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Europe’s biggest-selling new car, in eighth-generation form, joins the tech revolution

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If success breeds complacency in the car business, one car above all others ought to bear it out: the Volkswagen Golf. And yet, over nearly five decades, we’ve yet to see much more than a sniff of proof of it. In the Volkswagen ’s case, the standing of one of the industry’s quiet icons only gets greater and greater.

Understanding the unique position the Golf occupies on this continent can only be done by appreciating the margin of its sales dominance. In a good calendar year, there might be as many as 10 new cars that break the 250,000-unit marker across Europe; perhaps four or five of them sneaking above the 300,000-unit barrier.

For now, there’s only one mild-hybrid eTSI Golf: a 148bhp 1.5-litre TSI Evo with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox and 48V electrical assistance

But the Golf was the only new car in Europe to record more than half a million registered sales in any calendar year throughout the whole of the past decade; and it managed that twice, in 2014 and 2015. It is by a country mile Europe’s biggest-selling new car, and typically it outsells the very best of its direct rivals, such as the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra, by more than two to one.

Into that context, however, there now enters something of a gamble. The Golf Mk8 might be the boldest redefinition of Volkswagen's enduring family five-door since the Mk5. This, remember, from a car maker not habitually given to risk-taking.

Allied to its crisp-looking new suit of clothes, this car’s newly hybridised powertrain armoury, sharpened ride and handling, reductionist cabin design and market-leading active safety technology can be seen, when viewed together, as the most concerted effort that can be made by one of the world’s most powerful car makers to arrest the steady shrinking of the European mid-sized hatch segment.

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The Volkswagen Golf line-up at a glance

The Golf’s typically fulsome model range is somewhat truncated for now, the entry-level 1.0-litre TSI petrol engine only just having been added to it. Volkswagen Golf GTI, Golf GTD, Volkswagen Golf GTE plug-in hybrid and Volkswagen Golf R versions will come later, although it remains to be seen if the UK market will get the cheaper eHybrid PHEV version of the car, or the other 48V eTSI versions that are available in other markets.

Trim levels range from Life through mid-range Style to R-Line, which gets variable-rate steering and lowered sport suspension.

Price £28,025 Power 148bhp Torque 184lb ft 0-60mph 8.3sec 30-70mph in fourth 9.1sec Fuel economy 45.9mpg CO2 emissions 134g/km 70-0mph 45.4m

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf 2020 road test review - hero side

The Golf is trying on some freshly ironed tailoring in this eighth-generation form. From bonnet to flanks to bootlid can be found sharper creases and a greater number of feature lines than the traditionally simple hatchback has used in previous versions.

It’s the kind of styling that many German brands default to when looking to engender an outward manifestation of technical precision of build quality. And even if it does look a little fussy, most testers didn’t go so far as to say that they found the Golf’s new look objectionable. One tester did remark on the irony that while it’s clearly an attempt to make the car stand out in a class now full of ‘edgy’ offerings, it may achieve the opposite effect.

Golf’s newly assertive, ‘edgy’ looks are typified by the bonnet profile, with three longitudinal ridges between the centre line and wheel arch. Too fussy? It’s debatable

Underneath the Golf Mk8, which has grown by one solitary inch in overall length but is otherwise almost exactly the same dimensions as the Mk7 Golf, is an updated version of the same all-steel MQB platform chassis. Like its predecessor, the Mk8 can be had with either all-independent suspension or torsion beam rear suspension, the latter of which is combined with any engine producing less than 148bhp.

As with the Mk7, it comes with coil springs and fixed-rate gas dampers as standard. Upper-end specifications get a variable-rate steering rack that quickens as you add lock, just as the Mk7 got; but this time, the lower-end Golf’s steering has been quickened, too, while suspension rates have increased all round on both versions and the car’s subframes, links and bushings have been relocated and redesigned. DCC adaptive dampers feature as an option on higher-end cars and, allegedly, now work harder.

Automatically softening or stiffening either to rein in body movement or improve ride comfort, the new dampers can also stiffen asymmetrically as you turn to improve handling response. They’re effectively networked with the XDS electronic torque vectoring system so as to work more harmoniously alongside it. Beyond all that, the dampers have a new specially selectable extra-soft ‘decoupled’ mode to make for even better ride comfort in very particular situations.

VW’s engine range starts with a 108bhp 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol, rising to include several 1.5-litre TSI Evo turbo four-pots – one of which comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and 48V mild-hybrid assistance. It also takes in 113bhp and 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesels, and for the moment – until the familiar GTI, GTD, GTE and R versions are added – that’s where the choice ends. We elected to test a 148bhp 1.5-litre eTSI mild hybrid, but (not by choice) without those adaptive dampers.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf 2020 road test review - cabin

Anyone familiar with the painstaking care with which previous Golfs have presented their banks of physical switchgear is in for a surprise here.

