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People in Chicago, or Detroit, or Minneapolis, always nod and say they know what you mean when you say it’s cold in Northern Minnesota. But they don’t. They think “cold” means it was uncomfortably cold, maybe zero, or 10 above, which can be uncomfortable, all right.
Then there’s Bemidji, Minnesota. Paul Bunyan Land, we’re told, and the gigantic statue of Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, which greets you as you enter Bemidji from the south, is their emblem, standing there rigidly on the shores of Lake Bemidji. They are rigid, because it’s 29 below zero outside on this bright and sunny morning in January. Twenty-nine. And we’re not talking wind-chill here, it was minus-29 actual.
Perfect conditions for a test drive of the 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE, a new model to add to the impressive collection of Golf small sedans. We used to be able to say coupes and sedans, but VW decided not to bring even the GTI 2-door to the U.S. this year, so the hot-rod GTI with all its fantastic handling and power comes only as a 4-door.
Of course, there are other Golf models, including the Golf R, which is an all-wheel-drive version of the GTI, and there is the SportWagen, an actual sporty station wagon based on the Golf platform. The Jetta, which began life as a 4-door-with-trunk version of the Golf hatchback, is now separate, although with the same new platform and a unique 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder at the base of its powertrain. As a group, Motor Trend named the redesigned Golf as its Car of the Year for 2018.
When I heard the vehicle that would be delivered to me in Duluth, Minnesota, would be the new Golf SE, I was more than just interested. After all the big changes for 2018, there were only some minor alterations for 2019, but among them is that VW has taken the 1.4 and put it into two Golf models — the base S and the nicely upgraded SE. Having driven that engine in the Jetta, and being very impressed, it seemed silly that it wasn’t already put into the Golfs, but what did I know?
Well, I knew that as amazingly consistent and strong as the 2.0 and its 1.8 derivative have been over the years, that the 1.4 is from an all-new engine family, and is even more efficient than the redoubtable 1.8 and 2.0.
My wife, Joan, had been planning on driving across to the western end of Minnesota to visit her sister, who was celebrating her birthday in Fergus Falls, so I came up with the ideal compromise. We could drive up Hwy. 2 from Duluth to Bemidji on Friday, stay overnight, and drive south to Fergus Falls on Saturday afternoon, in time to take everybody out to dinner.
The intriguing part of my plan is that the Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North television have been collaborating for several years on what they call Hockey Day Minnesota. They set up an outdoor rink in a selected town, then they coordinate to spend the whole day putting on return-to-your-roots hockey games between boys and girls high school teams and a couple of college games for good measure, and get the whole thing done in time for the Saturday night Wild game back in the warm confines of Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.
We’ve had a pretty mild winter so far, with December filled with temperatures that were about 20 degrees above normal. We knew that when we made our plans, and we also knew a cold front was coming through the state, pushed down like a giant hammer-strike from somewhere up near the Arctic Circle.
Doesn’t matter to us, we thought. Having driven the Golf around Duluth most of the week, with one trip to Minneapolis and back, there was nothing to cause hesitation about taking off to Bemidji. The SE model has some nice upgrades to the interior, and a few other refinements, such as satellite radio and power leatherette seats and a lot of storage room under the hatch, and a wheel-tire upgrade. The beauty of the Golf SE is that, along with the base S, you can get the SE with a 6-speed manual transmission, and that’s the way the grey test car came,
We took off on our northwesterly trajectory up Hwy. 2, through Grand Rapids and on to Bemidji, where we had already found good fortune by getting a hotel room in advance because of a cancellation. Hockey Day Minnesota has become such a big deal that people were coming from all directions, even driving a couple hours south to find rooms near Brainerd.
Volkswagen’s ability to make such a solid, strong, and peppy compact car in this SUV era is partially due to German engineering, partially due to the consistency of making a great engine and then refining it, but mostly because the German company is desperate to regain the favor of U.S. car buyers after the weird diesel issue, which seems to have affected every auto-maker that uses diesel engines, but VW was the prime target of fines and retribution. Those TDI golfs and Jettas routinely gave owners over 40 miles per gallon with strong cruising performance and a longevity factor routinely topping 300,000 miles. With diesels effectively eliminated from the VWs sold in the U.S., the company has engineered gasoline engines that are almost as economical.
While the Golf SE displayed predictable stability and excellence where steering and handling come together, its tiny 1.4 engine performed brilliantly. Now, the 1.4 turbo will never be accused of emulating a drag-racer, because it is so small that it doesn’t have a blast of power off the line. The 147 horsepower are more than adequate, and the 184 foot-pounds of torque are more than adequate. You just need to launch, build up the revs, and it can impersonate a hot-rod. For certain, it has enough oomph to accelerate out into freeway traffic without causing any obscene gestures from approaching cars.
But here’s the secret: You can approach or get above 40 miles per gallon in fuel economy with a little judicious use of the gas pedal. I did it, as the photo indicates, with a reading of 36.9 mpg after 408.7 miles of travel. When you break down the fuel companies charge for diesel fuel, compared to the SE’s regular gas, any advantage to the diesel’s edge in mpg is pretty well eliminated.
I still love the feeling of outright power from the turbo-diesel, but it’s remarkable how well VW has adapted to customers who want extremely high mileage.
Of course, the severe cold we hadn’t fully comprehended when we left made an instant impression on us when we got to Bemidji. As Bemidji State defeated Michigan Tech on the outdoor rink Friday night, in a 4-3 overtime classic, the temperature was heading downward. By morning, we learned it had hit an actual early-morning low of 29 below. As they like to boast up north, someone pointed out that International Falls, just a couple hours to the north and east, had 37 below!
The SE didn’t have a heated steering wheel, but it did have heated seats, which we have come to believe is a mandatory option for any car being bought to drive in Northern Minnesota wintertime. They worked quickly and in a matter of a couple miles you were dropping it down from three, to two, to one on its indicator. If you want heated steering wheel, I understand; but wear gloves, and accept the coziness of having a warmed-up posterior.
A highlight of the drive from Duluth to Bemidji was spotting a huge bald eagle perched halfway up a tree along Hwy. 2, and we saw another near Aitkin. But as we were driving eastward along Hwy. 210 near McGregor the true highlight of the entire trip was in front of us. They call it a blood moon, and the Ojibwa call it a wolf moon, but because of its proximity of closeness to the Earth, it rises with what seems to be supernatural hugeness, and it has a distinct red color.
We stopped to shoot some photos, and they are amazing. We cruised along getting 37.1 mpg for a high, and it was fascinating to see the woods and fields and houses along the way, lighted by that glorious moon. And we listened to the NFL playoff game on satellite radio with nary a glitch — except by the officials when the Los Angeles Rams great New Orleans in overtime. We also heard the first half of the New England-Kansas City game in the car before getting home to watch the rest on television. When the Patriots had beaten KC in the second overtime game of the day, we got a call from our son reminding us about the total lunar eclipse that was about halfway done.
Sure enough, that huge, red moon that had served as a gigantic street light all the way home was just going behind the earth’s shadow to be completely obscured. What a sky show, all in one evening.
There was plenty of room for four adults in the 4-door Golf SE, and it has as much comfort and headroom and legroom as it does performance. The soft-touch fabrics on the dashboard and doors gives it a luxury feel compared to the base Golf, which starts at right about $20,000.
The SE starts at $24,145, and includes the new engine in the new platform, with 16-inch alloy wheels and a 10-to-1 compression ratio calling for 87 octane regular. That makes it more of a bargain.