Does the Volkswagen Golf need any introduction? This family-sized hatchback made its first appearance 45 years ago, in 1974, a Giugiaro styled front wheel drive car that was VW’s best effort to deliver on a modern replacement for the iconic Beetle. In the first couple of years, the market was not completely convinced. Front wheel drive hatches were not the norm in the mid 70s, and the early Golf was pretty spartan inside and was pricey compared to traditional competition, in an era when car markets had not really globalised, so Britain was buying the Escort, Viva and Allegro, France the Renault R5 and R12, and Italy the Fiat 127 and 128. The launch of the iconic GTi model, initially something of an unofficial project, certainly helped to propel the entire Golf range into the realms of desirability, so by the time of the launch of the second generation model in 1984, it was now well established and selling strongly. The formula has changed little, ever since. We are now on the seventh generation, and if you line all 7 of the models up, there are even styling cues that link them altogether. It has grown, of course, like all car types have done over 45 years, with far greater width even more obvious than the extra length, but this remains the definitive family-sized car and indeed cars of this type are often referred to as “Golf-class”. The seventh generation model was launched in September 2012, with cars going on sale across Europe a few weeks later and at a glance looked very like the sixth, though, of course all the details were altered, as were many of the things that you cannot see. It adopted the MQB platform, first seen on the Seat Leon and subsequently underpinning a vast array of VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat models, and despite being physically larger was an average of 100 kg lighter. A mild facelift in September 2016 along with a number of engineering and equipment changes have kept the car fresh ever since.
The Golf has long been Europe’s best selling car, with market dominance in Germany complemented by strong sales in all the other large car markets of Europe. It took over from the Focus, most months, as the best-selling car of its class in the UK, for instance, and sells well in Italy, too. Despite that, I’ve never managed to source a seventh generation model to test, and it looked as if the model may have morphed into the expected eighth generation car (due later in 2019 or early 2020) without me getting to sample one. And then on arrival late at night to a particularly sparsely provided with cars Hertz rental facility at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, just as I was about to take anything for the night, I spotted a couple of brand new models being parked up, ready for rent. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Golf on rental car duty in the States, as the model does not sell that strongly in America finding about 1 buyer for every 10 who prefer the Jetta, so with the irony of having to go to America to get hold of Europe’s best selling car not lost on me, I grabbed the keys and took if for a day to see what I thought.
There was no badging to tell you what engine was under the bonnet of the test car, and when I got in it, I was treated to quite a throaty sound to it, especially on accelerating away. For 2019, VW have replaced the former 1.8 litre petrol turbo engine with a slightly less powerful but more efficient 1.4 litre 147 bhp Turbo. It is a good engine, and one of many strengths of this car. Not only does it sound better than those of any of the rival cars that I would go on to test later in the same week or that I had experience on previous trips, but it does a good job at delivering surprisingly peppy acceleration to this car. The test car had the 8 speed automatic gearbox and the combination of this and the engine worked well. Put your foot down and there was no trace of turbo lag, just strong and smooth acceleration, from whatever speed. Reach the cruise, though and noise levels are very low, with wind and tyre interference also well suppressed on all but the occasional surface where there is a bit of road noise and this is a very peaceful distance companion. It is an economical one, too. I covered 153 miles and put in 4.33 gallons of fuel, computing to 35.33 mpg US or 42.2 mpg Imperial. This is very slightly less than I achieved with the Focus and Cruze models that would follow it in the test cycle, but close enough to be within parity, depending on how full the tank was at the start of the test. There is a Stop/Start system, and it worked very smoothly.
Time was that you selected a Ford Focus or a Mazda 3 if you wanted the best driving family-sized hatch, and whilst they are both fun cars on bendy roads, as a drive in a Focus would remind me a couple of days later, this Golf is awfully close to the standards they set. The steering is well weighted and has plenty of feel and feedback, and the Golf handles well, with ample grip, a controlled lack of body roll and the ability to go around corners pretty much like the Ford would do. I found it turned in very neatly on some of the twister bits of the twisty route, better than I was expecting, making it a fun car to drive. And the ride is well judged, too. It is firm enough that it does not wallow in any way, but not too firm as to shake every bone in your body. It came on 195/65 R16 alloy wheels. The brakes worked just as required. An electronic handbrake is fitted, but with an automatic car, who cares? Despite the trademark thick C pillars, visibility is generally good, with a blind sport warning light in the door mirrors to alert you to things alongside which you might not have seen. A rear-view camera is fitted, as this is now a US requirement, so judging the back of the car was easy, and its compact dimensions made it not difficult to manoeuvre anyway.
