For more than a decade, Volkswagen’s Golf has been the standard by which small cars are measured. But over that time, entry to the Golf club has become increasingly expensive.
Priced from $29,350 plus on-roads (about $33,600 drive-away) in basic manual form, or about $36,350 drive-away as an auto, the new eighth-generation model costs nearly $10,000 more than its predecessor.
It’s a common theme in the small-car market, where makers have ditched their cheapest models in favour of better equipped variants with fatter profit margins.
The new Golf has the same engine and underpinnings as the last-generation car – at least in Australia – but looks significantly different inside and out. The biggest change is a heavily reworked cabin that does away with the most of the physical buttons in favour of a huge central touchscreen and touchpads on the steering wheel that provide haptic feedback.
Volkswagen’s Australian arm says sub-par local fuel standards resulted in carry-over engines in the new model. We also miss out on interesting tech found in Europe, including “Car-to-X” connectivity to warn drivers of road hazards, the ability to use your smartphone as a car key, and an emerging service allowing online shopping to be delivered directly to the car.
Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloys, an 8.25-inch touchscreen with smartphone mirroring, a digital dashboard and LED lights for the front and rear.
Every Golf has eight airbags and sophisticated driver aids including autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control, lane keeping and a new “travel assist’ function that makes highways or traffic jams less of a chore by automatically braking, steering and accelerating.
A spacious rear with dedicated three-zone climate controls and twin USB outlets also helps its cause, though cabin plastics are noticeably cheaper than past efforts.
The mid-grade Golf Life model tested here has an automatic transmission as standard, along with a 10-inch infotainment screen loaded with satellite navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay and smartphone charging. Android Auto is available but requires a cord. It costs a little less than $39,000 drive-away without optional extras such as metallic paint ($900 as shown), a head-up display ($1500) or sunroof ($2000). That pushes the price well beyond $40,000 and into what used to be Golf GTI money.
The regular car makes do with a familiar 1.4-litre turbo petrol unit that needs 5.8L/100km of premium unleaded to make 110kW and 250Nm. That’s thirstier than the outgoing car, due to a shift away from dual-clutch automatic transmissions.
Instead, the Golf now has a conventional eight-speed automatic similar to those used by BMW and Volvo in their small cars.
It’s a smoother unit in town, without the occasional stop-start hesitation that plagued the old dual-clutch unit. The flip side is that shifts that aren’t quite as crisp at full throttle, though a sports mode and shift paddles help address that.
The engine continues to deliver effortless shove while being quieter than non-turbo rivals.
Hushed at motorway speeds, the Golf has a fine ally in well-judged driver aids that make highway driving a more relaxing proposition without becoming a nuisance.
The new car’s faster steering and slightly firmer suspension also contribute to an involving hatch that represents one of the best driver’s cars in its class. Tauter than some alternatives, the Golf’s superb accuracy and consistently weighted controls deliver a polished drive.
It’s a confidence-inspiring car that makes a strong argument in favour of conventional vehicles as opposed to teetering SUVs that pitch and lurch through corners.
Even so, VW says the Golf’s bestseller days are over, as customers are more likely to gravitate towards its family-friendly Tiguan SUV or Amarok ute.
Refined, engaging, and loaded with tech, the Volkswagen remains a class benchmark, but a soaring price and the waning relevance of hatchbacks will hamper sales.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF LIFE VITALS
Price: About $39,000 drive-away
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol, 110kW/250Nm
Warranty/servicing: 5-year/unlimited km, $1900 for 5 years
Safety: 5 stars, 8 airbags, auto emergency braking, active cruise control, lane-keep and blind-spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert