off the remaining dirt.

We don't have horses. But we do have a few mud bunnies who tend to pick up the most amazing crud on the bottom of our shoes. City shoes are easy to clean, but for the boots with treads those hoof picks come in real handy.

Turns out they're the perfect tool for prying gravel out of tire treads. Treads on new tires can be up to 1/4" deep, and that much rubber can really get a grip on small pebbles and gravel. Some of those stones have sharp edges, so to be gentle on the tires I like to pry them out, pre-emptively. That also stops the annoying tick-tick you hear at every revolution of the wheel as the protruding part of the stone hits the alphalt.

On a recent fossil-hunting trip, when we drove into a few gravelly quarries, trudged our boots through clay-bottom streams, and brushed dirt off the fossils, we used that hoof pick constantly. I love a multi-purpose tool.

April 15, 2012

How you pay for car features that you don't need

Here's my hypothesis: options packages are the vehicular equivalent of McDonald's supersizing your order of french fries and soda: it means car manufacturers can sell you more bells and whistles, even if you don't want or need them. But you still get to pay for them.

"Can I get my Golf TDI with a sunroof?" It's just the kind of question that brings a big smile on a dealer's face.
"Sure you can," he said, "We have the Sunroof and Navigation Package."

I know about this package: it tacks on $1720 to the MSRP of the car.

"Can I get just the sunroof?" I ask. "I don't need the navigation, for that I've got a husband and two children, and they all know how to read a map."
"Mmmm sorry, it only comes in the package."
"Okay: sorry, but no sunroof for me."

I didn't feel very strongly about the sunroof anyway: it's a nice luxury to have your hair messed up when driving around on a nice day, but I can do without it.

My fellow consumers, doesn't it irk you to be put into a box marked "Sunroof AND Navigation"? How about "Sunroof Sucker"? What if the only way to get a sunroof on your car was to buy the package called "Sunroof and Barbie-themed Neon Pink Upholstery"?

Of course it is cheaper to manufacture cars that come in a small number of variations. But the packages seem to be thrown together almost at random. I mean, just because you want the cold weather package that gives you seat heat, does that mean that you must want the Bluetooth hands-free calling system for your cell phone?

It is especially ironic that these packages have become so ubiquitous in the country where individuality is so highly prized. Whereas if you bought a VW Golf in Germany, they let you specify your options to the last detail, such as whether you want mechanically or electrically operated windows in the back. Try the German configurator page for the Golf. They don't presume to tell you what your personal and individual quirks might be. If you want leather seats in an otherwise bare-bones Golf, you can order it that way.

You do get to wait, usually 2-3 months, but then you get the car to your own specification, not the specs thrown together by some marketing team. It's not that much more expensive to build cars this way: in the one car factory I have visited, parts are brought to the assembly line by a huge system of computer-controlled conveyors. Some cars are three-door, some five-door. Colours are all over the place. Specs are all over the place.

For the assembly, it doesn't matter whether a particular car gets regular or "sport" seats, auto or manual transmission: the conveyor system is simply cued, digitally, to get the right item from the right rack, for each car. Every sixth car has its steering wheel put in on the right side: those are bound for the UK market. If I worked on that assembly line I would be grateful for the variation: it keeps you from turning into an automaton like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

But the supersizing trick is so flattering to the carmakers' bottom line. Think about it: you get the customer to buy stuff they would never have bought if they had been given the choice. Items like a navigation system have high markup.

Volkswagen is not the only car manufacturer that resorts to these tactics. There are plenty of other brands that proudly proclaim in their car commercials that this and that option "comes standard". It sounds great, but all it means is that you are paying for stuff whether you want it or not: you have no choice. Note: they say it "comes standard"; they don't say it comes for free.

Here is a list of features that "came standard" with our new Golf, and that I don't need; in fact, I don't know what to do with some of it. The numbers show the price in Euro, from the German configurator page.

975    Adaptive chassis stability control
975    Upgrade to 17" "Salamanca" wheels
420    Winter package: seat heat, heated windshield fluid, headlight cleaners
290    (and up) mobile phone connection
195    iPod connection
175    USB connection
185    Mist lamps
205    Cruise control
???    Air conditioning
???    Hill start assist
???    Touch screen radio with satellite capability

Here is at least € 3,500 ($ 4,500) worth of features that I didn't ask for but got anyway. These prices (like prices of everything to do with cars) would be lower in the US, but I estimate it would still come to at least $ 3,500 worth of unwanted equipment.

