9

Just how good is the mighty Volkswagen Golf? The seventh generation of Europe's best selling car has been facelifted to keep its nose ahead of its rivals

Find Used Volkswagen Golf 2012-2017 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £19,300
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

The Golf, then. One of the few cars that can simply be itself, and one of the few that defines a genre. It’s not ‘Hyundai/Ford/BMW/whoever’s new Golf rival’; instead, it simply is what it is: the epitome of the small family car and the one by which others are judged.

It's now in Mk7 form, a Golf underpinned by a platform known as MQB that carries great responsibility for the Volkswagen Group. Dozens of cars within the group are being rolled out based on this architecture, throughout the group's brands, in sizes ranging from a Volkswagen Polo supermini to the likes of a seven-seat SUV as previewed by the VW CrossBlue concept. Although the Mk8 is on the horizon with the replacement Golf set to be unveil in November.

The Golf is the stuff of automotive legend and VW's most popular model ever

The Golf, as ever, is almost clinically evolutionary in its feel and appearance, yet it is ground-up fresh technology from its MQB platform to the all-new motors in its subtly more angular body.

There is no getting away from the fact the Golf is a recipe that works and Volkswagen would be bonkers to change it. The 29 million they’ve sold since it was launched in 1974 proves this.

Since then range has been expanded greatly, to encompass everything from a 1.0-litre petrol turbo, through to the fast Golf R hot hatchback with true sports car pace. Bodystyles include three- and five-door hatchbacks, an estate, the MPV-styled SV, the rugged Alltrack and the recently axed convertible.

Advertisement
Back to top

Although since diesel-gate much pressure has been put on the VW Group and as an attempt to hone in on increasing profit margins the next generation Golf will only be available in certain guises. Ahead of the Mark 8 Golf, Volkswagen gave the seventh-generation a light facelift with subtle changes to the exterior and interior, alongside the introduction of a turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine.

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf headlights

Now, as ever, evolution is key to the Golf’s design. Volkswagen Group design boss Walter de Silva has suggested that much of the Golf’s success “lies in its continuity”. People liked what they saw in the past, and they like this Golf now, too.

Had you never seen this generation Golf before, yet removed all its badges, we’re certain you could tell this was still a Golf.

Be careful with the wheel choice on entry level models, as they come with 15-inch steel items as standard

But there are, however, some subtle variations from the usual theme: stronger horizontal lines along and across the body reinforce an impression of solidity, while there is a small front overhang and give a sense that there’s a long bonnet and a cabin set far backwards. That, according to VW, is a design trademark of a more upmarket car. Changes made for the 2017 facelift include, altered air inducts, LED rear lights, the introduction of LED day-running lights across the range and the use of LED headlights in place of xenon bulbs on more expensive models.

What lies beneath, however, is more important than surface fripperies. You’ll probably already know that Volkswagen’s flexible MQB architecture features here.

It’s a steel monocoque construction whose body-in-white is said by VW to weigh 23kg less than its predecessor’s, thus contributing to the claimed 100kg weight reduction over Mk6 Golf variants. That’s despite it being longer and wider at a still-compact 4255 and 1799mm respectively.

Volkswagen says a base 2.0 TDI like we put through Autocar's full road test could weigh as little as 1354kg. But there’s no disgrace that, well equipped and full of fuel, it came up 10kg short of 1400kg on our scales, especially given that the Volvo V40 D3 we tested tipped the scales at 1545kg.

All Golfs, as you would expect, have MacPherson struts at the front. At the rear, versions with less than 148bhp come with a torsion beam set-up, while those with more than 148bhp get a multi-link suspension system. The engine starts with a pair of turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrols good for 84 and 108bhp, followed by an 121bhp 1.4 TSI and topped by a duo of 1.5-litre EVO engines producing 128bhp and 148bhp respectively. The diesel range is more simple made up by an 113bhp 1.6 TDI and a 148bhp 2.0 TDI.

The range is topped by on the petrol side by the 2.0-litre TSI engine which is available in three outputs - 228bhp, 242bhp and 305bhp which find themselves plugged into the GTI, GTI Performance and the four-wheel driven Golf R. On the diesel front the range is completed with a 181bhp 2.0-litre GTD, while those with an eco-disposition have the choice of the 201bhp hybrid GTE and the 134bhp fully-electric e-Golf.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf interior

High expectations here, and easily met. A sizeable constituent within Volkswagen’s customer base buy its cars (and the Golf specifically) because the interior quality and corresponding aesthetic hoist the cabin ambience out of the mainstream.

Remarkably, this is done without fawning too dramatically at the premium brands’ coat tails; instead, the just-so sweetness of the ergonomics and a design blueprint devoid of ostentation are entrusted to convey that all-important waft of understated class. In that respect, the Mk7 is a chip off the block.

The buttons on the multifunction steering wheel are more suited to Borrowers than overfed road testers

VW insists that every element of this interior was redeveloped or redesigned over its predecessor's, but the innate conservatism of the surroundings means you’d struggle to put your finger on what exactly has changed without immediate reference to the Mk6 .

