5:13pm Tuesday 2nd April 2013
By Nigel Burton
Volkswagen Golf 1.6SE
SURELY 29 million people can't be wrong? Introduced 39 years ago, the Golf is one of the world's best-loved cars. Seven generations - and millions of satisfied owners - later, it remains Volkswagen's most important car and the standard-bearer by which all class rivals are judged.
If ever a car lived up to its manufacturer's name (Volkswagen translates to "people's car" in its native tongue) then the Golf is it.
Even people who have never bought a Golf have reason to be thankful for its existence.
The Golf gave medium-sized hatchbacks beautifully finished interiors made from high quality plastics and the refinement of much larger cars. It brought a touch of luxury to the masses at a price everyone could afford.
Of course, VW has stumbled along the way. No one looks back with fondness on the Mk III GTi - a car so slow even the cooking diesel was quicker - or the Harlequin that had different coloured body panels which made it look as though you'd had a crash and couldn't afford a decent paint job.
Overall, however, VW's engineers have consistently hit a new high with each new model.
The trick now is to make a Golf that's better than its predecessor in every way without destroying the DNA that buyers love. Apple has the same tricky problem with the iPhone. On the road: There's nothing radical about the new Golf's looks - just a sharp crease that runs through the doors and a nip 'n a tuck around the body - but what lies beneath the innocuous exterior is far more exciting. The Mk 7 is the first Golf to use VW's new modular MQB platform. This remarkable set of components will underpin dozens of new VWs, Audis, Seats and Skodas in the next few years. It's so versatile that it will be used for everything from a Polo to a Passat. In theory, VW could build dozens of different cars on the same production line, despite their different widths and wheelbases.
The MQB platform is lighter than the outgoing Golf (up to 100kg) but considerably stiffer. The old Golf wasn't a bad steer but the new one ups the ante. The A719, in Scotland, is a good test of a car's ability. The road dips and twists its way around the Ayrshire coastline. After a ferocious winter the surface has broken up in places and it pays to keep an eye out for deep potholes.
What surprised me wasn't the bite from the Golf's tyres or the incisive steering as it carved its way around the A719 but the excellent ride quality. There's nothing particularly innovative about the Golf's torsion beam rear suspension, but the VW now matches the Ford Focus for comfort.
On the inside: Ever since VW set a new standard with the Mark IV, Golf interiors have just got better. The division between the Golf and the (larger and more expensive) Passat is now narrower than ever.
All the controls are beautifully finished (even the indicator stalks have a glossy black treatment on the touch surface) and the plastics are uniformly excellent. The main instrument stack is angled more towards the driver and the classy instruments are easy to read at a glance.
Although the Skoda Octavia and the Seat Leon use a similar cabin layout, Volkswagen has somehow reserved the best materials for its best-seller.
There's more room than ever before, especially in the rear where adult occupants will be thankful for the extra knee and headroom.
The front seats are typically VW hard. In my experience, they need at least 30,000 miles before they really soften up (depending on the size, and weight, of your bum).
How practical is it? At 4,255mm Golf is 55mm longer than its predecessor. The front wheels have been pushed 43mm further forward, helping to liberate more interior room, as part of a longer wheelbase.
Volkswagens have a well deserved reputation for being as safe as a bank vault. The Golf is no exception. Electronic stabilisation programme is VW's all-encompassing description for an array of safety kit including traction control, electronic diff lock and automatic distance control. The electronic diff was previously reserved for the GTi but is now standard across the range.
The Golf's driver alert system is mildly irritating, however. It kept urging me to stop for a cuppa after about an hour behind the wheel. Distance control proved handy on the motorway. I could set the cruise control and let the system keep a set distance from the car in front. There's also something VW calls an "automatic post-collision braking system" which applies the brakes after a bump (yes, it would be better to do this BEFORE a collision, but some crashes are unavoidable).
The 380 litre boot is larger than a Focus or an Astra and just about big enough for a family holiday (although we had to stash a soft bag between the kids). A low sill makes loading heavy items easier. With the back seats folded down there's a 1,270 litre luggage area to play with.
What do you get? The SE specification is the sweet spot in the Golf range with a generous array of standard equipment. The 5.8-inch touchscreen is useful, as is the DAB radio tuner which switches automatically to FM when the signal drops out. The iPod connector cable looks a bit like an after-thought though, poking out from beneath the centre stack. The sound system has eight speakers and sounds great with clear playback and good stereo separation. I'm not a fan of electronic parking brakes but the Golf's operates efficiently enough. There's a hill-holder feature for those times when you don't need the handbrake on but don't want to roll back on an incline when you move off.
Running costs: The 1.6 TDI engine replaces VW's venerable 1.9 diesel. The difference in refinement is night and day. The old 1.9 was an honest worker but it clattered like a Massey Ferguson. Driving one felt like you were using a coffee grinder. The 1.6 TDI is smoother and much quieter. It likes to rev, too.
Exhaust emissions of just 99g/km means zero-rated road tax and, although I never got anywhere near the 74mpg official fuel consumption figure, a return of 54mpg over 600 miles of mixed driving is a fine real world fuel return. The Golf has a generous fuel tank and can cover more than 500 miles between fill-ups. Verdict: The new Golf looks a lot like the old Golf - and that's the way millions of proud owners like it. Beneath the familiar skin, however, the latest Golf is all-new. The 1.6TDI is likely to be the best-seller with private buyers and it's a big improvement over its predecessor. The Golf still sets the standard for all its rivals.
SPEC: Engine: 1598cc, 4cyl, 16v Power: 105PS @3,000-4,000rpm Torque: 184lb/ft@ 1,500-2,750rpm 0-62mph: 10.7 seconds Top speed: 119mph Fuel consumption: 54.3mpg on test (74.3mpg combined official result) Exhaust emissions: 99g/km Insurance group: 13E Equipment: electronic stabilisation, immobiliser, central locking, alarm, auto distance control, driver alert system, post-collision auto braking, semi-auto air conditioning, electric windows/mirrors, Bluetooth telefony, trip computer wi gear change indicator, 5.8-inch touchscreen, SD card reader, alloy wheels, heat insulating tinted glass.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: FORD FOCUS: Great ride and roomy interior. Small boot and steeper depreciation.
VAUXHALL ASTRA: Latest Astra is a real looker but still trails in third behind the Golf and the Focus.
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