The Volkswagen Golf has been the driving force in the C-segment hatchback stream for so long that it’s considered the benchmark by which all other mainstream hatchbacks are judged. No wonder that introducing a new-generation Golf is not only an event worthy of celebration, but also one with fraught with danger. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
For those who can remember that far back, there was a time when hatchbacks didn’t exist.
There were sedans. And there were station wagons. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the now-legendary Golf Mk 1, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro in Italy and built with Teutonic efficiency in Wolfsburg, that the hatchback suddenly appeared on the mainstream motoring landscape.
That the Golf was the replacement for one of the undisputed icons of modern motoring, the VW Beetle, made the task of its originators no easier. And that it suffered from a series of teething problems didn’t help, either.
But as they say in the classics, the rest is history. Today, the hatchback is as much an intrinsic, mass-produced member of the 21st century motoring landscape as the large sedan was way back then. And considering it pioneered the segment, the Golf’s position at the sharp end of the category should come as no surprise, either.
More than four decades later, I arrive in a rain-drenched and wind-lashed Port Elizabeth for a rendezvous with the very latest, seventh-generation VW Golf. It’s hardly an auspicious start: with only a half-day to drive and film the pretender to the mainstream hatchback throne, tempestuous weather is the last thing I need.
It gets better: finding our steed, carefully tucked away in a rental car yard, is not nearly as easy as you’d think. It may be the very latest, just-released, better-than-sliced-bread Golf, but at a distance, it could be a sixth or even fifth-generation model.
It’s only when I click the unlock button on the remote key fob, and see the indicator flashers of the blue car in the centre role blinking in return, that I spot the newcomer. Except it looks like … just another Golf.
Okay, so I exaggerate. Even without the benefit of a Golf 6 for comparison, the Golf 7 looks crisper, fresher and more streamlined.
Yes, the shape is pure Golf: stubby hatchback, raked windscreen, curved and probing nose. But the lines are more keenly drawn, the axles have been pulled further apart, and the overhangs are more compact than ever.
There is also a greater sense of poise, and a certain athletic tension to the design. The rear looks muscular and settled, like a sprinter crouching down into the starting blocks. The sides are smoothly shaped to add some definition to the waistline, and the arced roofline appears to mimic the slipstream’s flow over the hatchback.
But the strongest perspective by far is the front appearance. The extended bonnet swoops over the engine bay’s innards with a more pronounced curve than before, and the clear headlight covers provide an intriguing view of the high-tech Xenon headlight elements.
Even so, the treatment is pure, instantly recognisable VW, even without taking the prominent badge into account. Yes, the detailing is exquisite, and the execution smart. But the impression is more evolutionary than revolutionary – and given the significance of Golf 7, that’s disappointing.
So what is so significant about the Golf 7? Besides its substantial global volume potential, this is the make-good Golf, keen to prove that is belongs at the top of its sector. And to achieve that, it will have to be truly special.
Only one way to find out: get behind the wheel – and not a moment too soon. As I stow luggage and gear, the heavens open, and I scurry for the shelter of the cabin.
The interior is an inviting, comfortable place – and not just because of the foul weather. The seats are upholstered in a mix of Alcantara faux suede and leather, the layout is logical, the tactile elements feel posh, and the driving position feels just right.
The touch-screen display adds a nifty dash of high-tech appeal, but more importantly, makes accessing the various functions and settings accessed via the screen-based interface an intuitive affair.
There’s also more space in this cabin than in the Golf 6. There is more legroom front and rear, and the overall impression is of a much more spacious interior than the Golf’s exterior dimensions would suggest.
Time to hit the road – and despite the pouring rain, and the rivulets of water threatening to turn the roads into impromptu skidpans, it’s the inherent stability of the new Golf that impresses from the outset.
Like the new Audi A3 featured in this column a few weeks ago, the Golf 7 employs the VW Group’s new modular MQB platform, which promises significant gains in response and refinement and comfort.
Certainly, the Golf feels controlled and composed – not overtly taut in the sports car sense of the word, but stable and predictable, with no body roll to speak of, and a sense of directional precision that adds to the VW’s agile road manners.
Low mass, high levels of rigidity and a particular focus on reducing unsprung mass and lowering the centre of gravity all contribute to a ride and handling package that is quite superb – especially considering the mass-market positioning of the car.