The Mk8’s perfectly set, dead-straight, medium-height driving position feels familiar; the nicely bolstered seats of mid-level Style trim feeling reassuringly comfortable, too. But the arc of glossy black plastic running around behind the steering wheel, and surrounding both the instrument binnacle and infotainment set-up, is new – and likewise is the sense of sparseness about the rest of the environment.

Touch-sensitive control strip makes adjusting ventilation temperature and audio volume easier than it might be through the touchscreen alone.

Technological sophistication is this Golf’s calling card. At every trim level available in the UK, the car gets a 10.0in infotainment system and fully digital instrumentation as standard – and that on a car costing quite a bit less than £25,000, in a market where many £40,000 mid-sized executive cars aren’t so generously equipped.

You worry, at first, whether VW has been too keen to follow the lead of companies like Tesla, making you go through that central screen interface to control everything from ventilation circulation to driver aids. Some will conclude that it has been. However, the few fixed controls and capacitive, touch-sensitive ‘zones’ that are provided are well located and – in tandem with the switchgear on the steering wheel spokes, and thanks not least to the configurability of the instrument display – they do effectively provide one- and two-touch access when you need to simply mute the radio, for example.

There is no doubt that this new MIB3 touchscreen infotainment system takes some getting used to but, as you learn to operate it, it does feel as if its functionality and usability have been sweated over in a way that few equivalents can match.

In contrast, perhaps the Golf’s long-nurtured sense of distinguished perceived quality hasn’t been sweated over quite enough. Less switchgear makes for fewer opportunities for the kind of tactile seduction that this car used to go in for, granted; and this is no cheap-feeling interior.

But you can find a few more harder plastics around this cabin than we’re used to from a Golf, and one or two sharper-edged mouldings Cabin space is broadly unchanged, sufficient as it is for largish adults to travel in the back without issue, and for largish things to be carried in the boot, but in neither sense is it class leading. This Golf’s trick continues to be to offer greater space than you expect in what remains a fairly compact footprint.

VW Golf infotainment and sat-nav

The 10.0in Discover Navigation infotainment that comes as standard on the Golf is no mean system. You can pair two mobile phones to it simultaneously and it does wireless phone charging and smartphone mirroring via Apple, Android and MirrorLink formats (wirelessly for Apple CarPlay). It also includes a three-year subscription to Volkswagen’s We Connect Plus networking system, which serves online traffic information to the navigation system and lets you search online for available parking spaces and nearby fuel prices.

Our test car had the optional Discover Pro system, which, although its touchscreen is no bigger, adds voice and gesture control. It is easily navigable thanks in part to the shortcut buttons just below the system itself and the ‘home’ button, which is fixed on the right of the screen. As a result, you’re never more than a couple of prods from the menu or the function you need.

Navigation mapping is very clearly displayed and can be zoomed fairly smoothly and easily.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen may get around to pairing this Golf's mild-hybrid powertrain technology with a manual gearbox, but for now it comes only in combination with the higher-output 1.5-litre TSI Evo and a dual-clutch auto. Perhaps that’s wise because, as we learned when we road tested the latest Ford Puma earlier this year, a hybrid powertrain that’s managing its own energy-recuperation ‘engine braking’ while allowing the driver precise control over clutch and brake actuation seems to open itself up to more numerous drivability quirks than one that’s doing all of the above by itself.

That statement is just another way of doffing our cap to VW’s engineers for the slick job they’ve done on the installation and tuning of this engine and gearbox. It engages drive predictably and smoothly; it runs quietly (although seemingly almost never under electric-only power); and it feels usefully more torquey at lower revs and in higher gears than you expect. This is without doubt the refinement-first option in the Golf Mk8’s powertrain armoury, and very pleasant indeed it is – although it returns very creditable fuel economy as well.

Whatever your views of its crisply creased styling, you’ll be won over by the polished nature of its dynamic performance, so long as you stick to multi-link rear suspension

The ‘hybridness’ of the powertrain is kept fairly discreet. The car has the low-rpm performance level of something like a lower-order GTI (although it doesn’t rev like one beyond 4500rpm) with what feels like 25% more than the advertised torque. In give and take motoring, you can put on 10mph of roll-on acceleration quite easily, and in a high gear and with only a moderate dip of your toe.

The engine does take the opportunity to shut down when it can – when you’re descending a gradient at a cruise, for example, and the navigation system’s data has instructed the ECU to expect no throttle demand for 15 seconds or so, or when you’re approaching a junction and slowing down. The way the system restarts the engine in the latter case, blending up energy recuperation unprompted in order to slow you to a crawl at just the right moment, is a little unintuitive, though.