I would be more than happy to give up all that stuff in return for a $ 3,500 discount.

You see, I'm the "Volk" for which Volkswagen was made: just a regular guy. Also, I am a curmudgeonly geek: relatively insensitive to status, acutely sensitive to function. To me, my car is a means of transportation: it is not my living room, not my entertainment center, and not a toy. Nor do I need my car to tell the world, or remind myself, who I am. My car is just for getting me and my crew from A to B, safely.

That means I don't go tearing around corners, and I slow down when it's wet or snowy. That means I don't really need the electronic stability control that keeps me from fishtailing if I've been foolish enough to go too fast where I shouldn't.

Next, I don't feel a burning need to be plugged in wherever I go; I'm of the old school that doesn't do distracted driving. Indeed, I don't own anything that can communicate with the iPod or the USB connection. My children are screen free, so they don't have anything to plug in, either. So those connections are wasted on us.

Mist lamps: in our area, we get fog at most once a year. We've been doing fine without mist lamps for decades now.

Cruise control makes me fall asleep.

Hill start assist: give me a break! If you can deal with the third pedal in the footwell, you can deal with using the hand brake for getting your car going on the steepest hills. It's part of the fun of manual drive. I might just ask for it to be disabled at the first service.

Air conditioning: we're not going to use it. We don't mind perspiring a bit, especially since that beats breathing the unhealthy emanations from the molds that invariably invade the manifold. I might yank this out, too: losing the weight of the AC unit will increase fuel efficiency.

Here is the problem: once installed, these "features" are nearly impossible to take out (=more expensive than it's worth).

But there is one thing that is very easy to replace: the wheels. This is where I got to work. Because I'm not taking the supersizing gimmick lying down.

I don't need the plus-sized "sport" wheels that give "better handling". The latter means that you can go around corners as tightly as the steering will allow, at 30mph, without slipping on the asphalt. We're talking about a one-gee sideways acceleration. This was never in my repertoire of "fun" things to do, and now with children in the car, a cello and eggs, it's out of the question.

On the other hand, those 17" wheels have disadvantages. For one, they're broader in the lateral direction, so they're less fuel efficient, and less safe in rain and snow; and they're thinner in the radial direction, so the chances of putting a dent in the rims is that much greater. My town's streets are pockmarked with tire-eating potholes. Towns and states are broke, and asphalt, which is derived from petroleum, is getting to be super expensive, so I am not optimistic that roads will improve soon. VW knows this: they tried to sell me insurance for in case a pothole dents my wheel; Premium: $500. Ka-ching.

My dealer was very confused. It took me a while and quite a bit of pushing to convince him that yes, I am indeed determined to "downgrade" from 17" wheels to 15" wheels. Those are the sizes of the rims, and as you can see from the photos the 15" wheels have tires that have much more rubber (=protection) on the sidewalls; because while the rim is smaller, the outside diameter of the tires has to be the same for both sets.

They tried to tell me that VW doesn't make the 15" wheels any more, but I produced a quote that I had previously got from the service department (those guys are my friends! and the ones who will give me the straight dope on what's available and what's not).

These are the wheels that, according to all the literature, are supposed to come with the gasoline-engine Golf, so they were just going to do a quick swap. However, to my dealer's surprise, there wasn't a single Golf on their lot, diesel or gasoline, that didn't have the 17" wheels. So they had to special-order a set of 15" wheels for me.

In the end I drove home with a new set of 15" wheels, a $1200 rebate check (the difference in price) and a happy feeling of relief: now I'll be a lot less worried about those potholes.

For complete disclosure, the 15" wheels are made of steel, not the rust-free aluminum alloy of the 17" wheels. I'll have to keep an eye on them during the wintertime road-salting season. But a replacement set costs less than $400, so if I have to do that in 6-8 years I'll still come out ahead. The tires for the 15" wheels are also less expensive to replace when the time comes for that.

I wholeheartedly commend my VW dealership. It's not their fault that Volkswagen USA has adopted the gimmick supersizing policy with their options packages. Still, once it became clear that this customer would not back down over those wheels, my dealer and his manager went out of their way to make me a happy customer. This is why I make the half-hour drive to see them; because in my experience, the VW dealer that's within walking distance of my house doesn't deliver that level of customer satisfaction.

