The Volkswagen Golf is Europe's best-selling car. When we reviewed the MK 7 back in 2013 it gained a coveted full-marks score. But five years is a long time in the car world, and with the forthcoming Golf MK 8 (as it will be called) still a couple of years away, instead the MK 7 Golf has implemented a host of changes to keep it competitive.

In a way, you've got to feel a little bit sorry for the Golf. It can never change that much, because, well, it's a Golf. Yet it's being attacked from all sides by rivals that reinvent themselves. There are winning new hatchback competitors, such as the Honda Civic, that provide customers with a different set of talents. And with the reinvention of car formats, the Golf's position has changed – even VW's own Polo is now as big as a two-generations-old Golf, so buyers might choose to downsize. Or they could do what many buyers are choosing to do in 2018 and spend a little more on an SUV, like the excellent VW Tiguan.

So what does the newest refresh of the Golf bring to the party to keep it competitive, and can it keep that number one sales spot?

  • Small design changes – wheels, trim and light updates
  • 8-inch touchscreen now standard on all models
  • New 1.5 petrol 'TSi Evo' engines in two power outputs – 130 and 150hp 

The new revisions to the Golf have focused on three things. There have been small design changes inside and out – but it's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of approach, with new wheels designs and more LED-packed lights. But the really big changes are some new engines and new technologies.

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Ultimately, we know the Golf is a very good car. Five years since we first reviewed the car might be a long time, but it doesn't mean a good car turns into a bad one. What we're interested in here is how that updated technology works, and whether the new engines and specification options make the Golf more appealing, more efficient, and a better vehicle to sit in and drive.

  • Navigation system standard from SE Navigation spec upwards
  • Optional 9.2-inch display comes with gesture control
  • Active Info Display (a digital driver display) as a £495 option

The new improved specification means that every Golf get an 8-inch touchscreen, with a navigation system as standard (from SE Nav trim level and above in case of the latter feature). You can upgrade this screen to a larger 9.2-inch system, which completely does away with knobs and physical buttons around the screen and incorporates a gesture control system.

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In concert with this, a new Active Info Display panel is optional equipment, standard on higher spec GTE, GTI, R and electric e-Golf models. This digital driver display is a 12-inch TFT and allows you to customise what's displayed, while still providing the wide functionality of most VW driver display clusters, which allow you to change the radio station, music tracks, see all of your trip information or navigation turns via buttons on the wheel.

Finally, VW has enhanced its Car Net suite, which includes live updates to traffic, fuel prices, weather, and so forth, through the Guide and Inform functions. New Security and services elements mean you get an SOS and call function button in the car, which allows you to speak to a VW call centre operator if you've got an issue with the car or question about the infotainment system, and which monitors the car, calling and dispatching emergency services if it detects an air bag has been triggered.

  • 8-inch touchscreen is slick and easy to use
  • Active Info Display is a little distracting
  • Steering wheel controls work very well

The in-car tech is the most significant and visible upgrade in the Golf. The standard fit larger screen is a compelling reason to purchase the car, particularly on lower grade models where it was previously optional.

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Most of the time this tech works extremely well and is easy to use. The capacitive technology is fast reacting, while the newly connected qualities provided by the App-connect system bring search functionality to within the navigation entry field, meaning you can just type in places and destinations and it (usually) knows them straight away.

The menu home screen is a little lifeless and devoid of colour, with icons that aren't particularly recognisable – but you rarely need to use it, as you can shortcut to menus via the buttons besides the screen.

A core question the new Golf specification throws up, is whether you should spend a not unreasonable £495 on the digital driver display fitted to our car. Its benefits are that you can have the navigation map take over most of the display screen, meaning that if you like to follow navigation via visual displays rather than voice, you no longer need to divert your eyes to the centre console display. And there's further customisation on offer, so you can have it running in modes such as Driver Assistance, Efficiency and Trip Data.

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However, it is visually busy, information hierarchy isn't very clear, and while it's always easy to know how fast you are going at a glance (big thumbs up) it's also easy to become distracted by the bright colours and fiddle away trying to work out how you want the display to look. It's a personal preference, but given the standard non-digital cluster is so clear and includes the central trip computer display (which allows you to access all the info you could need), we wouldn't be spending the extra on this option.

  • Golf starts from £18,230
  • VW says prices, on average, are £650 lower than old car
  • SE and SE Navigation specs offer best value

The other big news in this Golf update is the availability of new engines. To illustrate the pricing and spec, we'll take one of them – a 1.5 Tsi EVO (130), with 5-doors and a 6-speed manual gearbox – as the barometer to illustrate how the Golf range and trim levels work.

The new engine is not available on the entry-level trim Golf S. But given that the car does without alloys, navigation, Apply Car Play and Android Auto functionality, parking sensors and a host more kit, we'd suggest you skip this level anyway.

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Instead the Golf looks good value in SE specification (£21,505), as you get App-connect (CarPlay/Android Auto), parking sensors front and rear, 16-inch alloys, and Adaptive cruise control with front assist.

SE Navigation (£22,255) adds the Volkswagen Discover Navigation system, while GT (£24,090) adds 17-inch wheels, sports front seats, ambient lighting and nicer upholstery. R-Line (£25,560) turns things a bit racier still with black gloss trim, sportier features and a leather steering wheel – but the changes at this point are largely cosmetic.