The steering still errs on the light side, although it does gain more heft and feedback when pressing on. The slalom-like sequence of corners that cascades down from the N2 highway to the Van Stadens River provides the perfect proving ground.
The undulating surface, with sudden dips and mid-corner bumps, is a stern test for the Golf’s chassis, but even when pushed close to the grip limits of the17-inch wheels and tyres, the VW hatch tenaciously toes the chosen line.
You can feel the chassis working, and there is a surprising amount of compression when encountering bumps under heavy braking, but the Golf’s poise remains resolute. And yes, it’s a lot of fun to drive, with all that chassis feedback boosting confidence and allowing pre-emptive, intuitive steering and throttle inputs.
The Golf encourages the kind of driving usually reserved for sportier models (the GTI badge comes to mind here), and I have to keep on reminding myself that this is a mainstream model, conceived for a broader motoring audience that probably doesn’t prioritise the kind of enthusiastic driving I am subjecting the new VW to.
By now, the rain has stopped, but damp patches and even pools of standing water abound – and yet the Golf remains completely unfazed by it all, tracking straight and true, and delivering a level of grip that quickly builds confidence.
The specific Golf model under scrutiny here is the 103 kW 1,4 TSI Highline – currently the most powerful petrol-engined derivative in the line-up, but by no means a GTI-style performance hatch.
Eking out more than a 100kW from a 1,4-litre engine requires the presence of both a turbo and a supercharger, which also accounts for the fact that much of the 250 Nm torque maximum is on tap from low down in the rev range.
In practice, the engine feels bigger and more willing than its limited capacity suggests. The mechanical supercharger and exhaust gas-driven turbocharger work in tandem to smooth out the power curve, and to deliver a seamless stream of urge from near-idling speeds. There’s no discernable lag, and throttle response incisive.
It’s combined here with a six-speed manual gearbox that clicks through the shift gates with just the right combination of slickness and precision. And while the front wheels sometimes struggle to cope with sudden pull-offs and abrupt cog swaps, there’s almost no understeer to speak of: the Golf’s default stance is neutral and perfectly controlled.
For the record, this Golf will dash from 0 to 100 km/h in 8,4 sec, and boasts a 212 km/h top speed. But the straight-line dynamics always feel understated, so that the tendency is to exceed the prevailing speed limit unless you keep a watchful eye on the speedo.
VW makes much of its so-called Bluemotion eco-technology, a broad reference to various efficiency and environmental measures aimed at reducing fuel consumption and emissions. The 1.4 TSI is a lot more frugal than you’d expect, and especially if the full rev band – and all that boost – is not invoked all the time.
The 5,3 litre/100 km combined-cycle consumption figure seems optimistic, but with some circumspection, is probably within reach, while open-road driving is an even more frugal affair. Given our spiralling fuel costs, economy is likely to become a more important influence on buying decisions.
It’s a measure of the amount of fun I’ve been having behind the wheel of the Golf 7 that I find myself having to dash back to the airport to catch the flight back to Johannesburg.
So what’s not to like here? Given the importance of the Golf 7, and the very real need to position it at the top of the C-segment hatchback pecking order, Volkswagen could have endowed its star performer with more extrovert aesthetics – and a less conservative cabin execution.
Yes, it’s important to retain some design continuity (Porsche’s iconic 911 is a case in point), but to my mind, opting for an evolutionary design approach here represents a missed opportunity.
That’s especially true given the excellence of the Golf 7 package in both technical and dynamic terms. This latest VW hatchback is a fine example of just how good a mainstream model can be, especially as far as driving fun is concerned.
Right now, the new Golf 7 has to be considered the top dog in its segment. It has raised the bar where it mattes most, and will have its rivals scurrying about in search of quick-fix updates.
However, perhaps the Golf 7 should be less concerned about its direct rivals (Ford Focus, Renault Mégane, Hyundai i30, Opel Astra) and instead consider the rapidly increasing trend favouring smaller, subcompact models.
With these little ‘uns becoming increasingly sophisticated and more efficiently packaged, despite their lower price tags, the Golf 7 (and the entire segment) may well find that these junior models are emerging as their most dangerous threat.
However, the new VW Golf 7 sets impressive standards that will be hard to beat, at least for now. And if it’s this fun to drive in mainstream form, imagine what the upcoming Golf GTI model will be like …DM
VW Golf 1.4 TSI Highline Bluemotion Manual
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