The centre console has been angled even more aggressively towards the driver, but it is probably the multimedia centre at its heart which is worthy of greater attention.

In a potent sign of the times, the trim levels come with more equipment than before, with the entry-level S comes equipped with LED day-running lights, automatic post-collision braking, city emergency braking and electronic locking differential as standard. Inside there is manual air conditioning, a cooled glovebox and Volkswagen's Composition infotainment system complete with 8.0in touchscreen display, DAB radio, and USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

SE cars come with more luxuries such as automatic wipers, lights and dimming rear-view mirror, adaptive cruise control, all round parking sensors, 16in alloy wheels and smartphone integration, while opting for the SE Nav sees the inclusion of sat nav, three-year subscription to VW's online services and an application to control the infotainment system via a tablet or smartphone. 

GT-trimmed Golfs come fitted with 17in alloy wheels, sports suspension, LED foglights, tinted rear windows, front sports seats and interior ambient lighting, while opting for an R-Line model gives the Golf a more aggressive exterior and interior. The sportier GTD gets more sporting attire, LED headlights, dual-zone climate control, a 12.3in Active Info digital instrument cluster, heated front seats and 15mm lowered sports suspension, while fleet drivers will be pleased to see the GTD Blueline added to the range which sees emissions cut 6-7g/km by the fitment of 17in alloy wheels.

The halo cars within the Volkwagen Golf range get further performance enhancements over the 'warm' GTD, with the GTI getting its own alloys, suspension set-up and bodykit, while the GTI Performance gets more power, larger diameter brake discs and a mechanical slip differential.

The range-topping Golf R is a different beast to the rest with its own bodykit, badging and details, a retuned sports suspension set-up and 4Motion four-wheel drive system. The all-electric e-Golf gets some charging equipment, LED headlights, numerous online VW applications and a 9.2in touchscreen infotainment system built in giving updates on the status of the vehicle and its electric charge.

The Golf GTE gets bespoke editions over the standard car, including a unique bodykit, decals and details, blue brake calipers, LED headlights, 12.3in Active Info digital instrument cluster, and two charging cables, while the GTE Advance version gets sat nav, headlight washers, heated front seats, 18in alloy wheels, VW's connect services and exterior sound generator for when the GTE is electric mode.

By VW’s own benchmark, some of the old-fashioned switchgear is not quite as satisfying to spin or toggle as it might have been, but these are niggles rather than concerns.

Elsewhere, VW’s determination that the Golf must, once again, be made to swell has at least paid dividends inside. Rear legroom has grown by 15mm, despite the fact that the front seats have been moved 20mm back to help accommodate taller drivers.

The platform’s broader girth means that shoulder and elbowroom have increased by 30mm and 20mm respectively. The 28mm decrease in height has not perceptibly hindered headroom. The Golf is as spacious as a family could reasonably ask, and well in touch with its peers.

The Golf Estate offers the same levels of sensibleness and quality in the front, but with a 605-litre boot out the back. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Volkswagen Golf diesel engine

In middling diesel-powered form, on which Autocar has taken performance figures, the Mk7 Golf is no more a car for petrolheads than the Mk6 or Mk5 were. For a start, it’s not particularly fast.

Directly comparable versions of the Volvo V40, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Honda Civic and Audi A3 have all undergone our road test treatment, and although wet conditions on our figuring day with the VW didn’t flatter, the Golf was slowest of the lot, taking four tenths of a second longer over a standing quarter mile than the intimately related Audi did.

Long gearing means the Golf is shaded by rivals in the benchmark performance tests

Longer gearing explains that difference, and emphatically sums up the priorities that the Golf has been configured to serve. In third gear, the Golf goes more than 4mph faster than the Audi for every 1000rpm on the tacho; in top, the difference is 7.4mph per 1000rpm. The VW, then, is a long-legged cruiser of a family hatch devoted to unobtrusive ease of use.

The engine’s 251lb ft is delivered quietly and undramatically. The Golf pulls smoothly from well under 1500rpm and remains restrained and usable beyond 4500rpm. Throttle response is first rate, particularly when Sport mode is selected from the new driver profile menu that gently reprograms the throttle map and steering responses, and the light gearchange is precise and mechanical.

The entry-level diesel, the 1.6 TDI, isn't exactly fiery, either, although 0-62mph in 10.2sec is okay when you take into account its 113bhp. It runs out of breath a bit in higher gears on the motorway or when you need a bit more shove to overtake, and the gear ratios are widely spaced, especially between third and fifth, with fourth not quite enough of an in-between.

There's also a clever 1.4 petrol with cylinder deactivation (badged ACT), which is quiet, refined and not all peaky although there was a slight hesistation when pulling away. It's possible this was the cylinder deactivation. The new 1.5 EVO engine is extremely flexible with a very linear delivery and real underlying determination from around 1500rpm onwards. It also provides sufficient resolve and verve to execute B-road overtaking manoeuvres with a good deal of confidence and conviction when conditions permit.

