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Volkswagen Golf review: all the hatchback you need

  • Published 11 December 2019
  • 7 minute read
  • By Richard Aucock

Introduction

The Volkswagen Golf is the nation’s favourite family-sized hatchback car. This was an honour held for years by the Ford Focus, the VW’s arch-rival. But more recently, the Golf has nosed ahead in the sales charts and it hasn’t looked back.

Thank its ‘Tesco Finest’ quality for this. Compared with regular mass-market cars, the Golf looks and feels that bit more special. It’s a cut above the norm to drive, yet crucially, doesn’t cost as much as the genuine premium brands. Factor in its classless, timeless appearance, and it’s easy to see why it appeals.

The Golf range is more diverse than it’s ever been. At its core are the bread-and-butter petrol and diesel versions (all of which use high-tech turbo engines for a sophisticated feel). The legendary Golf GTI turns up the dial on performance, while the Golf R halo model serves up acceleration on a par with a sports car. Volkswagen even makes even a pricey, race-inspired version called the Golf GTI TCR.

There is, however, also a green-thinking e-Golf all-electric model and, until recently, the Golf GTE plug-in hybrid. This was phased out because the Golf is being replaced soon by an all-new model. But don’t worry: over seven generations, the Golf has always evolved gradually. Volkswagen isn’t going to start a revolution with the eighth.

The new car, therefore, won’t make this one seem instantly old-hat. So why not take advantage of better value for money than ever to get into what’s still one of the best family cars on sale?


Looks, tech and design

The Golf set the template for family hatchbacks when the first one was launched back in 1974. It influenced every single rival. That’s why its appearance is so familiar: the Golf is truly the original. But don’t let this obscure the sheer attention to detail that goes into the design of the best-selling Volkswagen.

Designery types – people who wear black turtlenecks and pair trainers with suits – consider the Golf a perfect piece of product design. Look how the edge of the rear door runs perfectly parallel with the other side of the rear pillar, they say. How the shape is simple and unadorned, yet unmistakably ‘Golf’.

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The main range comes as a five-door hatchback, but you can also get the sporty Golfs in three-door form. There is a Golf Estate, and while this isn’t as elegant, it does have a big 605-litre boot. Fold the seats down and it grows to 1,620 litres. It’s a really useful workhorse, but I’d rather have the hatchback. It still has a decent 380-litre boot, which extends to 1,270 litres.

Jump inside and I can almost guarantee the Golf will just feel ‘right’. Everything is logically positioned and it feels unintimidating to the uninitiated. On some rivals, you need to jab away at a touchscreen simply to adjust the cabin temperature. In this Golf, you just turn a nice big dial.

The supportive front seats have an enormous range of adjustment, and there’s just enough room in the back for adults not to grumble too much. Little touches really underline the inbuilt quality and attention to detail – the door bins, for example, are lined with fabric, so your house keys don’t rattle about in them.

Every Golf now gets an expensive-looking 8.0-inch colour touchscreen. It’s set behind a full glass panel so it looks upmarket, a bit like a smartphone. The graphics are perhaps a bit spidery, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are built in, so you can bypass them and hook straight into everything on your phone.

As its replacement looms, the current Golf is on offer at many car dealers. To keep sales ticking over, Volkswagen has improved the standard specification of the core models with an ‘Edition’ upgrade. The Match Edition, GT Edition and R-Line Edition all get super-bright LED headlights, heated seats to make the winter morning commute a bit less painful, plus dual-zone climate control. This allows the driver and passenger to set their own temperature: perfect for maintaining marital bliss.

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Other thoughtful pieces of tech include illuminated vanity mirrors on each front sun visor, an electronic parking brake instead of a heavy handbrake lever, and a front radar that warns if it thinks you’re driving too close to the car in front. It will also emergency brake in cities if it detects a collision is imminent, and even slam on the anchors if a pedestrian steps out in front of you. A potential life-saver. Literally.

GT Edition versions have sports suspension, R-Line Edition models get matching sports seats, while the GTI Performance, GTI TCR and R are racier still. They are blindingly fast and riotous good fun to drive: definite licence-losers if you don’t have much self-restraint. You have been warned.

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Driving

Remember when I said the Golf is a cut above the competition? This is particularly felt in the way it drives. Everything seems that bit smoother, more substantial and nicer to use. The gearbox is like a knife through butter; the brake pedal seems strong and reassuring; and when you turn the steering wheel, the car goes exactly where you want it to.

I found the TSI petrol engines incredibly smooth and refined. They pull well at low speeds and never feel strained. The 1.5 TSI Evo is really all the engine you’ll ever need. How the Golf rides the bumps is similarly effortless. It’s more cushioned than many in this part of the car market.

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Thrill-seekers will steer towards the performance models. The GTI Performance is the icon, the latest in a line of hot hatches so famour they're a household name. Drive it, and it’s hard to think why you’d need more power than its 245hp. You can get more, however, from the GTI TCR – along with an even more bone-shaking ride and even more laugh-out-loud cornering thrills.

Even so, the real rocket of the range is the Golf R, with 300hp and power delivered to all four wheels. This gives it stunning bite and acceleration, with rasping soundtrack from its quad exhaust pipes to match. Believe me, there’s a good reason why this model is becoming a bit of a cult car in its own right.

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Cost and economy

Sales of the Golf are strong despite Volkswagen no longer offering a stripped-out entry-level version. The big-sellers are the Match Edition and GT Edition cars, which are rather expensive on-paper compared to rivals – but in terms of value for money are highly attractive. Besides, still-strong retained values mean monthly finance payments are highly competitive.

It means the Golf’s old reputation for being more sparsely fitted out than the competition is no longer true. That’s particularly so with this runout version, which has a list of standard equipment as long as your arm. I never thought I’d see the day when even a ‘basic’ Golf comes with climate control, electric-fold door mirrors, dark-tint rear glass and radar cruise control. That day is here.

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After all the fuss about the ‘Dieselgate’ emissions scandal, Volkswagen has worked hard to broaden its range of engines. The TDI diesels are still available, and offer impressive miles to the gallon. But the fuel consumption of the cheaper TSI petrol engines is, in many cases, almost as good – and they’re a more tax-friendly choice.

The little 1.0 TSI 115 engine claims to return as much as 50 miles per gallon, and is a choice many people will find perfectly fast enough. The star of the range is the 1.5 TSI Evo 150, though. This has much more oomph, yet promises to be almost as fuel efficient. Take it steady and it even shuts down two of its four engine cylinders, to save petrol. I promise, you will never notice.

You’ll get much less in the performance models – you’ll struggle to crack 30 miles per gallon in the R – but then you knew that, didn’t you? And if to want to cut yourself free of filling stations entirely, the e-Golf doesn’t use a drop of fossil fuel. But can you cope with its modest 144-mile driving range between charges?

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Verdict

The appeal of the Volkswagen Golf seems to grow with every passing year. British buyers love it, because it’s such a well-rounded and brilliantly logical car that feels just that bit more special than a normal mainstream model.

Even though it’s soon to be replaced, you needn’t hesitate buying this one. It’s still a great car to drive, while the added features mean it’s never been better value. VW’s form book suggests the new one won’t make this car look instantly old-fashioned, either.

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