(Pocket-lint) - Given its status as the best-selling car in Europe and its leadership of the compact hatchback class, when Volkswagen updates the Golf, you take note. When we reviewed the then new Golf 7 back in 2013 it gained a coveted full-marks score.
"So why are you showing us the same old Golf 7 that's been around over four years," you're probably thinking. Well, we're not. Welcome to the facelift. This is Golf 7.5, if you will. It tides us over until the completely new Golf 8 arrives in a couple of years.
Rather like Porsche with the 911, updating the Golf is very much about evolution, not revolution. So the reason you're seeing very little difference in the photos top of page is that VW's only changed the wheel design, added some new colours, upgraded the lighting technology and re-profiled the bumpers. Is that a bad thing? Not really, the Golf in its Mk7 format is a perfectly well resolved, pleasing piece of design which — whether you think it's a dull default or not — it's hard to criticise in objective design terms.
Instead, the company's spent the money on upgrading the hardware. So the big news is some new engines, tweaked powertrains generally, and significant changes to the in-car tech. The one we want to have a go in — and which we'll review at some point over the summer — is the new 1.5 turbo petrol. However, that car only comes on stream this month, so at launch we made do with this mid-level TDI, which most people will buy.
There are now over 70 individual model configurations of Golf, with the GTD actually being the best seller in absolute terms. But we've always harboured a sneaking suspicion this 150hp, regular TDI is the better car. Here's what we had to make of it upon initial inspection.
Volkswagen Golf R-Line review: Like an old friend
Within minutes of setting off on our first drive in the TDI, it was like meeting up with a really good friend we'd not seen for a while.
Beyond the electronic hand brake there's nothing else to trip up the unaware in this facelift Golf. It's slickly put together, easy to operate and has few apparent vices. Indeed, it's almost foolproof. Toss any friend or family the keys and they'll go happily on their way.
If there's one area the Golf is starting to show its age, it's in the cabin. The architecture with its high console feels quite old school. And the fascia panels don't have Audi quality. An Audi A3 is a nicer place to sit. The Peugeot 3008 offers a modern minimalism. But the Golf is not cramped like a Ford Focus, it's not got a hard-to-use interface like a Peugeot 308, it's better to drive than an Astra. Having driven those three aforementioned cars recently, these points are objective fact.
The Golf drive is comfortable and slick too. The steering is well weighted, the ride on 17-inch wheels is cosseting, and if you up the pace then it responds keenly. The 6-speed manual gearbox slots home just so, while the 2.0 TDI still does that VW thing of delivering a big slug of mid-range oomph which sees you pass slower traffic without a second thought.
Gripes? That diesel engine still sounds rough, which slightly spoils the refinement at times. But beyond that we're struggling to think of anything to mark the new Golf down.
Volkswagen Golf R-Line review: Evolutionary progress
VW has gone big on the in-car tech. All Golfs now come with an 8-inch capacitive touch screen. The previous standard was 5.8-inch. And the increased size is very welcome.
Go for SE Navigation spec or above and the screen comes with a sat nav system as standard. It's easy-to-use, but isn't really a patch on Google Maps. The good news in that respect is that you'll find the Golf comes standard with everything you expect these days — including App-Connect, which means MirrorLink, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard fit.
What's more, you can now splash out and upgrade the tech further with the Active Info Display — a 12-inch digital cluster that's a £495 option, but standard on GTE/GTD/GTI and R models.
While some of this tech upgrade is good news, we found that the user experience was slightly worse than before, because VW has exchanged the hard menu buttons flanking the screen for digital items that are an extension of the screen's front glass panel. They're simply not as easy to hit when you're on the move. We also drove a GTI with the larger, optional 9.2-inch display with gesture control, which we have covered in more in our 2017 GTI first drive.
Volkswagen Golf R-Line review: A price proposition that's hard to argue with
If you're the owner of a current Golf 7 then there's not much to push you to upgrade. Everything in the facelift feels maybe five per cent better. But when you're making the best even just marginally better, it's enough to remain top of the class.
If you're sticking with one of the existing engines, VW also hopes that the £680 price reduction (model-for-model) will prove tempting and overcome the market perception that the main reason most people don't actually buy a Golf is because it's "more expensive".
In reality it's not: at £25,720 this R-Line model, which only really nets you some cosmetic extras, it's likely the £23,325 SE Nav spec model will be more popular. And when the new Ford Focus costs £23,500, well, the Golf is sitting pretty.
If you're in the market for a car like this, then there's little to suggest you need to look elsewhere. As a small hatchback that's easy to use, good to drive and imbued with a deep sense of quality, the Golf is still without equal.
Its real rivals are now cars which sit in different spaces. We can fully understand why many will think a Qashqai or even VW's own Tiguan offers a lot more car and an entirely different experience, for roughly the same cash.
But if you're looking for the gold standard in the family hatchback market, things remain much the same as they have ever been. The Golf leads the pack.