The might of the Volkswagen Group is rather impressive when you think about it. From Skoda to Lamborghini, Bugatti to Audi, it is a vast empire containing hundreds of models. Volkswagen itself currently features 16 different cars with more to join the party next year. However, for all of its industrial muscle the most important car Volkswagen makes is the Golf.
Not only is this humble hatchback the brand’s best seller, but it has also come to represent VW globally. Over 35 million have been sold since its inception in 1974, and so this all-new Mk8 Golf has some big shoes to fill.
At first I wasn’t sold on the Golf 8’s looks, particularly that rather domed front-end it now possesses. However, after spending some time with it, and seeing more of them on the road, its appearance has grown on me. It’s an interesting blend of new styling and familiar traits.
The more rounded nose leads the charged sporting a more simplistic take on VW’s badge, something that is more akin to its original logo. A narrow glossy grille joins the two intricate LED headlights, with the whole feature sat above a large intake trimmed with body-coloured blades.
While the car’s face might seem a bit alien at first, the rest of the Golf is considerably more familiar. A tall glasshouse and a single clean line defines the side profile, a great example of less being more. A thick C-pillar leads to a blunt hatchback rear of which wears a polite boot spoiler. The boot lid itself is a bit more chiselled than before, and the taillights are also treated to the LED treatment.
Considering that this is the Golf Life – the most basic Golf you can order – I think it still looks rather premium. Gone are the days of steel wheels and plastic trim for the most thrifty of models, instead things such as 16-inch alloy wheels and LED lighting is standard. The new car remains polite and mature, although the optional Lime Yellow paint of our test car won’t be to everyone’s liking.
Its the cabin of the new Golf were existing owners will feel the generational step-change most vividly. Gone are the banks of buttons and dials in favour of a more minimalist look. A contrasting shelf divides the dashboard and hosts a large 10-inch display, of which much of the traditional switchgear has been absorbed by. A second large screen lives in the instrument binnacle in place of analogue dials to provide more customisable driver information.
A general air of solid and durably is retained – one of the Golf’s best traits. Everything you touch feels over engineered and has the hallmarks to stand the test of toddlers. It’s fair to say that the cabin maybe makes use of a bit too much hard plastic in places, but the car does well to provide personal of quality in even its most basic trim.
A pair of comfortable cloth seats host the front occupants and provide good levels of comfort thanks to plenty of adjustment. This duo are also heated in this car thanks to being part of the £550 Winter Pack. Visibility is excellent with nice big windows all around, and its this sort of ergonomic soundness that comes to define the interior. Little things that you’ll take for granted in an instant are so well executed and simply make the Golf a pleasant experience. Haptic buttons aside – we’ll get onto those later – the cabin is well executed.
Rear passengers enjoy more space than ever before, with the boxy roofline providing good head room an enlarged wheelbase ample leg room. It’s the middle passenger who draws the short straw with a notable transmission hump in the floor and some protruding vents taking up space.
Open the hatch to reveal an impressively wide aperture (posh word for boot opening) that makes life easy when loading bulky items into the boot. A total of 381-litres of space is yours to play with, which might not be class leading, but it is more than you’ll find in a Ford Focus or new Citroen C4.
The 10.25-inch display that is standard on every Golf is a great size, being large enough to display fonts at an easy to glance at size. It’s responsive and graphically pleasing with illustrations within its various menus. There are a few too many rabbit holes to fall down if you want to quickly look for something, but this is a trait the driver will get used to over time. A remedy for the slightly cluttered user interface is Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, each power by your phone connected to snazzy new USB-C ports.
It would appear that poverty-spec in today’s Golf is far from wanting with a huge level of standard equipment offered. Adaptive cruise control, smartphone connectivity, 10 customisable shades of ambient lighting, keyless ignition, lane keep assist, front and rear parking sensors, automatic wipers, and climate control all come at no cost. If you’re looking for a Golf with a handful of choice options, you might not even require any additional equipment.
Let’s talk buttons, or the lack of them. Across the Volkswagen range you’ll start to see the introduction of haptic feedback buttons. These are touch surfaces that are meant to mimic the press of a button. The most basic Golf avoids them on the steering wheel – not a bad thing – but retains them for a bank of shortcuts below the touchscreen. In principle they are a fine idea, but in practice they are harder to use on the move. A slight oversight on Volkswagen’s part is that the temperature control touch buttons do not illuminate at night, meaning that you’ll have to faff around within the touchscreens menus to simply adjust the heater. One step forward, two steps back.
Under that new bonnet is a rather excellent three-cylinder petrol engine possessing 109bhp and 200Nm of torque. It’s far from fast with a 0-62mph run of 10.2 seconds, but it is incredibly smooth for a motor with an odd cylinder count. No vibrations or harshness, just an impressively refined manner of which it goes about its business. Could this be the new benchmark for three-cylinder engines? In terms of civility, we think so.
There’s a whiff of turbo lag, but beyond that this TSI pulls cleanly and makes good use of its torque for plentiful performance. In this car it’s coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox with the gear-lever falling perfectly to hand – another of those things you take for granted. The shift itself is precise, but maybe not weighty enough to be truly rewarding, but if you're commuting to work that’s not necessarily top of your priority list.
Further refinement is to be found in how this new Golf rides, being plenty compliant over bumps and taking a measured approach to body roll through sweeping bends. Lesser cars get torsion-beam suspension instead of a fully independent setup, and typically this would be a negative. However, the Golf Life does very well for itself, with its considerably high profile of tyre helping to soak up road imperfections.
In more dynamic driving there’s a strong reassurance from the chassis with lots of grip and the feeling of a stable platform beneath you. The steering is the weak link in the chain as it comes across as detach from what’s going on beneath you and is devoid of feel. In spite of this, it is accurate and predictable in equal measure. This extra layer of maturity to how the Golf operates may have cost it the handling crown against rivals such as the Ford Focus, but in the real world the majority of drivers would rather the car is a cosseting space than a more exciting one.
Critics of the new Volkswagen Golf will be quick to point out that its £23,300 starting price is a bit princely in comparison to competitors such as the Honda Civic, and they are right to do so. That said, the host of standard equipment in the Golf that was previously optional is impressive and goes some way to justify the price hike. We think there’s room in the range for a £20k basic model, but VW clearly wants to push the Golf a little further upmarket.
The Mk8 might not be the most involving car in the class to drive, and those haptic buttons do need a bit of a rethink, but it succeeds in being a genuinely nice thing to live with. People won’t lust after a Golf, they never have, but they will adore how it perfectly clicks into everyday life without fuss. It’s an understated achiever.