The seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf might just be all the car you'll ever need. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Ten Second Review
Volkswagen's Golf is the family hatchback against which all others are judged - and never more so than in this lighter, larger, quieter and more efficient seventh generation guise where it's cleverer and more usable than ever before. If you're shopping in this segment, you might be asking yourself why you should buy one. But perhaps the more pertinent question is whether there's really any reason why you shouldn't.
Volkswagen's modern era 'Peoples' Car', the Golf family hatchback, has been bought by an awful lot of people. Launched back in 1974 to replace the iconic Beetle, it was the car that saved the company through 29 million sales and six generations that have brought us to this MK7 model.
In reality, this is the first truly new Golf we've seen since just after the turn of the century, the previous sixth generation version having been merely a light re-skin of the old MK5 model. And it arrives at a time when the marque needs to step up its game. Volkswagen's in-house Skoda and SEAT brands can offer Golf technology for less, the South Korean competition is improving and more familiar mainstream family hatch rivals are adding premium quality and technology that, in the words of their marketeers, makes them 'more Golf-like'.
But, as Volkswagen argues, there's no substitute for the definitive article - and this, we're told, is exactly it. Stiffer, plusher, safer, smarter, more efficient and higher-tech, its goals lie far beyond simply being better than a Focus or an Astra. The MK7 Golf aims to move above that, aspiring to appeal to buyers who might be considering premium-badged compact hatches from brands like BMW, Audi or Mercedes. Which gives you an idea of just how good Wolfsburg thinks this car is. Are they right? Let's find out.
Effortlessly rapid. That's how I'd sum up this Golf to drive. The entry-level 1.2 TSI (85 and 105PS) and 1.4 TSI (122PS) petrol models, plus the 105PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel all represent the most affordable segment of a Golf model line-up that has effectively been split into two halves by the engineering decision to adopt two quite different rear suspension set-ups across the range. MK5 and MK6 generation Golfs were always distinguished by their sophisticated multi-link rear suspension set-up that provided such an exemplary ride and handling balance. With this MK7 model, the Wolfsburg bean counters have decreed that only variants with more than 120PS can have it. The perfectionist in me is disappointed by this, but the pragmatist can understand their point of view: will the largely undemanding drivers who choose lower-order Golfs really notice that their cars must ride on unsophisticated torsion beam suspension? Almost certainly not.
At least compensation is provided for buyers of lower-order models in the form of the standard fitment across the range of the XDS electronic differential lock system that was developed for the last generation Golf GTI.
In truth, you'll need one of the pokier engines - and hence the inclusive more capable multi-link rear suspension set-up that goes with them - to really be able to enjoy all of this car's dynamic potential to the full. The majority of British buyers will gravitate towards the 150PS 2.0 TDI diesel which also comes in 184PS guise in GTD form. Arguably a better bet is a Golf variant that most customers probably won't even consider - but surely ought to: the petrol-powered 1.4 TSI ACT, or 'Active Cylinder Technology' model which has the ability to run on only two of its four cylinders at low to mid-range throttle. If it's performance you want though, it's a Golf GTI you'll be drawn to. This time round, the 2.0 TSI engine manages 220PS - with a 10PS upgrade if you want it. Want to go further? Then you need the 300PS 4WD Golf R. Want the lowest possible running costs? Then you need the all-electric e-Golf. Either way, it seems Volkswagen has almost everyone's preferences covered.
Design and Build
Though on this seventh generation model, virtually everything has changed, in many ways, virtually nothing is different. The same thick rear C-pillar and near vertical tail. The same sharp crease line above the flanks. The same horizontally-barred grille. It's under the skin where the biggest changes have taken place with the adoption of all-new MQB (or 'Modular Transverse Matrix') underpinnings that help shave 100kgs off the weight of this car. And make it possible for the longer wheelbase that facilitates the larger cabin that Volkswagen was determined this 7th generation Golf should have. You notice it most here at the back, where rear legroom has risen by 15mm, despite the front seats being moved further back to better suit taller drivers. Shoulder and elbow-room are both improved too and headroom's quite adequate too, despite the reduction in exterior roof height. As usual in this class, three adults would be a little squashed here but a trio of kids will be quite happy.
Out back, there's more space for luggage too, the cargo bay 30-litres larger than before at 380-litres - that's 10% bigger than an Astra and 20% bigger than a Focus. It's easier to use to, with probably the lowest loading sill height in the class, a wider hatch aperture and a wider base on the dual-height luggage floor. Fold the 60/40 split rear seats down and you get useful 1270 litres - again one of the biggest spaces in the class.
