9 / 10
A new-generation Volkswagen Golf used to be a once-in-a-decade event, but not anymore – exactly four years after the launch of the much-praised Golf Mk6, the Wolfsburg outfit has mustered every fragment of expertise it has in producing the all-new, rival-crushing Volkswagen Golf Mk7.
This new-generation model is the first new-from-the-ground-up Volkswagen Golf since the 2003 Mk5, but what it reflects is a vastly more sophisticated approach to the ubiquitous small hatchback.
The goalposts have moved a long way in almost 10 years, much of that thanks to the Golf, and even at the end of its tenure, the outgoing Mk6 is still considered the class benchmark. But alongside the brand spanking Mk7, the Mk6 seems almost boring and dated.
Yes, Volkswagen’s next-generation ‘people’s car’ is a knockout. Regardless of what you might think of the Golf Mk7’s evolutionary styling, on the road it looks lower and wider (which it is – by 28mm and 13mm respectively), but also classier, more masculine and more ‘premium’, which is exactly what the market wants.
The wheelbase has grown a welcome 59mm to 2637mm (the old Volkswagen Golf had the shortest wheelbase in its class), while overall length is up 56mm, stretching the Golf’s proportions neatly. The drop in overall height has cut headroom slightly (by an insignificant 15mm up front, 12mm in the back), as well as aerodynamic drag (0.274 Cd for the slipperiest variant), but there’s loads of interior space, and the boot is now a generous 380 litres (up 30 litres).
Even with a space-saver spare, the boot floor is exceptionally deep, but if you can forgo a little room, the moveable floor can raise slightly to store the parcel shelf underneath – unleashing a totally flat, obstruction-free cargo bay. There are also four ‘curry hooks’ for take-away and shopping excursions.
Under close inspection, you can’t help but notice the stylistic nods to the Mk1 (the side window line on the three-door) and the Mk4 (the lovely, symmetrical slice of shut-line along the trailing edge of the five-door’s rear door and the tailgate). But while the Mk7 remains visually faithful to the past and the whole Volkswagen Golf ‘brand’, it only takes one peek inside the cabin to realise you’ve just witnessed the future.
If you thought the Mk6’s interior was posh, wait until you cop an eyeful of the Mk7’s – it’s incredible. Trying to find an unsightly material or rough edge is harder than conquering Everest in thongs. The gently concave instrument panel and the broad sweep of the centre console scream ‘luxury sedan’ louder than most luxury sedans.
Admittedly, all Golfs on the international launch in Sardinia were premium Highline grade – sitting above Trendline and Comfortline spec levels. But the combination of interesting textures like ribbed Alcantara inserts surrounded by houndstooth-style cloth on the Highline’s standard sports seats, the seductive plastics, and Volkswagen’s slick new-generation switchgear is deeply impressive. Neat cubbies and SD-card inserts abound, and the roller-door cover for the centre cup holders is a tactile delight. So, too, is Volkswagen’s trademark length- and height-adjustable centre armrest – now feeling smoother and slicker to operate than ever.
The same goes for the new-generation drivetrains. Only two engines were available on the launch, and both are new. The petrol is an all-alloy 1.4-litre TSI petrol (replacing the old iron-block 1.4-litre TSI) – part of a new-generation EA211 family that includes the 55kW 1.0-litre triple from the Up! and a new 63kW 1.2-litre four.
Thanks to its lightweight construction, the new 1.4 TSI weighs 40kg less than the old iron-blocker, and combined with a sizeable drop in the Mk7’s overall vehicle weight (the total, including engine, is approaching 100kg), this 103kW/250Nm Golf manages to successfully masquerade as a replacement for the previous 118kW/240Nm twin-charged 1.4.
The new single-turbo 1.4 is simpler, lighter, more efficient and less costly to produce than its clever turbocharged-supercharged predecessor, hence the switch. And while 103kW at 4500-6000rpm mightn‘t set pulses racing, the new 1.4 TSI’s torque figure of 250Nm from 1500-3500rpm mostly compensates.
Actual performance is slightly down (0-100km/h in 8.4 seconds versus 8.0sec), but the version with automatic cylinder deactivation cuts two cylinders under light loads and cuts fuel consumption by up to 23 per cent.
The claimed fuel consumption average with the seven-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox is just 4.7 litres per 100km, while emitting barely 109 grams of CO2 per kilometre. And on the road, the engine’s virtually imperceptible cylinder deactivation, combined with vast reserves of low- and mid-range torque, makes the 1.4 TSI an effortlessly refined companion.
It isn’t a sporting engine, though. Above 5400rpm, the 1.4 TSI is intrusive – especially in relation to the Golf’s superb refinement elsewhere – and there’s little point stretching it beyond 5000rpm. The DSG changes up at 5900rpm, but with so many gears and such quick shifts, you don’t really notice the high-rev commotion. It’s when you keep the six-speed manual revving in a low gear, or the seven-speed DSG is doing the same through an uphill corner, that you realise this is far from an enthusiast’s engine. As an all-round workhorse, though, it’s excellent.
