There is no car quite like the VW Golf. The default European choice of motoring appliance, it is possibly no more and no less a car than you’ll ever need.
But some people have a different view. Seeing this new Golf for the first time at the Paris motor show last September, we described it as the iPhone of cars, and inadvertently set fire to a debate that rivals the iOS vs Android one.
It seems, if you love the Golf you will consider nothing else. And if you hate it you believe it to be the epitome of dullness and that people who buy Golfs are simply lemming-like crowd-followers who know no better. Sound familiar?
So just how good is the new Golf? Is it genuinely better than the last one?
The same, but different
The foundation of the new Golf starts with something you can’t really see – called MQB. It’s VW group’s new modular matrix platform, which will eventually underpin everything between a Polo and a Passat in size. It allows the VW group to lever economies of scale on the bits you can’t see, and splash the cash on the bits that differentiate a Golf from a Leon from an A3 – like the sheet metal, dash plastics and suspension tuning. It also makes a Golf VII, on average, 100kg lighter than a Golf VI.
It’s also responsible for the Golf’s sharper, more upmarket look. You might be looking at the pictures and playing spot the difference, but park it alongside a Mk VI and you’ll see the proportions are that bit more premium and the suit just sharper. Thanks to that new platform, the front overhang’s shorter, the cabin volume is pushed back a little. It’s more Beemer, less humdrum. And an unnecessary body side crease no longer interrupts that trademark, thick C-pillar – as it did on the last car. Instead it runs uninterrupted as one surface from roof to wheel, giving the Golf a bit more visual thump, a bit more attitude and ultimately a better stance.
The definitive small car interior?
Golf interiors have always been class leading. And if we’d never sat in a new Audi A3, this would be the best interior in its class by a country mile. But given we reckon the A3’s got the best interior of any car this side of 40 grand, that’s hardly a slight on the Golf.
Nearly every piece of plastic is soft, every switch damped, every bin flock or rubber-lined to stop things rattling and every lever clacks with an expensive movement.
Where you really notice the change over the previous car is on the centre console, where a large chunk of piano-black lacquer bleeds off the gauge cluster and down the console, around the touchscreen-based interface, which is now angled slightly towards the driver, and whose buttons are spaced by tiny bits of faux chrome.
We loved the suede effect seats in our GT model too. Classy looking, infinitely adjustable and figure-hugging enough to hold you still, they’re also soft enough to double up as emergency snoozing zone. It goes without saying that the driving position is spot on and infinitely adjustable - you can get the seat sports car low if you like.
It even (nearly) drives itself
The stigma that’s attached to the Golf, if there is one, historically concerns cost and equipment. Primarily, this is that it costs more and is less well equipped than the opposition. Well, no more. At a smidge over Â£24,000, our 1.4TSi GT compares rather favourably to the opposition on price and spec. It came only with metallic paint and a half-roof full of glass as options. Ditch both of these and for a car whose price then starts with a 22, you get the latest engine tech which is capable of 50 mpg but also an 8-second 60mphÂ sprint, a touchscreen satnav system as standard, Bluetooth, DAB radio, USB connectors, parking sensors front and rear and not just cruise control, but radar-guided cruise control with collision avoidance. The Golf that (nearly) drives itself has arrived.
What’s missing? Well you still need to plip it open and then twist an ignition key to start it - call us old fashioned but we rather like that quaint procedure. You don’t get a reversing camera (an option) and the console is cleverly designed to make you want the upgraded 8-inch screen rather than the standard fit 6-inch. Did we miss these, or anything else in 500 miles and a week’s worth of driving? Nope.
The iPhone of cars, honest
And we’ll stick with our analogy about it being the iPhone of cars. Why? The Golf manages what’s no mean feat in the car world of being utterly foolproof to operate yet also fantastically modern and advanced, clever yet not bossy.
Continuing the Cupertino connection, it feels like a weighty, premium object. The interface – despite our preference for knobs over touchscreens in cars – is also very good. It’s fast and we reckon it’ll keep up with the fastest of finger movers when inputting things into the satnav. And its menu home screen has a very natural swipe left and right function, too with classy little icons. Topping it off, in the sub-menus, the different setting options pop up from the bottom of the screen via a proximity sensor as your hand approaches the screen.
And everything this car does - or more pertinently, you do with it - feels like it’s been designed as one piece and with a level of consistency. As if the designers, chassis engineers and electrical system coders might actually have known each others names and been able to sit round a table together. In many cars, it feels like the opposite is true.
It even brings up a little message on the centre screen to "remember your mobile phone" when you switch it off. Which, for those of us forever leaving our iPhone 5s in the cupholders of cars, proved surprisingly useful.
