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New 1.5-litre petrol engine promises to help keep the refreshed Volkswagen Golf ahead of rivals

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When a car as important as the Volkswagen Golf gets updated, renewed and generally smartened up, we all simply need to sit up and take notice.

Because half a million Europeans a year, among them some 70,000 Brits, can’t all be wrong.

An all-chrome TSI badge denotes a 1.0 TSI 110 engine. A red letter ‘I’ currently identifies the outgoing 1.4 TSI 125. And a red ‘SI’ means it’s a 148bhp 1.5

The Golf remains Europe’s biggest-selling new car and was the UK’s  most popular family hatchback last year (assuming that you combine sales of the hatchback, estate and Volkswagen SV bodystyles). That’s not a bad result from a firm supposedly still racked by a Dieselgate-related crisis.

With its timeless progressive design and clever ‘semi-premium’ positioning, the Golf continues to dominate the heartland of the market for compact family cars, being impressively complete and competitive in almost every important way and forcing its competitors to seek their successes farther towards the notional margins.

And, having been launched in 2012, the current, seventh-generation Golf has now been in receipt of its big mid-life facelift.

This has brought all-new and revised engines, a new gearbox, a refreshed look inside and out, new infotainment systems and a price realignment to address a persistent criticism from some: that VW has always charged a little bit too much for its European hatchback icon.

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The Golf took our top spot in the family hatchback class when we road tested it initially and it has defended its position very successfully since.

This facelifted version, in 108bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol form, has already seen off the challenge of Honda’s new Honda Civic and Peugeot’s Peugeot 308, but we’ve had to wait until now to be able to test the most significant addition to the Golf’s engine range: VW’s all-new 1.5 TSI Evo turbocharged petrol engine.

This motor will replace the older 1.4 TSI throughout all of the Volkswagen Group brands’ model ranges – and it is being introduced just as the true extent of the diesel emissions scandal is becoming evident and more and more of us are choosing to trust petrol instead.

So can this trailblazing Mk7 Golf – the first to adopt VW’s versatile MQB platform – continue to rule the hatchback roost, even into its dotage? 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf front end

It may be one of the biggest clichés going, but there actually is a Golf for everyone.

There’s a level of choice here – delivered by VW’s renowned engineering focus but also because the Golf’s sheer market share can justify it – that made the pre-facelift seventh-generation Golf the first passenger car on the market to be available in petrol, diesel, plug-in hybrid and all-electric forms.

I like the Golf’s new engine, but I do think it’s a shame you can only have it in this tune in quite pricey, sports-suspended GT or R-line trim

There’s four-wheel drive on offer, too, as well as manual and DSG automatic gearboxes, and three-door, five-door, estate and Volkswagen SV bodystyles.

The facelift brings a new 84bhp 1.0 TSI petrol engine for the car, as well as the 1.5 TSI Evo we’re testing (which comes in 128bhp and 148bhp forms). It also adds power for the 2.0-litre turbo GTI (now 227bhp), GTI Performance (242bhp) and R (306bhp), with the last two (and higher-powered diesels) benefiting from a new seven-speed DSG gearbox.

The 1.5 TSI Evo engine provides a little bit of an anti-climax on paper, producing only as much peak power and torque in its more expensive tune as the 1.4-litre engine it replaces. However, lower internal friction, new intercooling and higher fuel injection pressure than the old 1.4 contribute to a quicker claimed 0-62mph time and an improvement in EU-certified combined fuel economy of about seven percent.

We’ll see how clearly those improvements present themselves in our test results – but, on paper, they make for a predictably competitive showing compared with the equivalent Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Mazda 3, all of which produce less torque and are less fuel efficient.

From a styling perspective, you get new bumpers and headlights on your 2018-model-year Golf (LED lights and ‘animated’ Knight Rider-style rear clusters if you go for a performance-branded one, no less) and there are also new alloy wheel designs and paint colours to choose from.

On the inside, there are some new seat upholsteries and fascia trims, although the major departure is the car’s selection of all-new infotainment systems, which we’ll come to shortly.

VW has also added active safety and convenience systems to the Golf. Traffic Jam Assist now allows it to stay in its lane and follow the car in front in semi-autonomous fashion when active cruise control is engaged below 37mph, and Emergency Assist can recognise when the driver has become incapacitated at the wheel and will ultimately bring the car to a halt if attempts to rouse that driver are fruitless.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf interior

The fractional nature of the advancement of Golf generations is nowhere more apparent than on the inside.

