A Cut Above (Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI SE)

YOU didn’t really think Volkswagen would radically alter its hugely popular family car, did you? The cornerstone of the German firm’s range, the Golf, has been a market leader or thereabouts for many years. However, you don’t get to this position by spooking buyers into running towards the competition.

Longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, this seventh generation Golf is Volkswagen’s attempt at maintaining its lofty position in the medium-size hatchback market.

And while the overall theme of the car’s appearance was never in doubt – it’s the detail that really deserves to be applauded – it’s what you can’t see that’s likely to be the Golf’s more revolutionary talking point.

Displaying subtle creases and a general sharpening up of the car's exterior, it's the underpinnings that deserves a closer look. The Golf sits on Volkswagen's new medium size platform, which is lighter and stronger than its predecessor. Crucially, it's being rolled out across the group, which means it will also see service in wide range of products.

For the UK, this flexibility and economy of scale approach is reflected in the Golf's asking price and the level of standard equipment fitted across the range. Recent years have seen Volkswagen become increasingly competitive price-wise, and every Golf gains DAB digital radio and music player connectivity, along with a generous amount of safety kit. The featured SE adds cruise control and an auto brake function in conjunction with a hazard detection system.

The Golf's new platform also means a useful boost in fuel efficiency, resulting in lower running costs - fuel and tax outlay being the main considerations. As such, the regular 105 horsepower 1.6-diesel variant is a sub 100g/km CO2 rated car promising 70-plus mpg, and destined to be favourite choice of cost-conscious company car drivers. It's no rocket ship - that was never the plan - but suitably equipped this Golf easily keeps up with traffic and rarely makes itself heard when pushed hard.

While it's likely that private buyers will migrate towards Volkswagen's petrol options, the entry-level 1.6-litre diesel variants will predictably appeal to fleet customers while even the mid-range SE trim level comes with a wealth of standard kit to keep boredom at bay on long motorway journeys.

On modest size wheels a 1.6 diesel Golf SE delivers a measured and refined driving experience, easily coping with poorly surfaced urban roads and proving quiet at motorway speeds. Steering is weighty and accurate, the five-speed manual gearshift is short and slick and the driving position offers a large range of adjustment.

All this and the car's easy going character when on the open road results in an experience that's low in fatigue-inducing frustration and high in ownership enjoyment. The car's increased dimensions also mean more room in the cabin for occupants fore and aft, plus a good size boot and the ability to easily fold the rear seats to further boost its carrying capacity.

Further detailed improvements include intelligent radar cruise control and a city mode, which can bring a vehicle to a complete stop if a hazard is detected ahead. This safety package can be further enhanced with a lane keeping assist function that gently, automatically adds small steering corrections to reduce the chance of straying from your chosen lane. There's also an improved version of Volkswagen's auto park system, which adds 90 degree reverse parking to its existing parallel park repertoire.

Given the Golf's impressive performance in low power diesel SE trim it almost seems indulgent to recommend the more powerful 150 horsepower 2.0-diesel, yet this engine combined with Volkswagen's super-slick direct shift DSG gearbox is an all-rounder of rival-crushing proportions.

Quick enough to provoke an interesting conversation with the police if the speed is left unchecked, smooth enough not for you to notice in the first place and, in sportier GT trim, engaging enough to put a smile on your face, it's the model you'd choose if your heart and not your head was in charge of the purchasing decision.

As new cars go this latest generation Golf is something of a grower. What it lacks in initial 'wow' it more than compensates for in terms of user friendliness, refinement, comfort, low running costs and generous levels of standard equipment. However, take the time to admire its exterior styling and you quickly appreciate Volkswagen's impressive attention to detail. And it's this attribute that's evident in every aspect of the new Golf - impressive stuff.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI SE 5dr, from £20,500 on the road.Engine: 1.6-litre diesel unit developing 110bhp.Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 119mph, 0-62mph 10.7 seconds.Economy: 74.3mpg.CO2 Rating: 99g/km.

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