Proof that a non-GTI Volkswagen can make you crack a smile too.
Hang on a minute, this cant be right. Standard Volkswagen Golf, switchback Italian mountain roads, and there's a smile on my face? Just a little one, mind, but its been quite a while since that happened in a non-GTI Golf. If I recall correctly, I was in my teens and drove a friend's old Mk2 like I stole it. Cracking car, that was — as in great to drive, nevermind the cracking door panels.
Admittedly, part of the reason of the upturn in my facial features is down to the sight of the stunning Italian vistas and the women that seem to populate every village we pass through, but it also has something to do with the way the new Golf Mk7 is carving these torturous, narrow roads. There's a deftness of touch, a level of control and poise that didn't exist in the outgoing Golf. Yep, this has the makings of a fine chassis.
Make no mistake, despite the evolutionary shift in design direction, the seventh generation Golf marks a change of philosophy for Volkswagen's long serving family hatchback. The drift towards more weight and more power with each successive generation has been brought to a screeching halt, Volkswagen taking the decision to pack its chunky offspring off to a health farm to shed some excess poundage and massage some agility back into its joints.
Not only does the new Golf look all the better for it, but it also takes a welcome step back down the road signposted 'driver appeal', from which its three immediate predecessors had detoured, despite the fact that they contributed to some of the best hot hatchbacks of recent years.
The new philosophy is simple. Make it bigger yet lighter, more nimble than before, with the objectives of putting the grin back on drivers' faces. Okay fine, the main objective is to reduce emission and enhance efficiency, but the positive side effects are more important to you and me. And up to 100kg has been shaved off the kerb weight, which is now under 1300kg. That's a huge weight loss, and it makes a useful contribution to the Golf's new-found youthfulness.
With the new turbocharged 1.4-litre engine kicking out 138bhp and 250Nm, the Mk7 Golf actually has 20bhp less than the outgoing model, but with 10Nm more torque. This 1.4 TSI engine is unrelated to the engine of the same capacity that you'll find in the Mk6. As a result, 0-100km/h time has increased by 0.4 of a second to 8.4 seconds. And you can feel the difference.
But none of this reveals the full story of the Golf's real world performance. There's no gentle way to put this; a lot of the time new Golf feels a little… lacking in guts, shall we say. It's possible to avoid the minor low-rev lethargy (the new engine no longer has a supercharger to aid low end punch) by stirring the seven-speed DSG gearbox to keep the revs up, but even when you wind it up in the mid and upper reaches of the rev range, it rarely feels as gutsy as you'd expect.
The gear ratios give the game away. They're all relatively tall and widely spaced in the interest of relaxed cruising and fuel economy (new car's 21km/L significant improves on the Mk6's 16km/L), forcing the engine to work harder to reach the red line even in the intermediate gears.
The result is that while the Golf gallops along briskly when the road is untroubled by hills, the moment you pull out to overtake a truck crawling up an incline it starts to struggle, needing to drop down two or three gears.
While the lack of ultimate grunt is frustrating, it's not as much of a hindrance to driving pleasure as you might think. As the lightfooted Ford Fiesta has proved, a rewarding chassis is more important than sheer speed in a car like this. And that's exactly what the Golf possesses.
Its secret - one that the baby Ford shares — is that its dynamic ability is so accessible. You don't have to be a hugely talented wheelsman to reap the rewards. Even at ordinary speeds, any sequence of bends provides all the excise necessary for a spot of fun, the Golf changing direction with speed and precision and displaying a level of body control and resistance to understeer that's more than a match for any of its European rival.
Even so, the Golf is not flawless. The DSG gearbox hangs on to ratios too long in Sport mode, feeling a little unresponsive to throttle input at quite crucial moments. Using the standard wheel-mounted paddles solves this. The brakes can also feel a little sharp initially and take some familiarity to be able to modulate the pedal for smooth urban progress.
The electrically assisted steering is wonderfully smooth and accurate, with a useful touch of feedback while grip levels are impressive. The latter though, depends heavily on whether the car is shod with performance tyres and not low-resistance eco rubber (varies depending on trim level). All that and a supple ride. The suspension set up might not provide quite the same sophisticated high-speed control as a comparable Ford Focus, but it's impressively composed all the same.
It's not just the chassis over which Volkswagen has tried hard. The cabin is also a classy effort compared with most recent Volkswagens that have become all too familiar. The fascia plastics and trim materials are a rung above what's used in the Mk6, which is mighty impressive. New softer-edged buttons, a slimmer-rimmed steering wheel, sharper edges to the dash architecture and an optional eight-inch colour screen that dominates the interior, all contribute to the high-end ambience.
Cabin refinement is outstanding on the 17-inch wheels of our test car, with very little tyre roar or engine noise creeping into the cabin and only a subdued flutter of wind. And yet you can then choose to toggle through the optional Audi-like variable drive settings (Eco, Sport, Normal and Individual), and suddenly you have a thoroughly grippy, neutral and entertaining drive. Our car also came with optional Dynamic Chassis Control, which incorporates adaptive damping and a Sport setting.
The ride is smooth and pliant 90 per cent of the time when left in Normal, coping particularly well with eroded surfaces and high-frequency undulations regardless of speed and cornering force. Unfortunately it does get a little firm and thumpy at higher speeds over bigger intrusions such as expansion joints and raised manhole covers. Sport doesn't seem dramatically different from Normal, though Comfort is quite noticeably softer, with a little more wallow than you might expect at urban speeds.
There's a host of improvements elsewhere too, with an extravagant (and mostly optional) array of technology. Premium downgraders need not worry. You could slide down the market ladder from an Audi to a Golf and have comparable safety and infotainment tech, from multi-collision avoidance as standard, through to the optional HD sat-nav with smartphone tethered wifi hotspot, voice command and proximity sensor that automatically raises the menu when your hand approaches the screen.
The Golf is precisely the globally appealing and useful car it needs to be, now with the added extra of being a driver's car as well. The desirability stakes have been upped, and it is generally a sharper, more complete package. It is a Volkswagen Golf, purified.
Despite the subjective lack of performance, the new Golf is a well-rounded package. It feels like a car that has been tuned to provide a bit of fun at sensible speeds. There's no need to be going flat out to get the best out of, and the rewards spring from its agility on roads that are too twisty to get much of a head of steam. In that respect it is as lightfooted as a Fiesta to drive, yet it successfully combines this with refinement and comfort that's better than the Mk6 Golf.
But there's no denying that, for a fair number of existing Golf TSI owners, this 138bhp model will feel disappointing to drive at first due to the power reduction. Should they drive it a little longer though, the wide array of improvements will be very clearly felt. For those who see a reduction of power as a straight up downgrade, well, there's always the hot GTI to look forward to. Then you'll be able to enjoy the straights as well as the corners.
Verdict : Slightly down on power, but everything else sees marked improvements over the outgoing model
More engaging chassis
Refined and classy cabin
Better emissions and efficiency
WE DON'T LIKE
Less power than before
Advanced optional tech may not make it here
On sale 2013
Top speed 210km/h
Engine 4 cyls, 1395cc, turbocharged, petrol
Installation Front, transverse, FWD
Power 138bhp at 4500-6000rpm
Torque 250Nm at 1500-3500rpm
Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight 1288kg
Suspension (f,r) MacPherson strut, multi-link
Brakes (f,r) Ventilated disc, solid disc
Tyres 225/45 R17