VW has swapped out a few panels here and there and conscientiously fiddled with the infotainment – but, to all intents and purposes, this is much the same prospect that started toddling off the Wolfsburg line in 2012.

The Golf’s USB socket still isn’t quite as accessible as I’d like. As soon as you’re grasping the plug at the very end of straight fingertips, VW, it’s too awkward

Knowledge of that fact, though, diminishes the quality of the surroundings not one jot. The Golf remains the über-hatchback, effortlessly outclassing the surrounding mainstream and casting doubt on the functional credibility of any C-segment option priced above it.

In the high-spec format tested here (which includes £1900 worth of Vienna leather upholstery), it barely contains an edge that has not been softened or smoothed into a caress.

The Audi A3 is more self-consciously stylish, certainly, and the Skoda Octavia just as forthright in its usability, yet the Golf somehow manages to make the middle ground between the two seem like the perfect compromise of bottom-line cost and understated taste.

This latest version’s noticeable embellishments – the uprating of the dashboard-mounted infotainment system and the new option of a fully digital instrument cluster – merely feed
into the established ambience.

Volkswagen’s gradual rolling refresh of the MQB platform’s infotainment offerings makes the same medium-sized splash in the Golf as it has elsewhere.

The impact is not larger because the existing system was already highly functional and the replacement doesn’t seek to drastically overhaul its layout.

The previous physical shortcut buttons have been expunged in favour of on-screen options. Without any haptic feedback, these are less satisfying to use but serve the same purpose.

As before, on the 8.0in Discover Navigation (standard on our test car), a limited gesture-sensitive system is used to display additional menu items when it senses your hand in close proximity to the screen.

On the new 9.2in Discover Pro option, this has evolved to include actual selections, including swipes from side to side. This is claimed as a world first in ‘compact’ cars.

The same goes for the car’s proportions (also unchanged). The MQB platform’s driving position is a recognisable equation that we’ve long praised and, behind it, the Golf offers the same carefully considered amount of space: not segment-busting or stingy, just capacious enough to make it a consummate swallower of four adults (five at a push) without objective doubt.

The well-trimmed boot space still fills out your expectations, too (at 380 litres with the seats up and 1270 litres with them down) and comes equipped underneath with that increasingly rare item: a standard spacesaver. But then it would: rationality and technological reassurance are the copper-bottomed Golf guarantee. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.5-litre Volkswagen Golf TSI EVO engine

For what ought to rank as the latest model’s defining characteristic, the new 1.5-litre engine makes for an unsubstantial presence.

At idle, you can barely hear it, let alone discern a vibration through the control surfaces. At low speeds, it hardly gets any louder, as 59dB at 30mph testifies. That, of course, is Volkswagen a credit to the hard work done on the Golf’s rolling refinement and what feels like a foot-thick wall of sound deadening.

Off-camber corners provoke a neutral weight shift, although it’s promptly smothered by the stability control

The engine itself proves a chip off the long-established TSI block: persuasively brisk, consistently amenable and, perhaps more so than ever, wilfully parsimonious.
It is this need for frugality that arguably best defines the recent evolution of the 1.4-litre unit (the engine producing less outright power than it was a decade ago when Volkswagen employed both a supercharger and a turbocharger).

Despite the marginal increase in displacement, wringing diesel-like economy from the petrol-burning unit is the name of the game, and a 51.7mpg touring figure suggests that the engineers have made good on the time and money invested in the four-pot’s development.

It is sufficient to modestly beat the same-sized engine in the Civic we tested, and returning a 40mpg-plus average in the real world is certainly admirable for a family hatch of this type and performance.

At the opposite end of the scale, the new Evo motor is somewhat less impressive. Despite being fractionally heavier, the Civic broke the 60mph tape in a laudable 7.8seca full second quicker than the Golf, which struggles to put down its power cleanly away from the line (a state of affairs not helped by the traction control’s over-zealous – and apparently impossible-to-switch-out – intrusion).

Even without the unwanted scrabbling, the deficit is reflected elsewhere: from 30mph to 70mph, the Golf remains 1.1sec adrift of its rival, and its longer gearing means that a similar delay is present in benchmark moments such as 60-80mph in third.

Plainly, none of that difference amounts to much on the road, nor does it detract from the engine’s first-rate manners or tractability, but nevertheless it does confirm that the new 1.5-litre motor healthily conforms to the current small-engine curve rather than resetting it. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf cornering

Thanks to myriad versions of the MQB platform under multiple badges, we’ve come to expect much from the chassis of any car suspended from its modular underpinnings.

