2017 Volkswagen Golf review

The 2017 Volkswagen Golf update is subtle in many ways, but the running tech changes bring worthy improvements to our benchmark small car offering

Volkswagen has updated the car with which its brand is now most synonymous — the Golf. The running changes come about four years into the seventh-generation model’s life cycle, prompting many to colloquially dub it the ‘Mk 7.5’.

However, while some of the upgrades are significant, in particular the cutting-edge cabin infotainment and the rollout of partial autonomous driving systems, the fundamentals are familiar. Those denoting it as half a generational change (not Volkswagen, we'd add) are ambitious.

On the flip side, if your product isn’t broken, there’s little to fix, and the Golf remains a top pick in the small car class. That fact doesn’t change, and what this upgrade brings to the table is a layer of ultra-modern polish to stave off aggressive contenders for its crown.

A synopsis of the changes goes like this: redesigned bumper, grille and headlights; more sophisticated in-car display screens added; extra semi-automated active safety tech; a more efficient new 1.5-litre petrol engine; and power bumps for the Golf GTI and Golf R.

The equivalent of a new coat of tasteful paint rather than a complete renovation.

Some Australian-market specifics. The 2017 Volkswagen Golf will arrive on July 3, starting with the hatch, wagon and Alltrack crossover, an iteration with on-demand all-wheel drive (AWD), soft-roading software and body cladding.

A few weeks later will come the rejigged Golf GTI and Golf R, both of which get small power increases — to 169kW and 213kW respectively — and will become more luxurious than ever before.

But here we review the updated ‘regular’ hatch range. Volkswagen Australia will ‘rationalise’ the line-up — code for reducing the breadth of offerings — in a way that befits its determination to push moderately upmarket.

This translates to the likely axing of the 92TSI base engine currently offered in favour of the familiar 1.4-litre turbocharged 110TSI petrol offered at present only on upper-grade Highline models, with 110kW between 5000 and 6000rpm and 250Nm from 1500rpm.

This will be matched at base 110TSI level with a six-speed manual or seven-speed double-wet-clutch DSG automatic gearbox. The DSG will probably remain the sole option on the 110TSI Comfortline and 110TSI Highline — the latter of which will also come as a 110TDI diesel.

The 2.0-litre diesel unit makes a familiar 110kW between 3500 and 4000rpm and a strong 340Nm of torque from 1750rpm, but now comes matched to a seven-speed DSG rather than a six, helping shave a few tenths from the fuel use (now a claimed 4.6L/100km).

We mentioned a new 1.5-litre engine before. This unit disappointingly will not make it to Australia. The good news: its outputs are in fact identical to the 1.4 TSI. The bad? Its fuel use is about 0.3L/100km superior (at 5.1L/100km), getting CO2 emissions low enough to future-proof the car against ever harsher European requirements.

Volkswagen Australia argues that since our emissions requirements aren’t as strict, it makes no sense to introduce a (roughly $1500) more expensive unit — with tech such as cylinder deactivation on call — if it leads to price rises with no performance gain. But is this what a brand all about being “premium for the people” should do? It poses a question…

We drove a Golf with this engine, matched to a sweet-shifting six-speed manual, and found its performance unsurprisingly hard to differentiate from our 1.4, with plenty of low-end torque ensuring relatively rapid response. The 0-100km/h time of 8.2sec is swift for the class.

The other vehicle we drove was the 110TDI, and its engine remains familiar too: quiet and largely vibration-free from inside the cabin, not overly agricultural from outside, with ample rolling response. The 0-100km/h time is a sprightly 8.6sec, and at 130km/h we saw the tachometer reading a low 1800rpm.

The new seven-speed DSG makes freeway cruising even more relaxed than before, while the familiar low-speed jerkiness has almost been ironed out. Almost. Volkswagen clearly does its best in Australia to keep this variant a niche, given it's Highline-only, but regional buyers who do long distance cruising regularly would do well to have a crack.

Dynamically, the Golf seems unchanged, meaning it’s still the most refined and cosseting small car you can buy. The all-round independent suspension and the tyres/wheels — 16s and 17s as tested — isolate sharp hits like cobbles or speed bumps beautifully, while the dampers (either adjustable or fixed, depending on spec) keep body control in check.

