If Darwin (along with a million other smart people) was right then the fittest survive. In its seventh generation that makes the new Volkswagen Golf one of the alpha males. But many others are vying for dominance.
In Europe you’ll see the Golf everywhere. A nice game on road trips to keep the backpacking hitchhikers quiet is ‘Spot the Camry’. Their eyes will be peeled on the roadside all the way across France in blissful silence. Europe is hatchback land, not D-segment land, and the reason is clear: the Golf is all the car you’ll ever need. More car — much, much more car — than the Camry, Altima, beige-as-granny-stockings Chrysler 200, and the list goes on. It has plastic inside, but it’s the kind of plastic that makes the leather in these Japanese, American and Korean econo-saloons look and feel like roadkill hide.
It has better, more precise steering, it’s relatively an F12 Berlinetta when it comes to handling a bunch of corners, it costs less, it’s just as quick and safe, it’s comparatively spacious inside with a large boot and proper alloy spare wheel, it’s loaded with everything you need and seats five grown-ups, plus it’s not rubbish.
The D-segment is fiercely contested with ever-more ultra-competitive models, but every time I drive one of those disposable appliances a million brain cells up in my petrolhead commit suicide. It then takes an 86/Cayman/M3 to remind me why I love these steel boxes on wheels so much. If I had to buy an econo-saloon, it would be the easiest choice I’d ever make. What’s the closest dealership to my house? Right, Hyundai Sonata it is, then...
A recent US survey asked what consumers want in their next new car, and the majority of respondents prioritised safety, value, fuel economy, and styling. That last one is the Golf’s only drawback. It looks like, in essence, a child designed it. Not a gearhead child that crayons ten-foot exhaust pipes on everything.
A normal child, with a bright Camry-driving future ahead of it. Kids are very good at recognising and sticking to just the key features — when they draw a cat it has only the basics; a smile, legs, eyes and a tail. It’s exactly the same with this new Golf; it has wheels, doors, lights and windows. VW’s press material reserves precisely 2,312 words just for the new Golf’s design, which frankly must be some sort of world record in overemphasis. They could’ve just said, “The new Mk7 Golf looks like a car.” There’s absolutely nothing special about its styling but, you know, it has a great personality...”
The biggest reason for that is that Volkswagen didn’t rummage around in the back and dust off a previous generation platform, as is the norm in the D-segment whenever an ‘all-new’ saloon is launched. Wolfsburg instead went and dropped $70 billion (yes, billion, and seventy of them) into a new MQB platform over a long-term investment. This modular platform simplifies production — all of the Group’s front-wheel drive, front-engined cars will have one, with identical engine and transmission mounting points for any combination of powertrain and drivetrain — but also lowers weight.
The Golf Mk7 can tip the scales at up to 100kg less than its predecessor, depending on how much you skimp on the options list. But very meaningful weight savings abound — VW shed 400g with the dashboard thanks to a new thermoplastic foam injection process; the part beneath the dash saves 1.4kg; the air-conditioning system is 2.7kg lighter (and crucially 5dB quieter); and the seats cut 7kg.
One taste of the new progressive steering system and you’ll feel every burnt calorie. This new Golf is eager to follow your every command, so long as you don’t command it to run an eight-minute lap of the ’Ring. Everywhere else it’s predictable and properly fun to chuck about, even if it’s only a lowly 1.4 TSI model on some 16in Bridgestones.
The front end leans in and keeps tucking into the turn with more steering angle, but the safe and approachable handling limits are surpassed by the new Golf’s other trick: it balances ride quality with grip like no other hatchback on the market today, nor D-segment saloon. You can crest speed bumps without touching the brakes thanks to generous tyre sidewall, and the ride comfort is further exemplified with excellent noise and vibration suppression. It is only beyond 140kph that wind roar creeps into the cabin.
That 1.4-litre four-cylinder is small in stature, but it’s simply the best small turbo engine in the world at the moment. The DSG seven-speed ’box hesitates at times due to an anticipated lack of torque as the revs drop after a gear change, and this can get annoying, but there’s always a token sport mode. This is by no means a fast or quick car in a straight line (and exiting tighter corners the throttle pedal will dilly-dally with putting your intentions forward), but I never once needed more than the engine’s 138bhp, mostly because the turbocharged gush of torque at lower revs kept me going just fine.
Although the power plummets as you crest 100kph, and further acceleration gets strained. Still, you will have no problems seeing a fuel economy average per 100km in the mid-six litres, and no matter how much I caned the poor thing around town it wouldn’t budge over 9.5 litres.
The interior has a base-spec Audi thing going on, especially with the dash design, but the key update is the great multifunctional steering wheel with much-improved cruise control functions, as well as a completely revised infotainment system. Every car gets touchscreen as standard, and everything in the system has been redesigned and refined in terms of intuitive use — and keep in mind that the old VW system was still possibly the best in the business.
The handbrake is electronic, which I hate almost as much as CVTs, especially when it decides it should engage just because I’ve started the car, on a level surface. But that’s it, at Dh93,500 the TSI Golf is all you need. Unless you still haven’t evolved, convinced that a V6 in a rubbish saloon is the way to go.