The core VW model has become more sophisticated, thanks to a host of digital gadgets and clever technologies.
MY brother-in-law asked me not too long ago what car he should buy.
Neither he nor my sister is particularly flush with petrol in their veins, but they do have an appreciation for quality. There will probably be a child in the equation (or at least my mother very loudly hopes). Sometimes, too, I might borrow their car.
Naturally, they ended up quite quickly with a Volkswagen Golf in the driveway.
Over 43 years, the Golf has combined luxury-car sophistication with family-car accessibility to succeed in defining the benchmark for the compact hatchback class. It offers something for everyone – thoroughly sensible packaging, satisfying richness, a touch of verve when you want it, reassuring sobriety when you don’t.
Like the dentist girlfriend you bring home to your approving parents, she is intelligent, well-mannered, in possession of a good job and a great future, exceedingly polite to your grandmother and inoffensively pretty.
Five years on from the launch of the 7th-generation Golf in 2012 and having sold 980,000 units worldwide in 2016 alone, there really is not much wrong with the current model. So, where can Volkswagen look to keep the Golf’s lead with a mid-life facelift?
With one eye on the future, that’s where. Volkswagen calls it the “digitalisation” of the Golf, and the big news here is in infotainment and automation.
You will be forgiven for failing to recognise the new hatchback, because the styling changes amount to merely the gentle grooming of an already anonymously handsome machine. New for 2017 are fresh LED lights, redesigned alloy wheels and a subtle reprofiling of the bumpers.
Close the door with that signature, satisfying thump of solidity and you’ll be greeted by a familiar dashboard. Flamboyant design is, as it always has been, absent from the Golf. Instead, the interior remains a shining example of luxuriant material quality and straight-laced, ergonomic good sense.
There are competitors on the market that attempt to wow in the showroom with greater interior flair, Peugeot with its i-Cockpit for one.
Yet, as a torchbearer for the motoring cliche “belongs to a class above”, the Golf’s cabin is, well, still a class above.
Most importantly, the driving position remains excellent and the range of adjustments for the seat and steering wheel is uncommonly generous.
Every Golf “7.5” model, even the basic version, gets an upsized in-dash touchscreen, until you arrive at the 9.2-inch Discover Pro infotainment system installed in the top-level Highline trim (tested here).
Besides graphics right up there with Apple’s best in appearance and user-friendliness, Volkswagen has crammed in every tech feature you expect and even some you do not.
When equipped with its own SIM card and data plan, the system can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot and tap into a multitude of apps.
One potentially great app for our Qoo10 era is DoorBird. This app links to your smart-home and allows you to answer your doorbell remotely via video link.
However, which functions will make it across the ocean and safely through the sieve of our regulations are still unknown.
Should you still find its functionality not up to par with your Google Pixel or iPhone 7, smartphone mirroring is available with Apple CarPlay, MirrorLink and Android Auto. Most merciful, however, is the system’s responsiveness to touch. This is, surprisingly, something not all car manufacturers get right.
With the extra real-estate, the old infotainment system’s hard buttons and knobs (used to perform simple tasks like adjusting the volume) have been jettisoned. This may take some getting used to.
To compensate, Volkswagen proudly gives us gesture control. Puzzlingly, this feature is trumpeted triumphantly in the press briefings, which is curious behaviour because while every other one of the company’s boasts has been credible, this gimmick is bewilderingly useless.
The executives show off the fact that this is the technology’s first application in the compact-car segment, having first been seen in the towkays-only BMW 7 Series.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF 1.0 (A)
ENGINE 999cc, 12-valves, inline-3, turbocharged
MAX POWER 110bhp at 5000-5500rpm
MAX TORQUE 200Nm at 2000-3500rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 94.7bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
0-100KM/H 9.9 seconds
TOP SPEED 196km/h
CO2 EMISSION 109g/km
PRICE INCL. COE To be announced
Sounds impressive, and it theoretically allows you to swipe across menus by waving your hand in the air. In practice, it recognises just that one motion for that one function, and does so frustratingly imprecisely, requiring you to look down at the screen eventually anyway.
It isn’t long before the novelty wears off and I’m showing it unprintable hand signs.
More impressive is the new Active Info Display, a 12.3-inch fully digitised and customisable screen in place of analogue gauges.
Apart from putting far more information, including the navigation map, in your eyeline, the new digital instrument cluster lets you control many functions via the steering-wheel buttons. Largely aping sister company Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, the system’s execution is superbly intuitive and takes little time to learn.
Every major manufacturer is scrambling to keep up with the burgeoning autonomous driving scene, believing it to be the next big step in the evolution of vehicles.
