THE VOLKSWAGEN Golf might be the hardest car in the world to review. Over the last 45 years VW has tweaked and honed what has become the quintessential family hatchback — the car all others are benchmarked against — but even with an all new car, the changes are rarely apparent to anyone other than a Golf enthusiast. When you’ve sold 35 million examples of a car, you make radical alterations at your peril.
And so here we have the eighth generation Golf and true to form — it looks very much like the old Golf. And in many other ways, it feels like a Golf. That is to say, it’s comfortable, well built, refined and rides well. What else is there to say?
Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. VW has introduced a vast range of petrol, diesel and hybrid engines, including a plug-in version, done some radical things to the interior, and packed the car with the latest driver assistance and infotainment tech. What’s more, having borrowed a Mk 7 Golf during the same week as the new car’s launch, I can confirm the Mk 8 has markedly different handling.
Before we get to that, let’s not ignore the exterior completely. VW has retained the Golf’s recognisable silhouette but made the new model slightly slipperier through the air, which helps with fuel economy as well as reducing wind noise on the motorway. Overall length has slightly increased but essentially the proportions are the same as before.
I’ll also draw your attention to the front headlights, which come in three versions — the top specification of which features matrix LEDs that can not only swivel to point into corners but also automatically dip around cars and signs while illuminating everything else with full beam. This is technology first introduced by Audi (VW’s upmarket sister brand) and has now made its way down to the Golf, via the more expensive VW Touareg SUV. The Golf’s system is more compact and less sophisticated than the Touareg’s, making it more affordable, but it’s still a very clever bit of kit.
It’s inside that the revolution has taken place, though — the Golf’s cabin has undergone a significant overhaul, following the trend for minimalistic, clean design. It’s perhaps the most extreme example of this after Tesla’s futuristic models, with almost all physical buttons removed in favour of a central touchscreen (the 10in upgraded infotainment screen is standard on UK models) and a spattering of touch-sensitive controls.
So extreme is the decluttering that even the sunroof and reading lights are buttonless; touching the lights allows to you to turn them on, and keeping your finger on adjusts their brightness.
More alarming for traditionalists will be that the volume control knob for the stereo has been taken away, too, replaced by a touch slider just below the screen. It’s not a terrible system and its horizontal positioning means you can find and control it without too much trouble on rough terrain — it’s easier than finding a plus or minus on standard touchscreen — but honestly, a dial offers more precise adjustment.
VW will point to the fact that there are also volume controls on the steering wheel, and you can now change the volume — along with many other functions — via voice control, thanks to Alexa integration, but many will see it as design trumping user experience.
It doesn’t help that the voice control system is as clunky as BMW’s similar Alexa-based tech. It can prove helpful in keeping your eyes focused on the road, rather than the screen, but it seems to have been designed for idiots. For example, while being gassed by a dirty diesel van I woke it up with “Hello, Volkswagen,” then said, “Turn on the air recirculation.” It had no idea what I was talking about, listed options including “It smells”. Sure enough, that turned on the air recirculation.
Other commands it recognises are “I’m cold/hot” (heating goes up or down a notch), “My hands are cold” (turns on the heated steering wheel, and “I need fuel” (show me where the nearest petrol station is). VW calls this “intuitive”; others might call it dumb.
The 10in touchscreen is superbly easy to use, though, and highly customisable. Like a smartphone home screen, you can hold and drag icons to move them around, and a shop area allows you to add apps and functionality to the car. VW says you can even upgrade certain technologies, including adaptive cruise control, headlight function and navigation at a later date, meaning you can buy a base spec car and pimp it as time goes on. Over-the-air updates mean functionality can increase over time, too.
But while the menus are highly customisable and look great, the digital driver’s display is a little smaller than you would find in a car from upmarket sister brand Audi, and the central touchscreen is surrounded by a fair amount of glossy black plastic, which looks a little low rent against the nice brushed effect dashboard.
VW has revised its trim levels for Golf this time around, with four grades: Golf, Life, Style and R Line, all in five-door form (three-door has been dropped as it made up only around 5% of sales). VW deflected my suggestion that a “Golf Golf” was almost as silly as when Ferrari called one of its models the LaFerrari, by saying that Golf Golfs are much better equipped than the old entry-level Mk 7s. Standard across the range are lane-keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring, fully digital instrumentation, single-zone climate control, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity.
What it all means that even the most basic Golf looks great inside and has enough tech to satisfy most buyers. The digital driver’s display is particularly good and light years ahead of the outgoing Golf’s set-up; like comparing a Macbook Air to a BBC Basic computer. There are four viewing types to cycle through, including one that shows you traffic in the lanes around you (apparently taking the lead from Tesla again), and another set of menus to cycle through to display driving data, navigation, music and so on.
All cars also come with a system called Car2X, which is a connected car technology that links your vehicle with others within an 800m radius, helping alert you to things like approaching emergency vehicles, broken down cars, roadworks and upcoming traffic jams.