With a little more on its plate than a DSG gearbox generally has, this seven-speeder is perhaps a little slower shifting in manual mode than we’ve known it in other cars. When you use ‘S’ mode, it tends to hold ratios just a little too long under hard acceleration (for effect, perhaps) than it ought to. Otherwise, though, there is very little missing here from what you’d expect from a mid-level powertrain, and plenty to praise.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf 2020 road test review - on the road front

Without the optional adaptive dampers we mentioned earlier, no selectable drive modes to flick through, no lowered sports suspension and no optional variable-rate steering, our test car was pleasingly straightforward to drive.

Its medium-paced steering was fairly lightly weighted and could therefore have made for a more enticing introduction for keener drivers. But in the way the car mixes supple, rubbery-feeling ride comfort with good outright grip and body control, and likewise an impressive if slightly understated sort of handling agility, the Golf Mk8 is quite plainly one of the most dynamically versatile and finely polished operators you’ll find anywhere at the affordable end of the new car market.

I’d avoid VW’s Travel Assist advanced lane keeping option – if only because its ‘on/off’ button replaces the lane-keeping toggle button on the steering wheel

It’s guilty of one slightly irksome bugbear; a common frustration in modern passenger cars, although oddly one that other VWs we’ve tested in recent years have avoided. The basic lane keeping system automatically reactivates every time you restart the engine and it does so whether or not you’ve deactivated it previously in any of the drive modes or profiles. It’s not a particularly fussy system, although its interventions are a little intrusive on a steering rack that otherwise feels obligingly light and pleasant. Sometimes – when overtaking a cyclist, for example – those interventions can take you by surprise.

With that system switched off, though, the Golf’s handling is really all about linearity and predictability, and in that respect, the car is its familiar old self. It responds progressively to steering inputs rather than turning in with darting urgency, and it does allow its body to roll and pitch just a little, but in a way that really only helps you to judge grip levels and to manipulate the chassis a little at higher speeds.

Explore further, beyond a quarter turn of lock, and this car begins to feel really keen and adhesive; fun to spirit along and to flick around, with a subtle (if always-active) stability control system in the background, and ready to express itself a little when you ask it to.

Assisted driving notes

The new Golf gets a very generous allocation of active safety kit as standard, including Front Assist automatic crash mitigation and post-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, city emergency braking with pedestrian detection, dynamic road sign recognition and driver monitoring.

Our test car’s speed limit detection system worked consistently well, successfully detecting temporary and permanent posted limits. Its level two optional Travel Assist lane keeping system was effective at keeping the car centred within a relatively straight motorway lane and at a safe distance from the car in front, but you wouldn’t use it on winding A-roads.

The car’s main technological selling point, Car2X wireless networking, is alleged to allow it to detect accidents, incidents and hazards reported by other cars up to a mile ahead on the road. Sadly, it wasn’t operational on our particular test car, so our verdict on it will have to wait.

Comfort and isolation

This is the second example of the Mk8 Golf we’ve driven on UK roads and, in what we might think of as VW’s more expensive multi-link suspension specification, the car rides markedly more smoothly, fluently and quietly than it did on smaller rims and when fitted with a torsion beam axle at the rear.

It may be an unintended consequence of VW’s decision to dial up the sporting dynamism of the car across the board but, while we wouldn’t have advised you to avoid beam-axle Golfs of the previous generation, this time around it would seem to be a particularly good idea to order a car with 148bhp or more.

Do that and you’ll get a car with every bit as complete an array of dynamic abilities as the Golf has ever had. The absorbency of the ride is something to be constantly thankful for, whether it’s smothering sharper, smaller inputs so effectively, easing your passage around town, or keeping wheel travel in reserve to deal easily with that mid-corner ridge or drain cover. In all places and at most prevailing speeds, whether laterally loaded or not, this car seems to have compliance to spare and without any associated sogginess in the body control.

The 18in rims of our test car didn’t seem to adversely affect its ride suppleness. They probably did add a decibel or two to the cabin noise levels, but not punitively so since the car matched to the decibel the noise levels, at most speeds, of the Mercedes-Benz A200 we tested in 2018. At 70mph, the VW was even a decibel quieter than the Mercedes.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf 2020 road test review - hero front

The Volkswagen Golf certainly remains one of pricier volume-brand players in the family hatchback class but, even in entry-level Life trim, it offers plenty of equipment its rivals can’t match higher up the range.

In addition to the full-sized infotainment system and Active Info Display digital instrument screen we mentioned earlier, the car comes with wireless phone charging and LED headlights at no extra cost and is the first car in its class to get ‘Car2X’ wireless safety networking as standard.