Thus, our Golf test car comes equipped with the ability to keep itself within lane markings and maintain a set distance from the vehicle in front on country roads.
With Traffic Jam Assist, the Golf can also stop, accelerate and steer on its own within its lane at low speeds. And its autonomous emergency braking has been enhanced to recognise pedestrians.
Independently taking your kids to school and vacuuming your living room are rumoured to be in a future update.
Altogether, they nudge the car in approximately the right direction, but do not exactly allow you to take your eyes and hands off the job.
On one occasion, my lane-following Golf almost bulldozed a livid cyclist on the inside of a curved road the car was blithely trying to follow.
While we may still be some distance from true Minority Report-style driverless commuting, this is the German giant dipping its big toe in the waters for when the revolution truly arrives.
It is possible Singapore’s motorists may see little of the above technologies in their cars, however, due to “a lack of approval from the authorities”.
Futuristic silicon aside, a new 1.5-litre engine will replace the existing 1.4-litre engine on the propulsion front.
This motor will come in two states of tune, including a 130bhp BlueMotion version running on a Miller combustion cycle that will just about sneak under the threshold for COE Category A.
The recent industry-wide engine-downsizing trend was bucked for two main reasons in the case of the updated Golf.
Firstly, the Miller cycle runs better with slightly more displacement, and China has a tax system similar to our own which levies fees based on engine capacity, with 1.5 litres being one benchmark. It thus makes sense to make the most of that legislative leeway.
Under the bonnet of our test car is the more powerful 150bhp unit. On a mixture of motorways and country roads, this engine proves more than capable of partaking in the cut and thrust of traffic with ease. Combined with a new DSG 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, the powertrain’s response is immediate and generous all the way up to the redline, even if the soundtrack is more polite than stirring.
Volkswagen does not tout any major chassis revisions for the “Mk 7.5” Golf, which means the car retains its confident gait, taking roads both smooth and rutted in its stride. The ride is on the firm side, but well-judged and progressive damping means where bumps intrude, they do so in a muted fashion and without taking away the authority of the wheels’ contact with the road or harshly deflecting the car’s body.
When I stop playing with the autonomous functions, I find the steering response to be always sure-footed and predictable. It is thus rarely necessary to make sudden corrections mid-corner. Where understeer arrives, it eases in gently and is easily correctible with lifts of the throttle.
The Golf admirably avoids the common compact-car pitfalls of wheel hop and scrambling front tyres when power is applied suddenly at junctions. It remains a car you can undramatically enjoy the business of guiding quickly and accurately from point to point should the mood take you, distracted neither by the vehicle’s limits of body control nor grip.
TYPE Inline-4, 16-valves, turbocharged
BORE X STROKE 74.5mm x 85.9mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 12.5:1
MAX POWER 150bhp at 5000-6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 250Nm at 1500-3500rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 120.8bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
DRIVEN WHEELS Front
0-100KM/H 8.3 seconds
TOP SPEED 216km/h
CONSUMPTION 20km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 114g/km
FRONT MacPherson struts with lower control arms, coil springs
REAR Multi-link, coil springs
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs / Discs
TYPE Michelin Primacy 3
SIZE 215/55 R17
TRACTION AIDS ABS, ESC
KERB WEIGHT 1242kg
TURNING CIRCLE 10.9m
PRICE EXCL. COE To be announced
WARRANTY To be announced
+GREATLY IMPROVED INFOTAINMENT, LATEST GADGETS GALORE, OPTIMUM POWERTRAIN.
- SUBTLE STYLING UPDATE, GESTURE CONTROL IS A SILLY GIMMICK, MOST OF THE GOODIES ARE OPTIONAL.
Every car to everybody – Volkswagen’s upgraded Golf is spacious on the inside but just the right size on the outside, high-tech but not high-priced, comfortable yet capable of satisfying the occasionally interested sporting driver.
That is a tall order for any automaker and a brief as dauntingly broad as any.
Yes, there are hatchbacks more outlandishly styled or more involving to drive rapidly. Yet, none of them comes close to matching the Golf’s consistently and remarkably solid performance across the board.
It is this astounding breadth of ability that has allowed the Golf to transcend class boundaries. You could be the richest person in Singapore, put a Golf in your stable, drive it every single day and feel nothing but quiet satisfaction that you have made a great motoring decision in good taste.
Wisely, then, substantial as the improvements in powertrain and infotainment are, the VW Golf formula remains resolutely the same.
I wonder if a more thorough overhaul was originally intended if not for “Dieselgate” putting a massive dent in Volkswagen’s R&D budget. But on this evidence, it does not seem necessary. The Golf continues to do what it does best, only now a little bit better.