And behind the thinner multi-function steering wheel? Well, nobody does it better than this. It isn't that it feels especially plush - though the quality of materials used is excellent - and far better, incidentally, in this Wolfsburg-constructed Golf than Volkswagen's similarly priced but Mexican-built compact Jetta saloon. It's just that everything is of just the right quality and feels absolutely fit for purpose.
Market and Model
Most mainstream Golf models will be sold in the £17,000 to £25,000 bracket, with the diesels that 85% of UK customers want starting from around the £20,000 price point. There's a £655 premium to go from the three-door bodystyle to the five-door bodyshape that 90% of British buyers choose. We're talking here of pricing and quality of product that has subtly moved Volkswagen into a slightly more up-market position.
So, it's fully credible a stepping stone from Focus family hatch mundanity to full premium status in this size of car. If that sounds exactly what you're looking for, then you'll want to select carefully between the wide range of turbocharged engines on offer - which really fall into two distinct categories. First, there are the models offering less than 120PS featuring less sophisticated torsion beam rear suspension - the 85 and 105PS petrol 1.2 TSI variants, the 122PS 1.4 TSI and this 105PS 1.6 TDI diesel, also offered in 110PS form in the frugal 'BlueMotion' model. Then, there are the more sophisticatedly-sprung multi-link rear suspended variants further up the range. These include the remaining petrol variants, the 140PS 1.4 TSI ACT with its clever cylinder de-activation system and the 2.0 TSI unit available to Golf GTI hot hatch buyers with either 220 or 230PS. Diesel drivers meanwhile, get an uprated 2.0 TDI with 150PS, but if that should still be insufficient, then you can talk to your dealer about ordering the performance-orientated GTD version with 184PS.
Cost of Ownership
You probably don't need me to tell you that as well as getting bigger and better equipped, the Golf has become lighter and more efficient. 23% more efficient if you want me to be exact thanks mainly to engine start/stop across the range.
The early petrol engine options (carried over from the previous Golf line-up) are pretty familiar - 85 and 105PS 1.2-litre TSI units that return 57.6mpg on the combined cycle and around 113g/km of CO2, plus a 122PS 1.4 TSI petrol that manages 53.3mpg and 123g/km of CO2. But things step up with the 105PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel. It returns a combined cycle reading of 74.3mpg and emits just 99g/km in the process, so if you're collecting petrol station loyalty points, that toaster you're saving up for won't be yours until somewhere in the region of 2019. And you'll do even better if you specify this 1.6-litre TDI engine in 110PS BlueMotion' form, in which guise this car is capable of returning 88.3mpg on the combined cycle and hybrid-like CO2 emissions of 85g/km. Only the all-electric Golf Blue-e-Motion model you can ask your dealer about can better that.
If you'd like a bit more poke from your diesel, then the 150PS 2.0 TDI manages a very acceptable 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and 106g/km of CO2 but before automatically signing on the dotted line for one of these - as many business buyers will - I'd point out that there is a petrol alternative that's nearly as good and runs on cheaper green pump fuel - the 140PS 1.4 TSI ACT variant. 'ACT' stands for 'Active Cylinder Technology' which essentially means that this car will run on only two of its four cylinders under light throttle loads. As a result, it can return 58.9mpg on the combined cycle and 112g/km of CO2. But of course that's nothing compared with the all-electric e-Golf variant, which offers a range of up to 118 miles from a full charge that can be pretty much completed in just 35 minutes through a combination of the car's special CCS combined charging system and a DC supply.
In the words of a previous Volkswagen Group Chairman, the only mistake a Golf can really make is to stop being a Golf, a failing you could never level at this seventh generation model. All the reasons you might want to buy one are satisfied here. It looks like a Golf and functions with all the quality you'd expect from the Western hemisphere's most recognised and most desired family hatch. This is what happens when all the resources of Europe's leading auto maker are focused n creating the definitive expression of conventional family motoring.
True, it could be more exciting in its more affordable forms and you certainly wouldn't call it inexpensive in comparison with mainstream models in this segment. But then, this isn't a mainstream model any more, as good in every meaningful respect as the premium compact hatch models from the fancy brands that are much pricier. It is, in short, a Golf made good. Which, if you're shopping in this sector, makes it very desirable indeed.