Volkswagen set the bar for interior quality high with the fourth generation Golf, causing more than one rival to revise their plans in an effort to keep up (and generally failing) and every model since has raised the standard still further. This one is no exception and even in the entry level trim of the test car, you really would believe that you were looking at a car that is far more expensive than tit is. The design is cohesive, everything fits together really well, the plastics look and feel of the highest quality and everything just feels smooth and well-built to the touch, from major controls to little things like the movement on the lid on the central armrest or the grab handles. There is a leather steering wheel, and it is orders of magnitude nicer to hold than the ones you will find in any of the Golf’s rivals. The dash design is not flamboyant or futuristic in any way and to my mind that is Good Thing. Most of the elements are shared across many products in the VW Group, but they all look like they were created for this car. The instrument cluster is a case in point. Two traditional round dials for speedo and rev counter, with smaller round dials inset in their lower portion for water temperature and fuel level are clear and far easier to read than some of the odd bar charts or gauges with lights the go out, as you see in some cars. The digital display in the centre of the instrument pack contains trip mileage and other data and you cycle through the different options by pressing buttons on the steering wheel spokes, where you will also find the audio repeater and cruise control. The latest version of the VW Group light switch is on the dash to the left of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the integrated 6.5″ touch screen for the MIB II infotainment system. This includes VW Car-Net App-Connect, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, an eight-speaker stereo, Bluetooth, and a USB port.infotainment system. As this was an entry level car, the other functions provided were limited to a load of car settings and AM/FM radio, Satellite XM and navigation not featuring. The only controls provided are an on/off and volume knob and one for manual tuning, otherwise you will need to use the touch interface, but this was not particularly burdensome. Manual air conditioning features and there are the now traditional rotary dials for this below the display screen. You still use a conventional ignition key for the S trim versions of the Golf.
Adjustment of the backrest angle of the front seats is electric, but the other movements are all manual, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement. The seats in the entry level car are cloth trimmed, and the texture was a bit on the rough side, but that probably means that it is hard-wearing and it was not unpleasant. The steering wheel telescoped in and out as well as up and down. I could certainly get very comfortable. With the seat set well forward, the central armrest is a long way back, and no real use for me (not that I want a central armrest anyway), so its main purpose would be to cover over the storage area that is under the lid. There is also a decent glovebox, pockets on the doors and there are two cupholder in the centre console.
The Golf has enough space in the rear for two full-sized adults and three would fit for shorter distances. Legroom is good when the front seats are set well forward, and sufficient if they are further back. There would seem to be ample headroom. There is a drop down central armrest with cup holders in the upper surface. and map pockets are provided on the back of the front seats, to complement the door bins for those bits and pieces.
The boot is a good size. As this was a car that I collected directly after flying, I had my suitcase with me and it fitted easily in the boot, illustrating how you could get probably three more similarly sized bags in there, under the parcel shelf. the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests fold down to create more space. The resulting load area is flat, and long.
There is a far smaller range of different Golf models available in America than you will find in European markets. all with the 5 door hatch body. As the GTi is sold without Golf badging, thanks to some slightly odd marketing, there are three engines. The regular petrol powered Golf comes in three basic trims: S, SE, and R. The electric Golf comes in two trim levels: SE and SEL Premium and then there is the Golf R at the top of the range. The Golf S, like the test car, has an MSRP of $21,845. It features the 147 bhp 1.4 litre turbo-four engine, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, a 6.5-inch touch screen, an eight-speaker sound system, a USB port, Bluetooth, a rearview camera, forward collision warning, automatic braking, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, pedestrian monitoring, rain-sensing wipers, cloth upholstery, automatic headlights, and alloy wheels. No major packages are available with this trim, though an eight-speed automatic transmission is available for $1,100. With an MSRP of $24,145, the Volkswagen Golf SE has an 8-inch touch screen, HD Radio, satellite radio, voice controls, a panoramic sunroof, proximity keyless entry, push-button start, synthetic leather upholstery, heated front seats, and larger alloy wheels. The automatic transmission remains an option. For $1,295, you can add the Driver Assistance package, which includes lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The Volkswagen e-Golf SE has a retail price of $31,895. It generally has the same features as the Golf SE, though it comes with cloth upholstery and a DC Fast Charger that recharges up to 80 percent of the battery within an hour at a fast charging station. The e-Golf SEL Premium retails for $38,895 and adds front and rear parking sensors, synthetic leather upholstery, a 9.2-inch Discovery Pro unit with navigation and gesture control, and the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit. Top of the range is the Golf R, which has an MSRP of $40,395. It comes with almost everything you can get in this Volkswagen, including all-wheel drive, the stronger 288 bhp 4 cylinder turbo engine, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, a 12-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and a Fender premium stereo.
I was very impressed by this Golf. Even though this was an entry spec car, it oozed quality, with an interior that is way better than any rival and on a par with far more expensive cars. It was good to drive, too, ceding very little in terms of dynamic competence to the Ford Focus that I would drive a couple of days later, and wiping the proverbial floor with the Chevrolet Cruze. And whilst on the small side by American standards, there is plenty of space in it for people and luggage, making it the perfect size for the rest of the world. So I thought it to be top of the class. Imagine my surprise when reading some of the US reviews to see what they thought and finding that they marked it well down. There are concerns with reliability, which clearly I cannot assess based on 1 day in a brand new rental car. Maybe the Mexican built ones are not as good as European ones, though the build quality that I could assess on this car seemed up to par. And they complain that it is expensive. Well, compared to its rivals, it is, but then the Golf has never been the bargain of the class, and that has not deterred millions of people from buying one. In rental car land, though, it is not expensive. For reasons I do not understand, it is tagged by Hertz as a Group B car (as is the Focus Hatch), which means that for the same money you could rent one of these or a bare bones spec noisy little Toyota Yaris. Why on earth anyone would do that, I cannot imagine. It is definitely the pick of that rental group. But even it were one class higher, where you will find the Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze, a handful of the rather nice Mazda3 and the occasional Subaru Impreza and Honda Civic, this would be the car to pick. l was very impressed.