The Golf is to hatchbacks what the Mercedes S-Class is to luxury limos, or the iPhone is to mobile telephones: a crowd-pleasing, endlessly popular device that covers every base 99.9 per cent of the population could ever want – or need – it to. This Mk7 version is lighter than before, and in facelifted, post-2016 guise, offers self-driving-in-traffic function, and updated engines.
Need more practicality? There’s a longer estate, or taller Golf SV mini-MPV. Need more performance? There’s a GTI hot hatch – the tartan-seated icon – and the R super-hatch. Want to meet in the middle? You can have a GTE plug-in hybrid or the GTD go-faster diesel. Or the electric e-Golf, with its 190-mile range. See what we mean about having all the bases covered?
Price-wise, the Golf is a more premium option than say, a Focus or an Astra, but it’s also a far more multi-talented one, offering a securer and supremely refined drive in regular guise, and a high-quality, largely ergonomic cabin – we used to have higher praise for it, but recently VW’s had a go at ruining it inside with new touchscreens that are worse, and so on. But it’s spacious, quiet, safe, and smart. As an all-rounder, the Golf simply cannot be beaten.
As a result, it’s the car that Top Gear staffers tend to recommend when asked ‘what should I buy?’ more often than anything else.
Driving: What is it like on the road?
The headline here is the ride, which is little short of a revelation. It absorbs, isolates and simply glides above the disturbance of Britain’s knackered roads. Yet, with less weight up front and all-new suspension, the chassis also delivers more feedback and grip than you may expect from such a supple ride.
Sure, you’d never call it agile, but for progression and precision, it’s fine – albeit better on higher-end multi-link rear suspension than the penny-pinching torsion bar setup of lesser cars. Engine-wise, the facelift heralded a new 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder (called the ‘evo’ by VW), which is possibly the single most refined four-cylinder we’ve ever come across.
Smooth and uncannily quiet, it really shows up diesels, which, smooth as VW has made them, can’t compete with this low, low level of noise, vibration and harshness. You can have it with 128bhp (and a clever coasting function that switches the engine off completely when freewheeling to save as much fuel as possible), and a more spritely but hardly firebreathing 148bhp version.
Now let’s talk about the interesting ones. The e-Golf and GTE both suffer for the 150kg or so of battery pack they stow down below the back seats, which has slightly old-school Porsche 911 effects on the handling, none of which are welcome. But then, those are the Golfs you’re least likely to toss around on a gnarly road, so we’ll forgive and forget.
The GTI is a genius piece of kit, a Goldilocks performance car that despite being left behind in the power stakes, still maintains a wonderful sense of all the car you’ll ever need glow. Our pick is the GTI Performance, because its 245bhp to the standard car’s 227bhp means you’re not quite at the mercy of well-driven Fiesta STs.
It also gets a pucker limited slip front differential in place of the standard GTI’s traction-control fakery, so you spend less time with the brakes jabbing at the front wheels and more time dangling a rear tyre in the air on a roundabout. Think of it as the world’s most fun way of reducing tyre wear. Oh, and if you’re medically able and don’t spend too much time in traffic, try to avoid ditching the clutch pedal.
The DSG is fine and all that (six speeds for the standard car, seven on the Performance), but the manual is so, so sweet, and you even get a retro-tastic golf-ball-dimple gearknob to make every shift that bit more evocative. It’s like a discount 911 R. Sort of.
And now to the Golf R. Wow. Where did this come from? Traditionally, adding an R badge and all-wheel drive to the Golf made it fast, sure, but also lethargic and heavy and altogether not as satisfying at the cheaper, more nimble GTI. That all changed for the Mk7.
The 310bhp engine is linear, sharp, revs beautifully and sounds like an old Audi Quattro. The Haldex AWD resists understeer superbly, and will even give you a sense of the power being shifted to the rear axle on corner exit, unlike an Audi S3 or RS3.
Okay, you might think this is all a bit last week now the Focus RS has got drift mode, but in the real world the Golf R is every bit as quick, and just as entertaining without needing wholesale switches of mode and character which also have a questionable effect on your insurance explanations should there be a sudden blockage in the talent department. Fast, chuckable, subtle and keenly priced, the Golf R is for TG’s money, the best all-round hot hatch in the world. Naturally, given the Golf is the best all-rounder, full stop.
On the inside: Layout, finish and space
Fundamentally, the Golf is a thoroughly well thought out car inside. More spacious than a Focus. Smarter materials than an Astra. A spot-on driving position, decent visibility, lots of oddment storage and mostly easy usability. However, we must nit-pick, because for the facelift, VW introduced a series of revisions to the Golf’s cabin to pep it up, and without exception, they made one of the most ergonomically correct cars on the market today inexcusably worse.
First up, there’s the Active Info Display, a 12.3inch screen that lives where the dials used to on high-spec versions. It’s effectively VW’s version of the Virtual Cockpit Audi has exploited so effectively in everything from the TT to the Q7, but VW’s managed to muck it up by employing gauges and fonts which are just too fussy, and combining them with more confusing controls on the steering wheel. So, that’s an option to avoid.
Likewise, the new Discover Pro 8-inch nav screen, which we used to recommend straight away, has been spoiled. You have to pinch to zoom on maps as the twiddly knob has gone, and the replacement functionality just isn’t as smooth, and the addition of more sub-menus and touch-sensitive buttons surrounding the screen means you spend more time with your eyes off the road.
VW also trumpets that the car has got gesture control, but it’s so woefully incapable of interpreting your Macarena waving, we refuse to acknowledge it.