Your car should even be able to detect when other cars with the system are performing an emergency brake in front of you, and will turn on your own brake lights even before you have reacted, to help avoid you being rear-ended. Data privacy skeptics won’t like it but the potential to help avoid crashes is convincing. VW told us the Golf is the first of its cars to come with Car2X, and the first of any model sold in Europe, and was chosen because the Golf will sell in large numbers (there’s no point in connected car tech being on a low volume model).
Our test cars were all in the Style trim, which is pretty much the fully-loaded spec, as far as equipment goes (R Line has sportier touches), and has a smart two-tone interior with cloth seats that feature velour centre inserts. The seats are relatively comfortable even for tall people and feature electric control with lumbar support, memory function and even a massage function. In terms of the ergonomics, it all feels very … Golf.
In any trim level, VW has gone to extreme lengths to declutter the interior, removing almost every physical button, dial and switch, and replacing them with touch-sensitive screens. This is executed very successfully in most instances, though there was much grumbling by the assembled media on the car’s launch over the removal of the stereo’s volume dial, which has been replaced by a touch slider just under the infotainment screen. While helping improve the look of the dashboard (the Mk7 looks very old fashioned after driving the Mk 8), it’s a solution to a problem that no-one other than car interior designers have ever flagged.
Out on the road the new Golf is a joy, though. The temptation to write that the new Golf drives like a Golf was strong, but in fact the Mk 8 is better than that. By comparison, the outgoing model has lighter steering with less feel through the wheel, and it’s a pretty fun car to thread along hillside roads. The entry-level wheels are 15in but Style comes with 17in rims as standard, with 18s as an option. We drove versions with both wheel sizes and the ride was never too rattly or uncomfortable, though the 17s are preferable unless you really want a sporty feel (in which case, the R Line trim might be for you). It should be noted that models over 150hp get a sophisticated multilink rear suspension whereas less powerful models have a torsion beam set-up, and we only drove cars with the former.
Which engine to go for is not easy to say. Volkswagen is offering a bewildering range of powertrains with the new Golf, in petrol (TSI), diesel (TDI), mild hybrid (eTSI, for electrical assistance for acceleration) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV, with a 13kWh high voltage battery allows short journeys on pure-electric power) forms. To go through them all in detail would probably bore the pants off you, and all the details will be on the VW website, but you should know that there will be two petrols, two diesels and one mild hybrid version from launch this month, with more to follow next year.
Importantly, there will still be Golf GTI, Golf GTI TCR and Golf R versions (all with 2-litre petrol engines), as well as a Golf GTE plug-in hybrid and a Golf GTD at some point next year. VW says the most powerful models will have more than 300bhp.
We drove a petrol, mild hybrid and diesel model, all with 150hp, interestingly, and the pick for everyday use is probably the mild hybrid, which offers exactly the same performance (0-62mph in 8.5sec) and torque characteristics as the standard petrol, but no doubt with reduced fuel consumption (exact figures are yet to be released), though the diesel definitely had the most punch out of corners and will prove more efficient on longer runs.
The six-speed manual gearbox is decent, though the lever feels less comfortable in your hand than in the previous Golf and it was less smooth when the car was cold. The seven-speed DSG automatic box is the one to go for if you can, as it’s brilliantly quick-witted and allows you to drop down through the gears using the flappy paddles behind the wheel when driving more spiritedly.
A suite of driver aids that call on ultrasound and radar sensors, cameras and GPS make the new Golf seriously advanced, with one of the most satisfying driver aid systems we’ve tried. Many lane keeping assist systems are overly powerful, so when you want to change lanes on an empty motorway without indicating, or simple cross a line in a busy town centre to pull around traffic, it can feel like the wheel is being tugged away from you. The Golf’s input is much more subtle, and therefore less irritating.
Switch on Travel Assist on the motorway and again, it works brilliantly to keep you in lane and a safe distance from other cars, and feels much more like a help than a hindrance on longer, more tiring runs. A system called predictive cruise control will also slow you down if it feels you haven’t recognised an upcoming roundabout, sharp turn or intersection, which could prove useful for anyone less than fully alert. If the driver becomes unresponsive, the Golf will even put your hazard lights on and pull you over to the side of the road safely.
The new Golf may not be hugely different to look at from the outside but it definitely has the wow factor on the inside, and it’s packed with the very latest technology. There are a few grumbles with the lack of physical buttons in the cockpit and the so-so voice control system, but most existing Golf customers will be won over as soon as they climb inside. Assuming the prices are right (they’re still to be announced, though expected to start at around £20,000), once existing Golf owners drive it, the deal will be sealed.
What’s more, with the huge variety of powertrains, VW is hedging its bets and protecting its prized model for the foreseeable future, running it alongside the forthcoming ID.3 pure-electric model. No doubt they’ll be watching sales of both closely over the coming years, but it seems the Golf is in rude health in the medium-term at least, and keeping one step ahead of strong competition from the likes of the Ford Focus, Seat Leon, Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla and Kia Ceed.Tweet to @wdron Follow @wdron