Residual forecasts here are typically strong to start with, but interesting to note the Toyota Corolla’s relative gain in years three and four.

The 60mpg touring-test fuel economy return of our eTSI car might not be quite enough to convince someone to give up a full-hybrid hatchback, but it’s still a very creditable result for a car of this performance level, and one with some driver appeal.

A WLTP emissions test result for the car of 134g/km makes for an advantage over non-hybridised two-pedal petrol rivals of 2% to 3% – not huge, but worth having.

 

VERDICT

Volkswagen Golf 2020 road test review - static

It has taken bravery to redefine what remains the biggest-selling new car in Europe as Volkswagen just has.

Some will simply see it as ‘another Golf’. Others may not even think it a particularly attractive one. And yet there was clear risk in subtly but markedly reappraising this car’s ride and handling as VW has; and more so, probably, in reimagining the cabin ergonomics, and in betting big on relatively expensive touchscreen infotainment technology and the latest active safety systems.

New strengths and familiar ones carry it back to the class lead

While this car lacks a little of the lavish material plushness we’ve grown used to from Golfs, it’s no disappointment for perceived quality. Meanwhile, in the way it drives - for its laudable refinement, economy, versatility and drivability and, above all else, simply for its ready-for-anything completeness as a compact family car – it remains in a league of one.

Just as with previous Golfs, it’s not necessarily the outstanding operator in any one area that may particularly interest you; not for premium feel, performance, efficiency, on-board technology or driver appeal. But being so strong in so many areas can leave it in only one lofty place among its peers.

 

Volkswagen Golf FAQs

Is the Volkswagen Golf available as a plug-in or electric?

Yes it is. In fact, the Volkswagen Golf is available with a choice of two plug-in variants - the entry-level Style eHybrid and the hot hatch-flavoured GTE. The former combines a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol and electric motor to deliver 201bhp and an EV range of 42 miles, while the latter travels a little less far at 38 miles, but packs 242bhp from its similar engine and motor combination. There was an all-electric e-Golf version of the previous generation car, but this was effectively replaced by the ID3.

What are the main rivals to the Volkswagen Golf?

Buyers are becoming increasingly keen on SUVs, but compact family hatchbacks are still big business, meaning the Volkswagen Golf has plenty of competitors. For driving fun the Ford Focus takes some beating, while like the Volkswagen the Peugeot 308 and Vauxhall Astra are available with plug-in hybrid engines. The Kia Ceed and Hyundai i30 are no nonsense options with loads of kit and long warranties, much like the stylish, hybrid-powered Toyota Corolla. Under the skin, the Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon are similar to the Golf, but the former offers more space and the latter more style.

How much power does the Volkswagen Golf have?

As one of the brand’s most popular models, the Volkswagen Golf is available with a wide range of engines. Entry-level models feature a 108bhp 1.0-litre TSI petrol, while there’s also 1.5-litre TSI with either 128bhp or 148bhp. There’s also a 2.0-litre TDI diesel that’s available with a number of power outputs, from 114bhp, through to 148bhp and onto 197bhp in the GTD. A plug-in hybrid option combines 1.4-litre petrol and electric motor for either 201bhp or 242bhp. The latter figure is the same as the 2.0-litre petrol in the GTI, while the GT Clubsport serves-up 296bhp and the four-wheel drive R packs 316bhp.

What choices of gearbox are available for the Volkswagen Golf?

Standard on all Volkswagen Golf petrol and diesel models up to the GTI is a six-speed manual gearbox. Like all the brand’s three-pedal transmissions it has a relatively precise action and is easy to use thanks to a light and smooth clutch. Available as an option, and standard on the GTD, GTI Clubsport and R, a seven-speed automatic. A twin-clutch unit, it serves up impressive smooth and swift shifts that both enhance comfort and performance. The plug-in hybrids use the same set-up but only get six speeds.

Where is the Volkswagen Golf built?

Given it’s one of the brand’s most popular models, it’s no surprise to find that the Volkswagen Golf is built at the vast Wolfsburg factory in Germany. Over eight generations more than 26 million examples of the Golf have been assembled at the facility, where from sheet metal to finished article it travels along nearly 43 miles of production line. The Golf is also produced in China at the joint Venture FAW-VW plant in Foshan, as well as the DRB-HICOM factory in Pekan, Malaysia.

How many generations of Volkswagen Golf have there been?

Few family cars can match the Volkswagen Golf for longevity. Having made its debut in 1974, the evergreen German family hatch is now in its eighth generation, the current model having been launched in 2019. The original car was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro and was the firm’s second ever front-wheel drive model with a water cooled engine, following on from the Passat a year earlier. It remains Volkswagen’s most popular car of all time, with more than 35 million built over nearly 50 years.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Golf First drives