Volkswagen’s all-new, seventh-generation Golf went on UK sale on 7 January, with prices from £16,285. Is it worth your hard-earned cash? We’ve driven the 138bhp 1.4-litre petrol to find out.
After 39 years and 29 million Golf sales, VW has finally crashed its hatchback icon into the class above. The seventh generation is now so refined, so grown-up, so classy, that it leaves the likes of Ford’s Focus and Vauxhall’s Astra wheezing in its wake. Its new parking space? Slap bang in the middle of the pristine lawns of BMW, Mercedes and Audi. That’s because it’s based on remarkable new hardware, the VW Group’s ‘MQB’ chassis architecture, which also underpins Audi’s new A3 (and many Audis, Seats, Skodas and other VWs to come).
The petrol car I’m driving is equivalent to GT spec in the UK, with DSG dual-clutch gearbox and ‘BlueMotion Technology’ pack. The 138bhp unit comes with cylinder deactivation and stop/start and, in combination with the seven-speed transmission, it accelerates in 8.4sec from 0-62mph, tops 133mph and averages 60.1mpg.
Less weight unlocks great dynamics
The first thing you notice is what an amazing difference a weight saving of 100kg over the previous Golf makes. All of a sudden, that relatively passive everyman’s car has turned into an involving plaything. With DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control – accessed via a button next to the gearstick) in Sport, with ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation, aka traction control) deactivated – and with a knife between the teeth – the Golf Mk7 morphs from a family holdall into a hooligan’s delight.
The chassis is beautifully composed, grip and traction are unfazed by excessive body roll and undue suspension articulation, stability remains intact at all times. As long as you keep the steering inputs to a minimum, adjust the torque flow to the topography and don’t miss the braking point, the new people’s car is king of the winding road. What a fabulous surprise this is!
Until the brakes start to fade, that is.First, the pedal effort increases, then the pedal travel increases, and finally the stopping power decreases. Not by much, and only in extreme conditions: I’ve been hard ‘on it’ for the last ten winding miles. The steering is not yet 100% there either: the weight is fine, the calibration is easy to live with, and one can even get used to the varying rate, but the new electrically-assisted rack is a somewhat monosyllabic and remote device that works to rule, no more, no less.
Raising the bar for gearboxes and civility
The DSG gearbox, on the other hand, is a real gem. I must emphasise this praise because the latest iteration is now totally devoid of earlier follies. It takes off as quickly as a good slushmatic, it will change up with whiplash velocity under full throttle, and it almost never preselects the wrong ratio anymore. The paddleshift operation is nicely intuitive and involving, but you can now also leave the lever in Drive without running the risk of falling asleep at the wheel. The best feature of the upgraded DSG is the coasting mode. As soon as you lift off, the ’box slips into idle, and the in-dash readout advertises miracle mpg numbers along with the fact that the engine is now running on two cylinders only. It’s a big part of the reason why this Golf produces just 109g/km of CO2 and also helps to explain a 15% improvement in fuel economy.
The efficiency you can admire, but it’s how special the Golf feels that really resonates. From the moment you step into it you realise something special is happening – compared to the Hyundai i30 I arrived in, the VW feels a bit like putting on noise-cancelling earphones. The car is so quiet, so good at hushing wind and road noise, so immune to mechanical intrusions. How come? Because the Mk7 is substantially stiffer than the model it replaces, it has been re-engineered for reduced NVH transfer between its fewer modules, new manufacturing processes help to absorb up to 5 dB in places, and innovative engine and suspension mounts act as highly effective noise filters. Add super-efficient door seals, a windscreen with integrated acoustic foil, and special attention to fan, cambelt, turbocharger and AC compressor installation, and you begin to understand the silence.
The other major improvement is in the ride quality. We’re not so much talking about Golf VII bettering Golf VI here, but about Golf vs the rest of the compact car world. True, the test cars were fitted with relatively uncritical 17in wheels and tyres, but even in combination with the optional sports suspension the level of compliance felt creamier and cushier than what the premium brands can offer for a lot more money. That the wheelbase has been stretched by 50mm certainly helps, and so does that 100kg weight saving. The new chassis – here with a multilink rear axle, which is replaced by a less sophisticated torsion beam in cars packing less than 120bhp – will expertly soak up bumps and potholes, iron out crests and dips, compensate for aquaplaning grooves and patchwork blacktop. Only over broken-up surfaces tackled at low speed or when encountering serious obstacles like a banked railway crossing does the 225/45 footwear approach its limit of compliance.
More engine line-up details
The 1.4 TSI is one of only four engines available at launch time. The others are the entry-level 84bhp 1.2 TSI, the pragmatic 104bhp 1.6 TDI and the 148bhp 2.0 TDI. The choice between petrol and diesel is harder than ever, as the gap between them in terms of efficiency and performance is closing. But in either iteration the new Golf is both a great highway cruiser and an entertaining B-road bruiser. You can paddleshift DSG into fifth or sixth and let the torque wave wash you from crest to brow, or you can dive deep into second and third gear territory from where the TSI unit will rev happily to 6500rpm. At the end of the end of the day the petrol version feels fractionally more light-footed, chuckable and responsive than the diesel. Its broader rev band and the extra gear marginally outflank the 2.0 TDI’s 52lb ft torque advantage.
The new Golf has also shed the torque-steer-at-the-limit frivolities of its predecessor, thanks to XDS. That’s VW-speak for an electronic left-to-right diff lock which is standard on all Mk7 Golfs. An integral part of the ABS/ESP application, XDS virtually eliminates steering fight and reduces understeer. This sounds like a pat solution, but since you can only switch off ASR and not ESP, the car will proceed no more than nine tenths of the way towards its limit.
Equipment and interior impressions
There are now so many driver assistance systems available for the new Golf that it can match the Passat or even the Phaeton limo if you spec it right. The new touchscreen monitor has gone up in size though, and it features new sensor technology which highlights icons as your finger approaches the display. But it is still difficult to hit the right target on the move, and it’s hard to justify the high price when equally competent aftermarket systems cost a fraction.
It’s no surprise that the interior of the new Golf looks (too?) conservative, but it is superbly put together, and the surface qualities would put a few luxury cars to shame. Once again, VW has played the quality card, and once again it turns out to be a trump. Two significant improvements concern the new multifunctional steering-wheel and the impressive ‘ergoActive’ seats. The wheel puts all major controls within easy reach of your thumbs and index fingers, and it co-operates well with the large display that sits between speedo and rev counter. The optional 14-way power-operated and heated sports seats are very comfortable, adjustable in every imaginable direction and fitted with massage function, electric lumbar support and extending thigh cushion.
There is no doubt about it: the Golf Mk7 hits bullseye. It is everything we expected, and more – a surprisingly rewarding driver’s car, more refined than any of its rivals, very comfortable and compliant, and a roomy, quality piece of kit. Everybody from Vauxhall to Mercedes, and even the Golf’s Audi and Seat stablemates, should fear it. The Golf has always been exceptionally good; but this is an exceptional Golf.