My new 15" wheels look like donuts. Well, that's what wheels are: torus shaped. I'll drive on a set of donuts rather than a set of onion rings, thanks very much. The 15" wheels fit better inside the wheel wells, because they are thinner in the lateral direction. There was something not quite decent about the way the 17" wheels were barely contained in the wheel wells. This is a Volkswagen Golf, for heaven's sake, not a Ferrari F12berlinetta.

April 13, 2012

Done: 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI

You have to bite the bullet sometime. In the end, you take a deep breath, and you sign on the dotted line. And so it was that CelloMom stopped vacillating and brought home a 2012 VW Golf TDI, the one with the 2.0L diesel engine that I sneered at last summer for doing only 42 mpg on the highway. You have to work with what you can get.

We traded in our 2001 Golf with the 2.0L gasoline engine, much to CelloPlayer's dismay and disgruntlement. CelloPlayer was so attached to that old Golf, and was determined to hate the new one - until one cold morning when I turned on the seat heat; after that there was a palpable thaw in the formerly frosty relation.

Here is one car that really hasn't grown much over the decade: barely two inches in all three directions (the 2001 Golf was an Mk4 version, the current 2012 Golf is an Mk6). Overall, it's much like stepping into the same car.

On the outside, the lines of the Mk6 are not as clean as I would prefer: there are a few folds and ridges all around the exterior that I think are quite unnecessary. And it's got that silly overhang at the top of the hatch: as far as I can tell it only serves to catch dust, and to shield that dust from the rain that might have washed it away. The front presents a much less friendly aspect, more aggressive, more angular. Too bad. I always liked Volkswagens for their rounded features. Still, it's a Golf, and its styling is still distinctive.

The dashboard is mostly black (plastic) with brushed-metallic rims and highlights around the various instruments. At least it's not a shiny chrome. It's a bit overdone for a Golf, I would have preferred it all black, maybe with anodised aluminum if you must have metal rims. The instruments light up white with red highlights, easy on the eye when it's dark out.

Of course, I got the rubber floor mats. Not for the sake of the flashy TDI logo, but because they're chemically cleaner than the plastic carpet mats. So far, the new car smell hasn't been overwhelming - but we've been keeping the windows well open, cold weather or not.

Seats are firm: cue the heavenly choir! I have always thought that over-stuffing the seats was a bad idea: after all, these are car seats, not your grandma's recliner. In a too-soft seat you start to get itchy after an hour and a half, and a six-hour drive is an exhausting experience. Now they have finally outfitted this car with seats so firm that they are comfortable, and remain so even at the end of a six hour drive.

To go with the firmed-up seats, the upholstery is spartan by US standards, and also much more on the European mold: more stark, less pluche. Translation: much easier to keep clean. It will also be much friendlier on your skin in sticky weather. CelloDad, who hates the feel of velour on his skin in any weather, is very happy about this.

He would have plunked down the extra cost for leather seats, but unfortunately, you can't get those in Golfs sold in the US. And while we're on the subject of out-of-reach options, if we lived in Germany we would have gone far away from the boring colours, and would likely have ordered a Golf with a dark-plum exterior, the one called "Dark Violett Perleffekt". Oh, and the 1.6L BlueMotion diesel engine (50mpg). Oh well.

Anyway, in the US Golf TDI, the front seats are of the "sport" type, and have adjustable lumbar support that is very useful on long trips, and generally help short people like me reach the pedals. And there is the seat heat.

The back seats have that legendary Golf leg space that make it comfortable for even my brother in law, who is 6'8" tall. Fitting baby and child seats have never been a problem for us. And the back seat is shaped like a bench: that is, the two outer seats are not molded. So it's a great flat place to lay down a cello across the three seats. Also good for a, er, nap.

Open the trunk by flipping up the VW logo: my children were especially enamoured of this feature.

The 3/4 cello still fits diagonally in the trunk. But in this Golf you can fold down the back of just the middle seat, and position the cello so that its neck protrudes onto the back seat. This will be the way to go once we grow into a full sized cello and we have a few friends coming in the car with us. (And no: I wouldn't dream of actually moving a naked, case-less cello, but it does make for a cute picture).

If you fold down the front half only of that flap, it turns into an arm rest complete with two cup holders. The arm rest is wide enough for one of the occupants of the back seat to do their homework on it, if necessary.

Okay: turn the key already.