The potent four-cylinder engine in the GTD is refined for a high-output diesel. More importantly, it’s responsive for an oil-burner and delivers a pretty potent turn of speed. The torquey dig you get as you flatten the accelerator comes promptly, and it’s hefty. The motor also seems happy enough to rev beyond 3500rpm, without rewriting the rulebook on the best way to get outright performance from a diesel: you're better off staying in the mid-range, in other words

More impressive, though, is the overall mechanical refinement from all the variants we've tried, with not a hint of vibration detectable through the controls.

The car’s quietness is all the more convincing because, at a cruise, the 2.0-litre diesel is spinning more slowly than it might be. It amounts to the overriding impression of a singularly obliging and effortless car to rub along with: qualities that, as any automotive engineer will tell you, are the hardest to produce for the mass market. And qualities possessed by all the Mk7 Golfs we've driven.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf on the road

It is a mark of the Golf’s ability, as it has been with some of its forebears, that you frequently find yourself unconsciously driving it rather quickly. Not because it’s a particular riot to drive, but because it quietly encases you in a bubble of stability, accuracy and assuring control.

Such behaviour is bred by crisp refinement, confident body control and the electric power steering’s habit of not throwing on quite enough resistance until you’re travelling at a right old gallop.

The golf's enthusiasm is tempered somewhat by stability control that can't be disabled

Pay attention to the car’s performance rather than let it wash over you, and not only is it clear that the Golf is finding decent grip at each corner, but also that each wheel’s behaviour is registering somewhere in your sensory perception.

Which isn’t to suggest that what’s happening beneath you is particularly electrifying (the car’s handling is as predictable as a nativity play’s plot), but merely that it’s probably the reason for your newly liberal attitude to speed limits.

The steering colludes in this effect without ever dazzling. It’s light, but precise and reasonably brisk to self-centre. Sport mode does a better job of tweaking the weight advantage than Audi’s equivalent software, but Volkswagen is still well short of the Ford Focus’s intuitive bite. Turn-in, however, seems marginally sharper in the Golf.

There’s less pitch and greater initial tenacity, and even if our test car’s traction control could not be deactivated, the VW will transfer its weight efficiently if asked to do so.

On a car with the multi-link rear suspension, the ride is effective: tight-fitting but obliging. It’s not as nuanced on the standard SE set-up as we have previously found on the optional adaptive dampers – rough roads revealed the odd bristle from the enthusiastic rebound – but the vast majority of buyers are likely to report high satisfaction with the way the Mk7 goes about its business, and we see little reason to quibble with that.

And the good news for anyone contemplating a Golf with the torsion beam rear is that the difference is not as marked as you might have feared. You'd really need to drive the two cars one after the other to feel it: the torsion beam car is a bit noisier and less calm over potholes and broken surfaces, but it's by no means unbearable.

Drive the GTD at cross-country pace, the chassis has a good breadth of ability, with the softer settings allowing better ride comfort and some body movement, and Sport tightening things up to a level of body control unknown even by the previous-generation Golf GTI. But you still wouldn’t describe the car’s handling as exciting.

The GTD continues to go about its business in an effective but slightly aloof way. It’s quick enough, but doesn’t grip or involve quite like a full-fat petrol hot hatch.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf

Take a glance at the Golf’s price relative to mid-spec rivals and you’ll see that it adopts a familiar semi-premium position in the market, splitting the difference between the Ford Focus and Audi A3 with neat precision.

For fleet users, retention of almost 48 percent of its showroom value puts the Golf on a level footing with the likes of the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3, beats the BMW 1 Series, and should deliver competitive contract hire rates.

We'd opt for SE spec and add a few modest options

Meanwhile, liability on CO2-derived company car tax should be among the class’s lowest.

Our 43.9mpg test average on the 2.0 TDI looks unexceptional but it was produced as a result of track testing as well as mixed road testing, so owners should expect close to a 50mpg average. The 56.1mpg touring test result is a truer representation of the Golf’s economy, and earns it a place among the most efficient like-for-like class rivals.

The 1.6-litre diesel is claimed to return 74.3mpg and emits 99gkm of CO2, but we suspect the fact you have to work it a bit would increase real world consumption. Which makes the slighty more expensive but more powerful, punchier 1.4 petrol potentially a better buy if you're concerned about economy.

VERDICT

4.5 star Volkswagen Golf

Given 20 miles at the wheel, even the biggest car enthusiast would have to agree that this Golf is a world-beater.

They’d probably notice the reserved handling – something that has characterised Golfs for decades – and they might even wonder, to begin with, what the car’s outstanding selling point is, because no single shining thing stands out.

Classless, functional, immaculate. No hatchback has a broader appeal

But it isn’t supposed to. This car’s qualities are not so much easy to overlook as intended to be taken for granted.

On material quality, rolling refinement, usability and functional simplicity, the Golf is outstanding.

Outright performance, ride and handling, cabin practicality and fuel efficiency may not be exceptional, but come highly commended. The Golf’s desirability endures too, of course.

Add competitive pricing and low ownership costs and the armour is complete. Find a chink in it if you can; we certainly can’t, and the mild facelift solves any chinks that may of been on show.

The best hatchback in the world shows no signs of being anything less - no pressure on the Mk8 then.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Golf 2012-2017 First drives