Shut out your troubles
Of course, all this is very well but would be for nothing if the Golf drove like an wobbly blancmange out on the road, as some of its predecessors have. Unfortunately, for those hoping this is the point where the Golf falls to bits, it’s as refined as we’ve come to expect. But just how eerily serene compared to the old car this new Golf is does surprise. And generally for noise, vibration and harshness (NVH in car-speak) it is not an understatement to say it annihilates everything else in the class, including the new Mercedes A-class.
At motorway speeds there’s simply the hum of some, very gentle, background tyre noise. Wind and engine noise are notably absent. It’s just cosseting, effortless and isolating. Shut all your worldly troubles outside, and climb into the driver’s seat of a Golf – it’s like coming home to your lounge, a comfy sofa and a roaring fire after a long hard day.
And we haven’t mentioned the ride quality yet, which – even on largeish 17-inch wheels – managed to smooth away the worst of England’s increasingly potholed roads, which just the week before had managed to bend the wheel of another test car.
A car to put a smile on your face
But the icing on the cake of the driving experience is the way the Golf responds when you’re in a hurry. You can, as is the norm with most modern cars, put it in various modes: sport, normal and eco. And if you regularly read our car reviews you’ll know we think such settings are gimmicks.
We stand by that, but what surprised us about the Golf was how happy we’d be (or were) to drive it in any of its three modes – because none of them ruins the inherent sweetness of the car. In sport, for instance, the steering is a nice tad heavier – but not to the point you need Arnie-like pecs to park the darn thing. In eco meanwhile, the throttle response is slightly detuned, but not to the point you need to use the pedal like an on-off switch just to get it to move. Other manufacturers, could you please take note?
Whichever mode you’re in, the reality is that you can fling the Golf at a corner at a speed your brain tells you is way too fast and it just clings on and wizzes you round. String several bends together and it turns into an experience you can actually describe as quite fun. A dull car to drive? We think not. And when you do mash that loud pedal into the carpet, this 140hp, 1.4 Golf is now capable of keeping up with cars that just five years ago would have been called hot hatches.
A Jekyll and Hyde engine
But this new engine’s real party piece is that whenever you’re just tootling or backing off the accelerator, it switches into 2-cylinder running mode, shutting down two of the four cylinders to save fuel.
It’s signified by the arrival of a small eco symbol on the dash. At first, we’ll bet you don’t notice it’s happening but after a while you will probably be able to tell when the Golf’s running on two cylinders – what engine noise there is, changes slightly – and there’s a slightly more unbalanced vibration from the engine bay too.
But we played a game with all our passengers who rode in the Golf to see if they could tell when it was doing it (as an unscientific gauge of the system’s intrusiveness) and none of them guessed right, which gives you an idea of how subtle its operation is. The Golf even helps you out by telling you what "power consumers" are switched on, to show you the impact they’re having on fuel consumption. And with its CO2 emissions of just 112g/km, it ought to make you think twice about buying diesel – you’re going to need to be covering a lot of miles to claw back the extra outlay.
We’d sound like ingrates if we listed all the things that annoy us about cars that pass through our hands, but often the tell-tale of a good car is how many things annoy your (or rather, don’t). The Golf’s list of gripes reads like this:
The engine’s so refined and there’s so little flywheel effect on it that it’s surprisingly easy to stall. The auto hill-hold part of the electronic handbrake doesn’t always wake immediately after start, which can make manoeuvring out of a space on a hill tricky. And you can tell where they’ve deliberately differentiated the Golf cabin from the more expensive Audi A3 cousin, but only by the fact that that one cubby bin below the light switch isn’t flock-lined (every other compartment is).
And that’s it. Three things. So just in case the last 1900 words hasn’t spelt it out clearly enough, it would be fair to say that we think the new Golf is quite brilliant. Not only does it manage to make every other car in a very competitive class look suddenly a bit second rate, but it also makes you question why you’d spend more on one of its more expensive "rivals" from Audi, BMW or Mercedes.
There will be those who continue to dislike Golfs, based purely on that fact that, well, it’s Golf and that it therefore must be boring because it is default. To them, all we can say is try one with your mind open, because not only is the Golf very good in most areas, we really don’t find it dull either – certainly not to drive.
In fact, the only valid reason you wouldn’t buy a Golf if you’re in the market for a car of this size, is that in six months' time we guarantee at least one of your neighbours will own one too.
But to choose something different based purely on rarity value would, in this case, be denying yourself the best car in its class by some margin. Sometimes, things are popular for a reason.