The last version of the Golf was probably the principal carrier of the now instantly recognisable gene: a sophisticated mix of precision, civility and comfort.

Suspension isn’t firm enough to let the sudden gradient changes unsettle it much. Body control remains a prominent Golf strength

The latest car, tested on lowered sports suspension, majors on two of those features while minoring on one.

Certainly, the sensation of tight-fitting, superbly hushed agreeableness remains the Golf’s default way of making progress.

The feeling of integrity or, more specifically, of moving parts working in quiet harmony is not replicated anywhere else at this price point nor in the broader C-segment.

Like the interior switchgear or the response of the petrol engine, the control surfaces all function with a terrifically understated elegance.

The car makes no great show of the steering’s accuracy or the deftly tuned pedal feel or the snug pleasure of gearchanges but balances them all like spinning plates in a presentation that you’re hardly supposed to notice.

Consequently, you fixate on nothing and drive everywhere in a benign state of satisfaction. At least, you do until you meet an obstacle too sizeable for the passive sports suspension to snaffle under its generally obliging stance.

At this point, the reasoning for the slightly stiffer suspension comes into question – Volkswagen especially when you take into account the fact that no Golf we’ve driven on the current platform has felt deficient in body control or speed of turn. A tendency to rebound over-zealously is not sufficient to sabotage the fine-tuning rendered so exceptionally elsewhere, but it does provide food for thought in the spec equation – where the £830 addition of Dynamic Chassis Control might well prove to be much the same salve to the R-line suspension as it is on the thoroughbred R.

The Mk7 Golf’s consummate ability to remain almost completely unruffled by additional speed and driver effort is transferred wholesale to the new model. If anything, the car’s poise and directional stability become more obviously laudable attributes as they are more deeply examined.

The steering, slightly more thickset in R-line trim and certainly so in Sport mode, is deliciously progressive, the certitude of its resistance easily covering for any shortfall in tactile feedback. The front end certainly fits the billing, turning in primly and smartly and deigning to trouble the stability control in only the most dire circumstances.

As ever, the Golf doesn’t qualify as precisely light on its feet — preferring instead the sturdiness of an obvious and wanton stability bias — but it ultimately transfers its weight in the kind of gradual way that again speaks to the balance achieved in the chassis tuning.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf

VW has taken an average of £650 off the price of a Golf.

That still leaves it a long way from being competitively set against the likes of the Seat Leon, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus and much closer to Audi ‘compact premium’ players such as the A3 and BMW 1 Series.

Bulletproof. The Golf may start life more expensive, but expect it to stay that way versus any mainstream rival

The model range starts at S trim and rises through SE, SE Nav and GT to R-line – and that’s before you account for any of five performance derivatives, the Alltrack, Volkswagen e-Golf or either Bluemotion version.

Volkswagen The biggest-selling hatchback derivative of all is expected to be the GTD manual, which is a £28,000 car and tells you plenty about how the car is perceived and how happy customers are to spend premium-level cash on it.

VW will make the 128bhp version of the 1.5 TSI engine available at a lower price point, but if you want the full 148bhp tune, you have to have it in a GT or R-line trim – both of which come with lowered sports suspension.

The GT is fairly pricey – £23,445 with this engine and three doors – but gets 8.0in touchscreen navigation, sports seats, adaptive cruise control and 17in alloy wheels as standard.

VERDICT

4.5 star Volkswagen Golf

It will be of considerable discomfort to Volkswagen’s rivals that it takes practically no time at all to recognise that the Golf’s superiority has been carried over intact – and still defines its lead over the chasing pack.

As with the previous version, this car’s excellence is slightly nebulous, but only in as much as practically everything about it seems to have been well thought out and then sagely and expensively executed.

Everything you’d expect of a Golf, only a little bit better in all regards

In doing so, the manufacturer’s preference for very light facelifts between every other generation continues to smack of mild cynicism – but it is so effortlessly good at spinning minute improvements as evidence of continual investment that buyers of the Golf must be left in little doubt that their money has been spent shrewdly.

And it is the continuing assurance of that relationship, apparently untroubled by Dieselgate, between right-thinking customers and magnanimous conglomerate that continues to distinguish the Golf as a breed apart.

All-in-all the facelifted Golf remains at the head of the pack – and by doing so keeping the Ford Focus, Seat Leon, Audi A3 Sportback and Honda Civic at arms length.

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Volkswagen Golf 2017-2019 First drives