The arrival of the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf marked an evolutionary design almost 40 years in the making.
While it’s unmistakeably Golf, the newest incarnation of Volkswagen’s all-time best seller incorporates a myriad of visual changes and under-body improvements that should guarantee the Golf VII has a longer shelf life than its version VI predecessor, which made its local debut in 2009.
Even in this entry-level guise, the new Volkswagen Golf has a more aggressive stance, thanks largely to the newfound flexibility afforded by the Volkswagen Group’s Modular Transverse Matrix platform.
As a result, it has a longer wheelbase (by 57mm), sits lower to the ground (by 28mm), and is 13mm wider than the car it replaces. Despite these size shifts, the new platform does not constitute a ‘bulking up’ of the Golf’s design.
If anything, the Golf VII appears to be a more tightly wrapped design with clearly defined creases and shoulder lines. More significantly, the new Golf is up to 100kg lighter than the previous Golf.
Inside, the changes are more obvious. Despite the fact that our test car is the $21,490, bottom of the range VW Golf 90TSI, this is a huge step up from its predecessor.
It’s clear Volkswagen has gone to great lengths to uphold the Golf’s benchmark status in the ferociously competitive small car segment.
From the standard thick-rimmed, flat-bottom leather-bound steering wheel with piano black inlays and beautifully designed multifunction buttons, to the intuitive 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, revised switchgear and a new hill-hold-enabled electronic parking brake, the Golf is striving to set the pace for small car refinement.
Even the standard audio system is a treat, producing a very tidy sound via Bluetooth from its eight-speaker layout.
Fit and finish levels within the cabin are all top notch and designed to lift the Golf from ‘humble’ to ‘special’ status – even at the entry-level.
There are soft-touch plastics almost everywhere and all have a quality look and feel about them – well above the class average and on par with several luxury offerings.
The ergonomics are likewise exemplary. There’s a wide variety of comfort adjustments afforded the driver along with a more driver-centric dash and the most comfortable fabric upholstered front buckets we’ve ever sat in.
There’s also more rear legroom, and the boot has grown 30 litres to 380L. Fold the rear seats (almost flat) and luggage space expands to 1270 litres, together with a lower load sill (by 17mm) for easier access.
There’s good news under the bonnet of base model Golf with Volkswagen Australia electing to open the range with the latest 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder direct-injection engine producing 90kW of power and 200Nm of torque. The previous entry-level 1.2 unit made only 77kW.
Our test car came with the standard-fit six-speed manual transmission, but buyers can option a seven-speed DSG for an additional $2500 – still less than the next-in-line $24,990 90TSI Comfortline, which although loaded with more kit including rear-view camera and dual-zone climate control, still gets the same manual transmission in standard guise.
While there’s a lot to like about the quick-shifting dual-clutch option, VW’s lightweight manual boxes are perhaps even more refined and certainly more fun. The clutch pedal is nicely weighted and the shift action itself is quick and utterly effortless.
Never mind the 90kW that is at least 13kW down on rivals, because power delivery is smooth and linear right from the get-go, and with maximum torque (200Nm) available between 1400-4000rpm it’s also a wonderfully flexible engine with strong mid-range surge to boot.
Only the fact that it demands a diet of premium unleaded fuel can detract from what is such an outstanding drivetrain.
There isn’t much of an engine note from the VW Golf 90TSI, though, as the 1.4 turbo is barely audible most of the time (put that down to class-leading refinement), except of course if you wind it out nearer to its 6000rpm redline.
It might be the cooking-variety Golf only, but the 90TSI also benefits from Volkswagen’s fuel-saving BlueMotion technology that sees all models fitted with stop/start systems and battery regeneration modes.
Combined with the frugal nature of the 1.4-litre TSI engine, Volkswagen claims 5.7L/100km combined and as low as 4.7L/100km on the freeway with the DSG transmission.
Overall ride quality sees another significant leap forward with the Golf. Variants with 90kW and above benefit from the superior multilink rear suspension (lesser-powered Golf models available in some other markets get the cheaper torsion beam set-up).
The end result is remarkably good ride comfort capable of embarrassing more than a few luxury cars costing tens of thousands more.
The sheer level of suppleness and bump-absorbing ability of the Golf over our neglected roads is both extraordinary and certifiably game-changing for this segment.
There’s even more compliance with the 90TSI, which runs 15-inch steel wheels with 195/65 high-profile rubber as opposed to the Highline models which get 17-inch alloys shod with 225/45 low-profile tyres, which offer a slightly firmer ride.
While the electric power steering may not communicate the precise goings-on of the Golf’s front wheels (an area where the rival Ford Focus excels), it still changes direction quickly and accurately.
There’s isn’t a lot of lateral body roll, either, and there’s plenty of front-end grip aided by the Golf’s stability control and an extended differential lock (XDL) system (previously available only on the GTI model) that mimics the behaviour of a limited-slip differential by braking the inside front wheel when powering out of corners.
In terms of crash safety, the latest Volkswagen Golf scores the top five-star ANCAP and Euro NCAP rating. Seven airbags, ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, multi-collision brake (which automatically applies the brakes after an initial collision to minimise further third-party damage) and a fatigue detection system (that continually evaluates steering wheel movement and other signals) that sounds a warning to the driver are standard across the range.
Volkswagen also offers capped-price servicing on the Golf over six years or 90,000km with a scheduled service every 15,000km. Service charges kick off at $405 for the first two visits, rising to $465, $670, $405, and $465 for the final service.
By way of comparison, the Toyota Corolla is also offered with capped-price servicing over three years or 60,000kms, but the charges are considerably less at $130 for each of up to six scheduled visits.
The ‘reduced’ service charges might go to reinforce views that owning a Golf can be a costly exercise in maintenance, but for a machine this good, it’s worth the outlay.
It’s a big call, but in a star-studded segment there is simply no other base model competitor that has achieved the evolutionary heights of the VW Golf.
Offering a level of refinement, ride quality and aesthetic charm closer to that of a luxury contender, the VW Golf 90TSI sets a benchmark rivals can’t currently match.