The 2.0-litre turbo diesel is also a new engine – part of Volkswagen’s all-new EA288 modular diesel family. Power is up only slightly (110kW at 3500-4000rpm versus 103kW) and torque stays the same as its EA189-series 2.0 TDI predecessor (320Nm produced from 1750-3000rpm), but thanks to twin balance shafts, it’s very smooth for a diesel.
The six-speed manual version averages an exceptional 4.1L/100km (4.4L/100km for the six-speed DSG) and emits just 106g/km of CO2, but it’s the character of the diesel that’s most impressive.
Of the two launch engines, this is the enthusiast’s choice. Its punchy mid-range and growly induction note make the TDI a pleasure to stoke along. It will rev to 5000rpm without complaint, though 4500rpm is a more realistic shift-up point, and yet it starts to pull from just over 1300rpm without the grumbly drone of yore.
And while the 2.0 TDI is slightly slower than the 1.4 TSI in outright acceleration (0-100km/h in 8.6sec), its rolling response feels stronger.
Suspension-wise, the all-new Volkswagen Golf employs an evolution of the previous model’s excellent set-up, with one sizeable exception. Golf models with 90kW or more (the base 90kW/200Nm 1.4 TSI, the up-spec 103kW version and the 110kW 2.0 TDI) all run an improved multi-link rear suspension that is 4kg lighter than the Mk6’s set-up.
But Golfs producing less than 90kW run “modular lightweight suspension”, which is marketing waffle for a torsion-beam rear-end. It’s a new design, weighing 15kg less than the Mk6’s multi-link, but with none available on the launch, it’s impossible to say whether this is a retrograde step or a clever, cost-saving one. The last Golf with a torsion-beam – the Mk4 – was widely criticised for its dynamics.
The multi-link versions, however, set a new class standard in dynamic polish. All the Golf Highlines on the launch were equipped with the optional Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive suspension that allows you to switch (via a selector button on the centre console, and then mode buttons on the huge, top-level 8.0-inch colour touchscreen) between Comfort, Normal, Sport and Individual.
All three regular modes adjust the level of damping firmness and steering weighting, while Individual allows you to select your own setting for those, plus transmission and various other vehicle functions. Normal’s sweetly weighted steering and absorbent, yet well-disciplined ride appear to hit the mark for the Golf’s premium positioning, but Sport adds a level of handling sharpness and yaw control that ranks it clearly above Normal.
Sport also runs a meatier setting for the new electric steering system, and it’s excellent. No matter what mode you select, the Golf steers with crisp accuracy, and lovely consistency and weighting. And all this through a superb steering wheel that is not only great to hold, but also great to look at.
Handling-wise, the new Volkswagen Golf steps up the sophistication over the Mk6. It doesn’t reward you with its dynamism like a Focus can at times, but it’s much more polished than the Ford, and still capable of a good time. All Golf Mk7s feature the XDS electronic front differential lock that was once fitted only to the GTI, which demonstrates the thoroughness of Volkswagen’s approach to the new model.
The launch cars all wore 17-inch alloys with 225/45R17 91W tyres (standard on Highline), though the cars wearing Pirelli Cinturato P7s were noticeably quieter over coarse surfaces than those wearing the two types of Dunlops.
Either way, the Golf retains its crown as one of the quietest cars in its class, and more than likely the quietest. Only a back-to-back test on home soil will confirm Golf’s ride and refinement promise, but the sense of luxury it exudes is palpable.
Indeed, even the base Trendline’s spec will include a stop-start system, battery regeneration, an electronic parking brake with auto-hold, tyre-pressure indicators, seven airbags, a five-inch TFT screen, and in a class first, a multi-collision braking system that will apply the brakes if the airbags are about to go off. That’s all in addition to daytime running lights, air-con, electric windows and all the usual fare.
Tick every option box and it’s amazing just how comprehensively equipped the Golf Mk7 can be. Things like adaptive cruise control, City Emergency Braking, Fatigue Detection, lane assist, progressive variable-rate steering, dynamic lights and auto park assist are still the stuff of luxury cars, not a small hatchback.
Best of all, Australian prices are expected to follow the German lead in hitting the market at exactly the same retail price as the outgoing Mk6. In other words, it will only be a matter of time before the Golf Mk7 soars up the sale charts across the globe.
What Volkswagen Australia needs, though, is a clear focus on value-for-money servicing and dealer support, combined with great reliability from the DSG dual-clutch gearbox when it reaches local showrooms in the second quarter of 2013.
In the meantime, Golf Mk7 variants will soon be coming thick and fast. As Volkswagen’s head of marketing, Jurgen Stackmann, stated, “there will be a family of Golf to make Golf even bigger in the future.” And that will include Golf GTD, GTI and a wagon in 2013, as well as a new-generation all-wheel drive Golf R later on.
The Golf is already “e-capable”, and within the next year or two, Volkswagen expects to roll out up to 40 variants across its broad stable of brands on the A3/Golf MQB platform.