In non-GTI guise the Golf still lacks the ultimate turn-in sharpness of a Focus, but its well-weighted steering and excellent MQB chassis balance makes it a dynamic package nonetheless, and its vibration, noise and patchwork road suppression remains near-faultless. It’s a big country tourer wrapped in a small hatchback’s body.

It’s unclear which active safety features will come to Australia, though we know autonomous low-speed braking (AEB) with new pedestrian detection software will be standard, as will the auto post-collision braking function.

It’s likely that functions such as radar-guided cruise control, trailer assist, automated parking assist, rear cross-traffic assist, and blind-spot monitoring will be offered as part of an extra cost Driver Assistance package for a few grand.

The Traffic Jam Assist system that handles steering, braking and accelerating itself under 60km/h in gridlock, is being evaluated for our market. Should it become available, Volkswagen would be able to offer among the best partial-autonomy in the market.

The major point of difference to the MY17 Golf inside the cabin are the new screens, part of its Discover Pro system. The full-whack system sports a 9.2-inch glossy and flush-glass central display, while in front of the driver is the 12.3-inch digital Active Info Display from the Tiguan and Passat (and in Audis, where it’s called Virtual Cockpit).

The array is class-topping by some margin, with the main screen offering crisp resolution, a configurable home screen and the ability to swipe, or pinch-and-zoom like your smartphone. It also has a novel infra-red gesture control system which allows you to shuffle through tracks or stations with a swiping hand movement.

The theory is that it’ll keep smudges off the screen and allow you to keep your eyes on the road, once you’re used to it. In reality its uses are limited, but naturally VW will build on its functions until it matches the BMW 7 Series.

The key will be whether you can update extant systems with new software progressively, which VW says it technically possible but has not yet committed to doing. If it wants to be ultra-modern, it sure as heck will. Either way, it’s a cool novelty that does actually ‘democratise’ premium tech.

Beyond this, the dials are replaced by five capacitive buttons, though we still like the tactility of a proper volume knob. This was an aesthetic choice only, the company admits. The screen offers Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, WiFi, photorealistic sat-nav views (like Audi’s data SIM-powered unit) and even stores and displays high-res photos. It’s great.

The Active Info Display digitised instrument cluster has 1440x540 pixel resolution, can display 2D and 3D mapping, various dial sizes, trip data and more, with modes changed by buttons on the steering wheel. It’s tech that belongs on a $100,000 car, so it makes the Golf suddenly feel a bit Hollywood.

The downside is that, understandably, this tech will almost certainly be an optional extra on all bar the Volkswagen Golf R in Australia, bundled into a package for a few grand. At least all variants will now get a bigger 8.0-inch screen as standard-fit. That's a positive.

Elsewhere, the Golf’s cabin is more or less familiar, The switchgear is as before, as are the soft-touch and well-made plastic trims, though the seat cloth on entry grades appears to be different. Austere but well-made and comfortable.

Rear seat space remains moderate, though the big windows help visibility, while boot space is 380L/1270L. The wagon version takes this to 605L/1620L.

Australian specs aren’t out and about yet, though the new 110TSI base car will get 16-inch alloys, AEB and a touchscreen with App-Connect. The Comfortline will at least get bigger alloys, nicer seats and more tech, while the Highline will probably get new full-LED headlights among other niceties. All variants will also get the mid-tier 8.0-inch screen.

Pricing-wise, Volkswagen admits there’ll be increases of a few hundred dollars, mostly because the 110TSI engine is now the base unit.

Expect an entry price of between $23,000 and $24,000 plus on-road costs for the base (potentially called Trendline) manual, and about $29,000 for the DSG Comfortline, $34,000 for the Highline 110TSI and $36,000 for the Highline 110TDI. A little higher than rivals, then. We’re sorry that we can’t be more specific.

After spending a day driving the upgraded Golf, the reality goes like this — the MY17 model isn’t a step-change as much as a minor upgrade, unless you’re going to pay extra for the truly cutting-edge Discover Pro and Active Info Display systems.

Yet the fact the punchier 110TSI engine will now be the base offering, and the fact that the Golf remains arguably the best all-rounder in the class with a signature premium feel, means it remains a top pick.

A minor update is more than enough to keep it ahead of the pack, and so its rating shouldn’t surprise. We’ll know more specifics and be able to give you a fuller buyer guide come July, when the hatch, wagon and Alltrack range rolls into town.