The story of the Volkswagen Golf began in 1974. Back then, in the year Australia’s road signs officially switched from imperial to metric, few would have imagined just what sort of success the practical German hatchback would become.
Forty-five years later, the model conceived as an indirect replacement for the enduring Beetle has firmly established itself as the world’s best-selling car, with more than 35 million sales worldwide to date.
Predictably, then, Volkswagen takes the development of each and every Golf model very seriously indeed, carefully preserving what is cherished while diligently updating elements considered old or flawed.
As a result of this step-by-step approach, it has managed to remain relevant and competitive for over four decades without resorting to any radical or contrived changes for seven complete model cycles – something no hatchback rival can claim.
Engineering-wise, this new eighth-generation model is more of a revision than a replacement. The new 2020 Volkswagen Golf (likely a 2021 Volkswagen Golf when it reaches Australia) retains the same front-wheel-drive MQB platform as its predecessor, albeit updated to offer greater structural rigidity.
Its chassis draws heavily on the car it replaces, without any significant changes in geometry or hardware.
The exterior is more individual-looking than the previous Golf. The flamboyant design of the LED headlamps is particularly out of character for Volkswagen's best-selling model, and the most controversial design element is a distinctly lower front end.
There’s also a more defined swage running from the leading edge of the front doors through to the rear lights, giving it a more defined shoulder line than at any time in the past.
In a development that helps to bring it into line with some rivals, buyers can option Volkswagen’s IQ light package. It includes automatic main beam, strobe-like indicators, and gives the rear lights a distinctive LED graphic.
The new Golf is 29mm longer, 10mm narrower and 4mm taller than before at a respective 4285mm, 1789mm and 1456mm. It also sits on the same 2636mm wheelbase. Despite the subtle increase in size, Volkswagen has managed to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
The standard model driven here boasts a Cd of 0.27 compared to the claimed 0.30 of its predecessor, thanks mainly to a smaller frontal area of just 2.21m².
As with the seventh-generation model it replaces, the new Golf will be offered exclusively in five-door guise. We did spot some cost-cutting measures: it eschews gas struts for the bonnet, relying on a simple manual strut instead.
Volkswagen says this is because the new model adopts two bonnet latches instead of the single latch used by its predecessor. The underside of the bonnet is also finished in a black undercoat rather than body colour in a move claimed to streamline its assembly.
The new Golf’s engine line-up includes three new turbocharged petrol-based eTSI mild hybrids that use a 48-volt electric drive system, and a revised petrol-electric plug-in hybrid drivetrain offering two different states of tune.
The mild-hybrid eTSI units start with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine developing 81kW, with the 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol power plant featured here offering 96kW and 110kW.
All claim to boast a 10 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the non-electrified drivetrains they replace through new functions such as engine-off coasting.
The plug-in hybrid drivetrains combine Volkswagen’s 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a gearbox-mounted electric motor, offering 110kW and 180kW in a new performance-based GTE model – although only the higher-powered version will likely be offered in Australia when the new Golf goes on sale next year.
Both use a 13kWh lithium battery, which is claimed to provide a 50 per cent increase in electric range at over 60km on the WLTP test cycle.
The launch range also includes a 2.0-litre four-cylinder TDI engine with 85kW and 110kW. Gearboxes include six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch units depending on the engine they are mated to.
Alongside standard front-wheel drive, selected Golf models will also be available with optional 4Motion four-wheel drive.
Within the next 12 months, Volkswagen also plans to launch new GTi, GTD and R variants of the new Golf – the latter of which is expected to run an updated new version of its predecessor’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine developing up to 235kW in combination with an updated 4Motion four-wheel-drive system.
Over time, Volkswagen has perfected the Golf, and every new model faces a tough task to improve on the version it replaces. Does the new Golf succeed?
The answer comes the moment you step inside. It’s the eminently practical interior where arguably the biggest changes have taken place, and which will help to extend the appeal of Volkswagen’s enduring hatchback. The Innovision cockpit features a fully digital dashboard. Compared to the relatively conservative interiors of previous Golfs, it's a revolution and clearly aimed at younger buyers.
The area ahead of the driver is dominated by a 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster with either a 8.25-inch or optional 10.0-inch central touchscreen for the infotainment functions.
Together with a new multi-function steering wheel, they form a vastly different driving environment than that of previous incarnations of the Volkswagen best-seller – one that is appealingly functional the moment you begin to poke around.
It's similar in style to that of the new electric-powered ID. 3, with the controls positioned higher and closer to the steering wheel than before, giving the dashboard a more top-heavy nature. The centre console is wider and, in models featuring a dual-clutch gearbox, houses a stubby shift-by-wire gear selector in combination with a starter button, and the electric handbrake and hill holder.
There are very few physical buttons. All the major controls, including for the ventilation and driving modes, are housed within a touch-sensitive panel below the central display. A 'slider' is used to regulate various functions, including the volume.
It is clearly meant to mimic the swipe of a smartphone, but proved a bit hit-and-miss on our first acquaintance. As an alternative, Volkswagen offers a voice-control system that is activated with a 'Hello Volkswagen' command.
Perceived quality, always one of the Golf’s biggest strengths, has improved. Some might argue there is too much hard black plastic, but I suspect most prospective buyers will be taken by how well the dashboard is assembled and how expensive the materials used within the interior feel. The haptic feedback generated by the centre display and the response speed are further plus points.
Continuing the modern look are ambient lighting strips within the dashboard and door trims, as well as a host of other new optional features, including an excellent new head-up display, which is available on the Golf for the first time and is a highly recommended addition.
