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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Sharper value, capped-price servicing helps ease ownership cost concerns, smoother DSG, willing turbo engines, brilliantly refined, sharp steering, compliant ride, more spacious cabin
Room for improvement
Stability control kicks in too early, some might see the styling as too ‘safe’, 103TSI not as swift as outgoing 118TSI twincharger

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Volkswagen logo18 Apr 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

HERE’S something to consider: the superseded sixth-generation Golf was still, for our money, pretty much the best small-car out there under $25,000 – even right at the end of its (shorter than average) shelf life.

When we tell you that we think this new seventh-generation version is better in almost every measurable way, perhaps that imparts more effectively than anything else just how far forward Volkswagen has moved the bar.

With one fell swoop of its Teutonic fist, the company has set the benchmark all over again.

And it had to. Competition in the small-car market is tougher than ever, with the old Golf caught between the cheaper (and still worthy) Mazda3, Ford Focus and Hyundai i30 on one side, and an array of sub $35k premium Euros such as the new Mercedes A-Class and Volvo V40 on the other.

Volkswagen’s strategy centres on the deployment of a lighter and modular new architecture called MQB. Don’t be fooled by the anonymous name – the MQB is a stretchable front-drive platform that can – and will – accommodate everything from the next Polo to the forthcoming US market VW seven-seater SUV, and everything in between.

What is brings the Golf is a new-found lightness – meaning sharper handling and better fuel economy – more cabin space and, thanks to basic economics of scale, the scope for even sharper pricing.

The styling may appear too familiar for some, we’ll leave that to personal preference. But for our money, it actually looks sharper in the flesh, with a lower and wider stance, a sharper cutline on the side profile and more aggressive tail-lights.

The cabin design elicits similar responses of familiarity – there’s no mistaking the cabin for anything but a Golf. Tasteful, ergonomic to a fault and beautifully made, but conservative and safe in its aesthetics.

Space is about on a par with rivals – not quite as roomy in the back as a Cruze or Pulsar – but all five seats are comfortable and supportive.

Small touches such as the delightful damped overhead grab handles add a touch of class, and most touchpoints are soft-touch and tactile.

More welcome is the raft of additional features. Where the old base 77TSI made do with a basic audio system and cheap temperature controls, the new entry 90TSI gets a swish 5.8-inch touchscreen (with tablet-like responses) and chunky air-con dials.

The value equation is stronger than before at the base level, and the quality is a cut above. The sub $25k Comfortline gets a reversing camera, alloy wheels, climate control and parking sensors, thereby taking the value equation even further.

The Highlines – with a larger 103TSI petrol or the range’s sole diesel – add an easy to operate satellite navigation system that is less clunky than before (and, as a $950 option on the Comfortline, much cheaper) and glossy black cabin highlights, among other things.

But shelling out a few extra grand nets you genuine luxury car touches including adaptive cruise control, robotic parking, a panoramic sunroof and leather seats. You can get a petrol Highline with all of the above for less than $40,000. That may sound like a lot for a Golf, but in reality, it’s a mild-mannered luxury limousine in a hatchback body.

Why? Because in terms of refinement, this car not only beats small-segment rivals, but many prestige cars twice the price. Noise, vibration and harshness from the engine and tyres are kept at bay, and the ‘acoustic’ windscreen deflects the Lion’s share of wind intrusion.

The firm but forgiving ride makes the car feel assured and commendably stable even at high speeds – remember, it’s designed for European roads with far higher limits than ours. Volkswagen’s decision not to take the reportedly less-refined (but cheaper) torsion-beam option offered on low grades overseas appears to be a sharp one.

The company has dialled a little more lightness into the electric steering, but not so much that it loses its directness and sharpness from centre. The slimmer new three-spoke steering wheel is nicer in the hand to, although its myriad of buttons can be momentarily confusing.

Among those buttons – if optioned – is the adaptive cruise control, which can now bring the car all the way to stop if it’s a DSG or down to 30km/h if it’s a manual. We locked onto a slow-moving convoy, and found it responded more sharply than some comparable systems.

Our pick of the powertrains, at least after our brief first drive, is actually the base 90kW/200Nm 1.4 turbo used in the (appropriately named) 90TSI. The figures are middling on paper, but the torque band is fat and, thanks to the turbocharger, on tap from low in the rev range.

As a result, the car is a comfortable cruiser, and doesn’t need an excessive rev to eke the best out of it. The DSG dual-clutch auto still has the odd moment of indecisiveness on low-speed take-offs – especially ones with some urgency – but has fewer kinks than before.

The 103kW/250Nm 1.4 turbo is a sweet unit too, and far smoother with its DSG than the twin-charged 118TSI that preceded it. But then, it also lacks the urgency and punch of that engine off the line.

Naturally, the 110kW/320Nm diesel is a touch heavier in the nose (it’s the weightiest car in the new range, at 1326kg) and feels a little less agile than its petrol siblings. However, it also has the best rolling response of the trio thanks to its higher torque output.

Further negatives are hard to come by, although the over-eager ESC stability control system spoils the fun and does that wonderful chassis no justice by kicking in too early, and cutting too much engine power.

Stomp on the throttle out of a corner, and the car shudders and gasps and collects its metaphorical breath before getting away again. But then, that sort of driving is more the domain of the hot GTI – a new version of which will be here by the end of 2013.

In the end, our time behind the wheel was limited. Keep posted for our more detailed, full-length road tests coming soon. We’ll get our hands on a new Golf for seven days in the near future.

But on first impressions, it’s clear that no price-point rival can match the entry Golf’s combination of comfort, refinement and class.

Add to this the addition of more equipment for less money (or the same, depending on grade), and the inclusion Volkswagen’s new capped-price servicing plan that keeps annual services as low as $272 a pop, and the new Golf goes straight to the top of our list.

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