Volkswagen Golf hatchback (2017 - ) review
The Volkswagen Golf is Europe’s best-selling family hatchback, which says an awful lot when you consider it’s up against some phenomenal opposition, including the Vauxhall Astra, Ford Focus and BMW 1 Series.
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The Golf hasn’t exactly changed a whole lot over the years, but why change when you have such a successful formula? Despite its familiarity – not to mention its conservatism – the Golf still manages to look smart and desirable thanks to its subtle, crisp lines. The entry-level cars miss out on alloy wheels and front fog lamps, but second-rung Match trim ticks those boxes, and as you move further up the range, you get more and more styling trinkets. R-Line models provide a sporty body kit without you having to splash the cash on one of the performance – GTD, GTI or R – models. The GTE hybrid models have blue trim at the front end to highlight their clean credentials.
The Golf’s interior fixtures and fittings are simply sensational. Everything you come into contact with, from the steering wheel’s classy design and finish, to the gear shifter’s tactility and the precision of the switches, is almost impossible to fault. Together with loads of thoughtful touches – like the large, flex-free door pockets rolled over at their top edges to avoid scruffy manufacturing seams, the substantial door handles, and the acoustic tuning of the door latches to produce a solid reassuring thud – all ensure the Golf smacks of quality and scrupulous attention to detail. What’s more, the Golf is also brilliant at the basics, with loads of seat and steering wheel adjustment, along with comfortable, supportive seats. Having said that, taller drivers should try the GTI seats before they buy, as we found the headrest pushed the head uncomfortably forwards. This generation of Golf is a facelifted version of the car launched in 2013, and has a different, touch-screen infotainment system. It suffers slightly from the same issue as other touch-screen systems, namely that the lack of physical buttons makes it more difficult to change settings on the move. But it’s otherwise well designed and easy to navigate.
We can only applaud Volkswagen’s attention to detail, which can only have come about from thousands of hours of intensive testing. Interior space is more than decent, with plenty of room for four adults and five at a push. Anyone still bemoaning the Golf’s old-school boxy styling need only sit inside for a minute or two to appreciate the excellent all-round visibility and the masses of light that enters the cabin via the large side windows. The boot lip is usefully low and the boot space measures 380 litres – which is about the same as most of its rivals – but it's a very good, square shape. The Golf also features stepless door angling, meaning you can open the door to any angle and it’ll stay there: perfect for any tight car park squeezes. There’s also the option of a folding front passenger seat, a swivelling tow bar, and even Park Assist, meaning the car can automatically steer itself into an appropriate space.
Ride and handling
Depending on which version you choose, you get different suspension setups. Less powerful versions have a fairly basic rear suspension, slightly more powerful versions have a more sophisticated setup at the rear, while the sporty versions get various arrangements that are lowered and stiffened to varying degrees. The interesting thing is, you can’t really go wrong with any of them, as even the most basic gives you a superbly comfortable and quiet ride. The sportiest versions are very comfortable when compared with their hot hatch rivals, but they also deliver bigtime on the thrills. Throw in steering that’s responsive, consistent and accurate, plus control weights that are perfectly finessed, and you’ll find that driving your Golf, whatever flavour it is, is an absolute dream.
There’s an engine to suit every taste in the Golf range, and every one we’ve tried is – in its own way – very impressive. The most affordable of these is the lower powered version of the two turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engines, but it’s worth stepping up to the more powerful one. It’s not particularly quick, but it’s a lot perkier than you might expect. And with plenty of flexibility thrown in, it makes it a very easy car to live with.
Further up the petrol range are turbocharged 1.4- and 1.5-litre engines, both of which are quick and wonderfully smooth. Of all the powertrains on offer, the 1.5-litre petrol is probably the pick of the range. It is prone to the odd stumble as you come on and off the throttle at low revs – no doubt a by-product of limiting emissions – but in truth, only a hopeless pedant will take issue with this. The rest of the time, the engine is creamy smooth, with a strong lust for revs and an impressively linear power delivery right up to the red line.
Both the legendary GTI and bonkers fast R models come with exceptionally strong, smooth 2.0-litre turbo units so, it’s simply a case of just how hot do you need your Golf to be? Diesel choices start with a 1.6-litre unit, which is very flexible if not all that quick, and it could be quieter and smoother, too. The 2.0-litre diesels address these issues, are much more flexible, and throw in a fair bit more pace.
The GTE plug-in hybrid has both a 1.4-litre petrol engine and an electric motor to deliver 201bhp, meaning it has near-hot hatch pace but with unbelievably low running costs. There’s also an all-electric e-Golf, which is eerily quiet and smooth as it fizzes up to speed. Most versions get a slick-shifting manual gearbox as standard, but are also available with a smooth twin-clutch gearbox as an option.
The Golf sits at the pricier end of the spectrum compared with most other family hatchbacks, but it’s not that much more expensive than most of its mainstream rivals, and it definitely feels worth the money you pay. What’s more, it has stronger resale values than most of its rivals, meaning you’ll get a bigger slice of your dough back when you sell the car on. All the engines are competitive when it comes to fuel economy and CO2 emissions, but there are a couple of superstars in the range. For example, the 109bhp three-cylinder petrol has emissions of 109g/km, meaning very keen tax rates, and it also delivers official fuel economy of 61mpg. The GTE returns even more sensational figures of 39g/km and 166mpg, while the e-Golf is tail pipe emission-free.
Volkswagen has managed to carve itself a strong reputation for reliability, but this isn’t necessarily reflected in the various surveys we’ve seen. Indeed, the brand is fairly entrenched in the bottom half of the manufacturer standings on Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index, while as an individual model, the Golf’s score is – historically at least – pretty disappointing. The three-year/60,000-mile warranty is about par for the course, but not especially generous.
The Golf scored a full five-star crash-test rating from Euro NCAP. All versions get front, side, curtain and knee airbags, plus Isofix points for two child car seats in the back. There’s also a system that locks the brakes on during a crash to prevent further impact. A pre-crash system, which in the event of an imminent collision, will close windows and the sunroof to ensure the airbags can work most effectively is also included, as is pedestrian monitoring, complete with low-speed autonomous emergency braking. There’s also traffic jam assist as an option. Although the driver still has to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times, the system enables the car to steer around obstacles, accelerate and brake automatically.
Mainstream Golfs are offered in plenty of varieties. Entry-level S cars come with a decent amount of kit, including remote locking, air-conditioning, electric front windows, and a touch-screen stereo that brings together Bluetooth, DAB, and eight speakers. SE Nav trim is well worth the upgrade, though, because it brings alloys, automatic lights and wipers, powered back windows (on five-door models), front and rear parking sensors, heated front seats, radar cruise control, sat-nav, and a WiFi hotspot in the car. The GT version has some posh interior flourishes and a panoramic roof, while R-Line cars have a body kit and some racy interior touches. GTE, GTD, GTI and R model have their own specific kit lists, all of which are extensive.
It’s perhaps easier to ask yourself the question, why wouldn’t you? No matter how you look at it, the Golf is simply a superbly rounded and highly accomplished performer. As well as offering a great drive, exceptional refinement and comfort, the cabin is immaculately finished and roomy enough to satisfy most people’s needs. The engines are yet another positive, as most provide exceptional refinement, strong performance and affordable running costs. Throw stellar residual values into the mix, and it’s easy to see why the Golf occupies top billing in the family hatchback class.