The eighth-generation Golf features the latest third-generation version of Volkswagen MIB infotainment system. It is permanently connected to the internet via an embedded eSIM, enabling online music streaming and real-time traffic information among other online features.
Volkswagen has also upgraded the Golf’s driver-assistance systems, including optional Travel Assist, which combines adaptive cruise control and lane assist to enable “assisted hand-off driving” at speeds up to 130mph.
The new Golf is the first Volkswagen model to feature Car2X (car-to-everything) technology based on the harmonised European Union standard. It uses information generated by other vehicles and the road infrastructure to warn of tailbacks and the like.
While the dashboard represents a major departure on past models, the driving position and overall interior packaging are familiar. The front seats provide a good amount of lateral support, and the driver benefits from a wide range of steering wheel and seat adjustment.
The most powerful of the new Golf’s mild hybrid drivetrains, the 1.5 eTSI driven here, distinguishes itself with inherently effective properties that should ensure it finds favour among traditional petrol engine car buyers and diesel stalwarts.
With 110kW at 5000rpm, the turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder unit isn’t exactly brimming with energy. However, it is remarkably smooth and revs freely to the 6400rpm cut-out, endowing the new Golf with a moderately sporting performance when you dial up the sport mode.
In everyday driving, though, there’s no need to work it hard, because with 250Nm of torque available from 1500rpm it delivers a good amount of mid-range urge.
The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox boasts improved step-off qualities, while the latest petrol-electric power plant propels the new Golf from 0–100km/h in a claimed 8.5sec, with a top speed of 224km/h.
By comparison, the non-electrified 1.5 TSI model it replaces boasted figures of 8.7sec and 218km/h. The 48-volt belt-driven starter motor brings additional functions, including brake energy recuperation, a coasting function, and a more immediate stop/start system.
There’s a persuasive maturity to the on-road characteristics of the latest Golf, whose handling is distinguished by its progressiveness, balance and accuracy. The new model is noticeably more direct in its actions than before. This might surprise those coming from the comparatively relaxed confines of the seventh-generation model, but for enthusiast drivers it makes for a more compelling car – one with the dynamic ability to firmly challenge the likes of the Ford Focus, Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 in the driving stakes.
Wolfsburg would have you believe it is all-new underneath. However, the latest Golf is based around a carryover platform and chassis. Lower-end models continue to receive a MacPherson strut (front) and torsion beam (rear) suspension, while upper-end models, including this 1.5 eTSI, run a more sophisticated combination of MacPherson struts (front) and multi-links (rear).
All models receive passive dampers as standard, though as with its predecessor, the new Golf works best with the optional continuously variable dampers, which come as part of the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC). That also features a driver profile system with four modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual.
We’re yet to sample the standard fixed-ratio steering, but the progressive steering system fitted to our test car proved nicely weighted, wonderfully precise and quite predictable in its actions. The new Golf communicates with greater feel and boasts faster reactions than before, especially in the initial degrees of lock.
It might not deliver the overall feedback of some key competitors, but it is meticulously accurate and always dependable, allowing you to confidently place it at the entry to corners.
Turn in on a trailing throttle and you discover excellent body control with progressive movement as lateral forces build, before the fast-acting steering allows you to feed off the lock at the exit. On the right road, it is never anything less than entertaining.
When fitted with the optional continuously variable dampers, the ride is brilliantly controlled. Quick reactions and excellent absorption properties help to moderate bump shock and quell vertical movement before it has a chance to build on more challenging road surfaces.
There is genuine compliance and subtlety to the way the suspension soaks up bumps and maintains its ride height, leading to a relaxed and settled feel in Comfort mode.
The springs and damping are a touch firmer than that of its predecessor in Sport mode, giving the new car greater immediacy in its most sporting setting, though it is never abrupt under an unloaded wheel.
Hit a sharp-edged rut mid-corner with the outside wheel loaded, and some inevitable thump does arise. You can’t fail to notice the added agility relative to the car it replaces: the balance is finely struck, making the new Volkswagen hugely satisfying to drive.
Another key attribute to the new Golf is its excellent directional stability. As a result, it feels right at home at higher speeds on the motorway, with long gearing providing it with hushed driveline properties, and its improved aerodynamics bringing about a noticeable reduction in wind buffeting.
The superiority of the Golf over its volume-market hatchback rivals may not be quite as marked as it once was. But, this new model has managed to raise the game and distance itself from the competition.
It betters its predecessor in a number of key areas, delivering a familiar range of qualities bundled together with newfound dynamic attributes and new-age digital and connectivity functions.
The attention to detail in its engineering gives the new Volkswagen an immediate feeling of deep-seated integrity from the very first mile. The added performance and refinement from the electrified drivetrain, and inherent maturity and resolved qualities of its chassis, make it a highly gratifying car to drive on just about any road and in any environment.
If Volkswagen's claims are to be believed, it is also significantly more efficient, with improved fuel economy and fewer emissions than ever before no matter what model you choose.
And that interior? Although highly contemporary in appearance and a clear advance in ergonomics, I suspect it might prove a step too far down the digital road for many potential customers.
It will no doubt appeal to younger buyers, but the execution and design run counter to the simple and straightforward traits that have traditionally made the Golf so popular.
But that's something that can only be judged over time. Right now, the new Volkswagen deserves to be considered a success.
When will the new Golf launch in Australia?
The new model will likely launch as a 2021 Volkswagen Golf by the time it hits Australia, currently marked for a local debut towards the end of 2020.