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Eighth-generation Golf once again raises the bar for the family hatchback segment

The story of the Volkswagen Golf began in 1974. Back then few would have imagined just what sort of success the practical hatchback would become.

Forty-five years later, the Golf has firmly established as the world’s best-selling car, with more than 35 million sales worldwide.   

The new model is noticeably more direct in its actions than before, which might surprise those coming from the comparatively relaxed mk7, but for enthusiast drivers it makes for a more compelling car

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 in  Europe’s hardest-fought market segment 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 Golf 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 in a distinctly lower front end. There’s also a more defined swage line running from the leading edge of the front doors through to the rear lights. 

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 wider and 4mm taller than before, with the same wheelbase. Yet Volkswagen has managed to improve aerodynamic efficiency; the standard model  boasts a Cd of 0.27 compared to the 0.30 of its predecessor.

The new Golf will be offered exclusively with five doors. We did spot some cost-cutting measures: it eschews gas struts for the bonnet, relying on a simple manual strut. Volkswagen says this is because the new model adopts two bonnet latches instead of a single latch. The underside of the bonnet is also finished in black undercoat rather than body colour, a move claimed to streamline assembly.

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Understanding the new Golf range

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 are a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine developing 89bhp, and a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol powerplant offering 129bhp and 148bhp - all offering a claimed 10 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the non-electrified powertrains they replace.

The plug-in hybrid drivetrains combine Volkswagen’s 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a gearbox-mounted electric motor, offering 148bhp and 241bhp in a performance-focused GTE model – although only the higher-powered version will be offered in the UK when it goes on sale next year. Both use a 13kWh lithium battery, claimed to provide a 50 per cent increase in electric range of more than 37 miles.

The launch range also includes a 2.0-litre four-cylinder TDI engine with 113bhp and 148bhp. 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.

Volkswagen will launch new GTi, GTD and R variants of the new Golf in 2020 - the latter of which is expected to run an updated version of its predecessor’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine developing up to 320bhp.

Over time Volkswagen has perfected the Golf, and every new model faces a tough task to improve on the version it replaces. 

Is the new Golf a worthy replacement for the last one?

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-in digital instrument cluster with either a 8.25in or optional 10.0in 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 to the new electric 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.

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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. Its clearly meant to mimic the swipe of a smartphone, but is a bit hit and miss. As an alternative, Volkswagen offers a voice control system.

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 at 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 is a further plus point. 

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 embedded, enabling online music streaming and real-time traffic information among other on-line 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 is 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.

How does the Golf perform on the road?

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 148bhp 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 184lb ft of torque available from 1500rpm it delivers a good amount of mid-range urge. 

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The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox boasts improved step off qualities, while the latest petrol-electric powerplant propels the new Golf from 0-62mph in a claimed 8.5sec, with a top speed of 139mph. By comparison, the non-electrified 1.5 TSI model it replaces boasted figures of 8.7sec and 135mph. 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, Seat Leon and Mazda 3 in the driving stakes.

Wolfsburg would have you believe it is all-new underneath. However, the latest Golf is based around a carry-over 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 progressive steering system fitted 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.

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The spring and damping is 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 the 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.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Volkswagen Golf

First drives

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