Golf SE Avoids Almost All Duluth Potholes

John Gilbert

New Golf SE 1.4t beat the end of the annual Lupine growing season. Photo credit: John Gilbert
New Golf SE 1.4t beat the end of the annual Lupine growing season. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Familiar squared-off rear of the Golf houses four occupants and plenty of luggage.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Familiar squared-off rear of the Golf houses four occupants and plenty of luggage. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Classy and refined interior surfaces make the base Golf rise to sporty stature.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Classy and refined interior surfaces make the base Golf rise to sporty stature. Photo credit: John Gilbert

In virtually every city across the Northern Tier of the United States, drivers have spent much of this spring and summer complaining about the horrible condition of our streets and highways. A particularly tough winter of alternating freezing and mild temperatures has caused countless little chunks of pavement to break away from their intended resting place, leaving nasty traps waiting to catch your tire as you drive past.

My city, Duluth, Minnesota, is, I submit, worse than most, and that’s just because I enjoy driving an assortment of new vehicles every week to report on them, and to negotiate real-world roadways to check on the steering and suspension of all these vehicles. But I certainly did not want a close-up and personal validation of my opinions of road conditions.

In fact, I’ve learned some mechanical habits out of familiarity with the roads that I travel most frequently, and so it was as I drove a 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE 1.4-turbo for a week recently. I had driven various VW Golf models, including the GTI, Golf R, and an earlier Golf SE with a stick shift, and while not anxious to overdo it with repetitious reviews, this is supposedly the final year that we will get the tried-and-true Golf in U.S. showrooms, which I have declared a sad thing, because we’ll enjoy getting the GTI and Golf R, but the base car — the SE — comes with VW’s newest engine, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder from a whole new engine family, bolstered by a turbocharger to extract surprising power from such a small displacement engine.

The test car has a base price of $25,245, and a sticker of $27,435 as equipped. With only 147 horsepower, its 1.4 lacks the power of the corporate 2.0, but it has abundant torque, which peaks at 184 foot-pounds at a mere 1,400 RPMs — more than the bigger engine. This test car, in a medium Silk Blue Metallic paint job with alloy wheels, had an 8-speed automatic with almost hidden paddle shifters on the steering wheel. So you get beyond the lack of horsepower by downshifting and running the revs up to the pleasant realization that the torque comes through to get you where you want to go.

Golfs always ride well, with supple but moderately firm suspension, which allows even the base car to take turns in a sporty manner. With all the contemporary safety elements built in — electronic stability control, anti-slip regulation, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake assist — the 4-door hatchback Golf is a safe, solid luxury compact that can get over 38 miles per gallon.

I was able to attain 38.2 mpg in combined city-highway driving, while EPA estimates show 37 highway, and I was over 36 in all-city operation. The 225-45 17-inch Pirelli P7 tires obviously contribute to the excellent handling and smooth ride. So there I was, negotiating the pits and pitfalls of Duluth’s nastiest streets and roads through five days of the week.

Lakewood Road surface changes from smooth to pothole territory when entering  Duluth city limits. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Lakewood Road surface changes from smooth to pothole territory when entering Duluth city limits. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The “Grand Canyon” of potholes lurked as the newest villain, undetected at the  edge of the road. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The “Grand Canyon” of potholes lurked as the newest villain, undetected at the edge of the road. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The rural roadway we live on is a few miles up the North Shore, and as you drive south to join Interstate 35 for the ride into Duluth, you leave the township, with its St. Louis County-maintained operation, and enter Duluth’s city limits, where city crews take care of the surface. You don’t need the sign that says “Duluth,” because you can see the white surface, probably concrete, end where it meets the gray asphalt of the city.

Without question, the concrete stays amazingly smooth, and the asphalt chunks out in a harsh manner. As I drive down on the 55-mph county segment, slowing for the 30 mph limit of the more residential city limits, I have a practiced routine. There has always been a rough patch where several modest potholes seem to join hands just to the right of the middle of the road, so being able to see a couple blocks ahead, I generally swing into the oncoming lane until I get past that stretch, then swing back into the right lane.

But this time, as I drove with my wife, Joan, and older son, Jack, to meet up with our younger son, Jeff, on our way to the Trampled By Turtles concert at Bayfront Festival Park, I saw a car or two coming toward us. That meant I had to abandon my normal plan, and I decided that straddling the rough patch would be one alternative, or going wide to the right another. I chose to go wide right.

Ka-Chonk! My right front absorbed a rugged hit. Turns out, when I swung wide right to miss the three potholes I was aware of, my right front struck a fourth pothole that I was not aware of. It was a long and deep hole. As I continued driving, I felt nothing out of sorts, and it was with great relief that no serious damage had occurred.

I pulled onto the freeway and got up to the 65 mph speed limit without any hesitation, but after about a mile, a little warning sign came on the instrument panel: “Air loss detected in right front tire,” it said. I slowed down right away, cursing the bad luck.

But I couldn’t pull off immediately because of a narrow shoulder, and by the time I could, I could feel the pull of the deflated tire. Sure enough, the impact of the tire striking what amounted to the far cliff of the Grand Canyon not only blasted a hole in the tire’s sidewall, it scratched up the flashy alloy wheel a bit, too,

It was impressive that the Pirelli P7 took the blow and held its integrity for a mile or so, and it was more impressive that the tire-sensor relayed such quick and accurate information. Still more impressive was the work done by Volkswagen of Duluth early Monday morning.

What is left of a new Pirelli P7 tire after losing a TKO to the large pothole.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
What is left of a new Pirelli P7 tire after losing a TKO to the large pothole. Photo credit: John Gilbert

With Jack as lead pit-crew guy, we changed it for the space-saver spare, and I drove gingerly on it the rest of the night and on Sunday. The timing of my test-drive, though, was to end when the Chicago fleet delivery guys would pick up the Golf SE at 11 a.m. Monday and drive back to Chicago.

We didn’t want them driving that far on the space-saver, so I called VW of Duluth early Monday morning, explained what had happened, and inquired about their supply of P7s. They had four in stock. When I got there, however, we realized that they were from a year-old VW supply and the new one was an inch larger at 17. We talked it over, and I asked if they might have exactly the same SE model on their lot, and they did. Service manager Calvin Edel summoned the unsold car and his service crew did a quick remounting job. 

Just to make sure there would be no imbalance, they put the new tire on the right rear and rotated the right rear to right front. Good move. I made it home about an hour before the drivers showed up, and we made the swap with ease.

That VW dealership, by the way, is primarily responsible for recalibrating and legalizing almost all the numerous Golf, Jetta and Passat TDI models, to bring their turbo-diesel engines into full compliance to be sold by dealers throughout the area. That’s impressive, especially if they do as thorough a job with that as they did changing and remounting that tire for the Golf SE.

Side view shows off versatile space the Europeans call a “wagon.”  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Side view shows off versatile space the Europeans call a “wagon.” Photo credit: John Gilbert