  • App-connect provides Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality – standard on all except Golf S
  • Wireless phone charger is £365 option on all models
  • Rear view parking camera is £265 option

App-connect is effectively standard fit on most models, it's only a £165 option on the basic Golf S. Bear in mind that S and SE trim levels don't come with the Volkswagen Navigation as standard – it's an option at £765 if you want Volkswagen's Discover mapping system – and it means that, if you're happy to use Apple or Google Maps, you can save money by going for the SE spec instead of SE Nav.

Across SE, SE Nav, GT and R-Line models, key technology options stay the same price (and stay optional). The Active Info display is £495, a wireless phone charger is £365 (but also brings with it an extra USB port), while a rear-view camera is £265. Voice activation is £200 on SE spec. The larger, 9.2-inch Discover Pro Navigation centre screen system (which includes gesture control) is a punchy £1,325, so we'd think hard before ticking that box. 

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Beyond that, the options really worthy of note are a driver assistance and lighting bundle, at £630, but which also includes traffic sign recognition, lane assist and dynamic lighting (which automatically dips the main beam). Keyless entry is £325.

The options themselves are quite affordable, but as you add more, and indeed as you move up the range, the Golf makes less sense because other rivals include much of this stuff as standard (most notably rear view camera, driver assistance suite, keyless entry), and if you go adding lots of options then you can easily end up at the £31,950 price tag of our test car. For that price, you could nearly buy the top of the range, high-performance Golf R (£32,850), or the electric e-Golf (£32,730).

  • Golf remains one of best in class to drive
  • Very refined and quiet driving experience
  • New TSi Evo engines are the prime choice

Way back when, how the Golf drove wasn't its strong point. Back in 1998, the then Golf was dusted by the new Ford Focus.

But times have changed. The new Golf is sophisticated and fun to drive. It's more refined than most rivals, and cars that are bigger and cost a lot more, too. Its lower silhouette pays dividends if you're comparing the Golf with an SUV or crossover – because there's simply less wind and road noise.

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The ride is smooth too. The lower-powered cars in the Golf range have what's known as a torsion beam rear-suspension setup, which is fine, but higher-powered versions – such as our new, 1.5 TSi EVO with 150 horsepower – have a multiple-link rear suspension system, which keeps the ride very compliant and helps the Golf to feel agile. It will respond very precisely to what you're doing if you throw it into a bend, even adjusting its line if you back off the accelerator. The steering's wheel weighted and all the controls seem just right to us. A Golf is an easy place to feel at home.

  • Both 1.5 TSi engines available with 7-speed DSG automatic or 6-speed manual gearbox options
  • 130 hp car produces 104g/km CO2
  • 150 hp car produces 116g/km CO2, performs 0-60 in 8.3 seconds

The Golf gets top marks for general driving qualities. And the new 1.5 petrol engines, which are called TSi EVO, add to the appeal. You can choose from two power outputs: a 130hp version (which is available from SE to R-Line specs), and a higher-powered 150hp unit, which is only available on GT and R-Line models.

The engine is ultra-smooth and extremely quiet – even on a cold start. It revs happily and pulls strongly from low revs. It will be perfectly quick enough for most tastes (0-60mph in 8.3 seconds) and kicks out 116g/km of CO2 (means the first year's tax is £160).

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If you don't want to spend as much or you don't need that amount of power, one of the Golf's key advantages is its huge range of engines. You can get a lower-powered 1.0 TSi petrol with 115hp on some models, and it's surprisingly fun. Diesels in 1.6 and 2.0 capacities remain firm favourites, despite that scandal we shouldn't mention. Splash out on more performance and you're spoilt for choice. There's a 184hp GTD, the plug-in hybrid GTE, a GTI (which now comes in a 245hp format), or you can get a fire-breathing four-wheel-drive 310hp Golf R.

Assuming you're not a speed freak and are just after a regular Golf, we'd advocate choosing one of the new TSI EVO petrol engines. Especially if your annual mileage is low or mainly around towns. They provide a more pleasant and refined experience than their diesel equivalents and will cost you slightly less to buy upfront. However, do be aware that, despite technology which deactivates two of the cylinders when under light load, we achieved around 35mpg in our 1.5 TSi Golf. If we'd been driving a 1.6 or 2.0 TDi in the same circumstances, we'd have expected to add at least 10mpg to that number.

Verdict

The updates to the Golf MK 7 help to keep it competitive, until the new model arrives in a couple of years. It's an extremely likeable, capable car, equipped with new technology and engine improvements that make it the default choice among small family hatchbacks. It feels beautifully put together, the seats are comfortable, there's reasonable space front and back, and while the boot isn't class-leading it is bigger than many competitors.

Five years since launch have been kind to the Golf, as it doesn't look dated. But the interior architecture now feels old compared to incoming rivals like the new Mercedes A-Class, while the new Honda Civic offers a lot more room and a lot more tech for less (albeit in a less sophisticated and more marmite package). The in-house competition from VW also offers some interesting alternatives: a Polo offers you nearly as much space, for less money; a T-Roc is more fun and on-trend; a Tiguan offers more space and arguably feels a bit more special for not much more.

The Golf remains great – it's the sensible shoes of the Volkswagen family. But we wouldn't be surprised to find some having their eyes turned by its newer brothers and sisters on a trip down to the VW showroom.

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For about the same price as a Golf, you can now have the similarly sized, jacked-up, higher-riding and actually slightly more spacious T-Roc crossover. It doesn't drive as well as the Golf and the cabin is a little more plasticky, but if you want a contrasting roof, bigger boot and some lifestyle attitude then this is a great in-house rival from VW.

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