Ignition is instant: there is no wait time for the engine block to heat: this is really not your dad's Mack truck. The diesel engine idles with a pleasing and extremely discreet throbbing; you won't wake up the neighbourhood by starting this baby. You don't smell anything either: true to its "clean" diesel designation.

For the rest it also behaves like any other internal combustion engine. For instance, you don't have to worry about emptying the fuel tank. In an older diesel engine, if you empty the tank completely, you needed to get the car towed to a garage that can prime the engine before it can be restarted. Fuel injection put an end to all that trouble.

True to the custom in the VW family, the shift stick moves as if in butter. I don't know what they have in that gear box, but it is possible to shift through all six gears using just your index finger (reverse requires a bit more). The best part: it stays that way for years. Come to think of it, the gear box in our 11-year old Golf was only marginally less smooth. It's the kind of thing that puts a grin on my face: very big, very satisfied, very geeky.

Also true to the custom in the VW family, the power steering comes on strong at standstill and at low speeds, where you need it, but discreetly tucks itself out of the way as soon as the wheels are at a comfortable roll, so you don't have that awful drive-by-wire feel, especially disconcerting when you're going 65mph on the highway.

This car is a pleasure to drive. The 140hp (or rather, the 236 lbs/ft torque) gives it enough zip, even carrying four people plus luggage, and even going uphill. We took a road trip over spring break, clocking most of the miles on highways; the overall fuel efficiency was 45mpg, better than the EPA highway spec of 42mpg. So overnight, we more than doubled our fuel economy from the embarrassing 20mpg of our 2001 Golf.

Since the fuel tank contains 14.5 gallons, you can go 600 miles on a full tank. This makes CelloDad, who is prone to range anxiety, insanely happy.

And so we park. We get out and - oops, forgot to close a window. Here is a design flaw: the car key is now fully electronic. No more keyhole in the door handle that used to bail you out and allow you to close all the windows by inserting the key and turning it clockwise. This makes the "valet" key quite useless as you can't use it to lock the car. It also means that if you decide to launder your key you need to bring it to the dealer to be revived. I once laundered my car key by forgetting to fish it out of my pocket before throwing the jeans into the washing machine. The key came out quite clean, and not quite useless, since I could still get into the car by just sticking it into the door the old-fashioned way. That option has now been taken away: that's progress for you. But not, in my opinion, in the right direction.

Is the extra cost worth it?
This is actually not straightforward to answer. The basic 4-door diesel is about $5000 more expensive than the basic 4-door Golf with the 2.5L gasoline engine. But several upgrades come with the diesel version, including 17" alloy wheels, built-in Bluetooth, expanded media, and that seat heat, all of which I estimate to account for about $2000 of the price difference, by peeking at the options price list on the German site for the Golf. (I have a lot more to say about options packaging, but that's for another post).

So my guesstimate is that the diesel engine itself counts for about $3000 of the price difference.

If we had bought the 2012 Golf with the 2.5L gasoline engine, the overall fuel efficiency would have been just 29.7mpg. If we drive the car 80,000 miles over the next ten years, as we did with our previous car, we would need 80,000 / 29.7 = 2690 gallons of gasoline. The TDI diesel (42mpg) would need 1900 gallons of diesel to cover that same distance. Keeping in mind that diesel is about 10% more expensive than regular unleaded gasoline, we find the breakeven point from
    2690*p = 1900 * 1.1 * p + $3000.
The breakeven point happens when the price of regular gasoline p = $5 per gallon. When the price rises above that level, the TDI diesel becomes cheaper to own over the 80,000 miles.

If you drive more than my family do, the breakeven point shifts to lower price: to $2.50 per gallon if you plan to drive the car for 160,000 miles, so it already makes sense at today's prices to go for the diesel rather than the gasoline Golf.

I was very happy when I brought this car home. And I'm even happier now, after having swapped the 17" wheels that come standard with the Golf TDI for a set of 15" wheels, even though at first sight that seems like a downgrade. But that's a story for another post.

In Europe, the Golf is a respectable family car. In the US, it seems to be marketed mostly to first-car owners: young, just out of school, just got a first job. So now we sit back and wait for the follow-up promotional material to fall into our mailbox: all the stuff that's directed at people about 20-25 years younger than we. Not a child seat in sight. It will be all about snowboard racks and such. It's like getting an age reduction package in the mail. I love it.