What stands out?
The Volkswagen Golf is an accomplished city car that feels equally at home on freeways – and it rides more smoothly on rough roads than most other hatchbacks. Even the less costly Golfs are among the best small cars to drive, and the more expensive bring you sports-car like speed and handling. Interiors function well, all engines are easy on fuel, and auto-braking is available. This review covers cars on sale prior to the Golf 7.5 upgrade of July-August 2017.
What might bug me?
Paying more for petrol: all petrol-engine Golfs require premium unleaded.
Driving at less than 80km/h on the space-saver spare, until you can fix your full-size flat tyre.
Driving auto Golfs in stop-start traffic. The dual-clutch transmissions fitted to Golf automatics do not provide the fluid, elastic take-up from rest that you get from a traditional automatic or gearbox or a CVT.
That Volkswagen was forced to admit in September 2015 that it had fitted millions of its diesel cars with devices designed to cheat tests for harmful exhaust emissions. However, the company subsequently offered a recall program, and said it had upgraded the engines in new diesel Golfs so that they complied fully with anti-pollution laws.
What body styles are there?
Five-door hatchback, and five-door wagon.
The wagon body is about 30mm longer than the hatchback body, and the extra length is all in the boot.
(There is also a higher-riding Golf Alltrack wagon with all-wheel drive. The Alltrack is not covered in this review.)
All Golfs but one are front-wheel drive. The Golf R drives the rear wheels also, when it decides extra grip is required. Golfs are classed as small cars, lower priced.
What features do all versions have?
Cruise control, a speed limiter (to prevent you from inadvertently picking up a speeding fine), and a decent Bluetooth-enabled sound system.
A 6.5-inch colour touchscreen for controlling audio and phone functions (among other uses).
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which work with Apple and Android phones. If you plug your phone in through the USB socket, many of its apps – including mapping and music – are mirrored on the touchscreen display and can be controlled from there.
A reversing camera.
Tyre pressure sensors. These tell you when a tyre has lost pressure, so that you can stop driving on it and have it repaired before it goes flat. (The spare tyre on every Golf is a skinnier space-saver, with a recommended top speed of 80km/h.)
Stop-start engine technology, which can automatically switch off the engine when stationary and refire it when you apply the accelerator. That saves fuel in the city.
A fatigue alert, which monitors steering wheel movement and sounds a warning if that suggests the driver is falling asleep.
Automatic multi-collision braking. This applies the brakes after an initial collision, in the hope of avoiding or mitigating a secondary impact. For example, it might prevent your drifting into an oncoming lane after being hit from behind.
Seven airbags: two directly in front of the driver and passenger; one on the outer side of each front occupant to protect the upper body; a curtain airbag on each side to protect the heads of front and rear passengers; and finally an airbag at knee level for the driver.
Electronic stability control, which can help the driver avoid and recover from skids. All new cars must have this feature.
All Golfs are warrantied for three years, with no limit on kilometres travelled over that period.
Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?
The most fuel-efficient engine available on a Golf is the 2.0 litre turbocharged diesel, which consumes as little as 4.7 litres/100km (city and country driving combined) in official tests.
This muscular engine makes the most sense for those wanting to travel big kilometres. However it is available only in the 110TDI Highline, which is the most expensive of the regular Golfs.
The engine in the least expensive Golf, the 92TSI, is a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol that is also impressively frugal, consuming 5.4 litres/100km when matched to the seven-speed auto gearbox.
In real-world comparison testing for the January 2017 edition of Wheels magazine, a Golf 92TSI averaged 7.7 litres/100km, placing it among the most frugal of 12 small cars reviewed. Just remember that like all Golf petrol engines, it requires premium fuel.
Those who value more performance can step up to the 110TSI. It uses the same sized engine as the 92 but it is fitted with a bigger turbocharger that generates up to 25 per cent more power but without consuming much more fuel.
The sports-oriented Golf GTI and Golf R similarly share a bigger, 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol engine, but with the R’s engine tuned to deliver more power. Both use significantly more fuel than the smaller engines, with the GTI the less thirsty (expect a real-world average of 9-10 litres/100km, falling towards 7 litres/100km for highway cruising). The payoff? The Golf R makes roughly twice as much power as the base-model Golf 90, and the GTI is nearly as strong.
The six- or seven-speed DSG automatic transmission offered with Golfs operates more like a computer-controlled manual gearbox than like a traditional automatic. That fluid, elastic feeling with which a traditional auto moves off from a standstill is missing, replaced by a power take-up that can feel sharp or jerky – especially if you need to lift off and then reapply throttle.
Once on the move, shifting is exceptionally smooth and fast, and the DSG design is very fuel-efficient. Most Golfs are also available with a six-speed manual ’box.
What key features do I get if I spend more?
The least expensive Golf, the 92TSI, rolls on 15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers.
Pay more for the 92TSI Trendline and you get wheels in the same size but made from aluminium alloy, which look nicer than steel and are lighter. You also get front and rear parking sensors, which help you judge the distance to obstacles. Windscreen wipers operate automatically when it rains, and the headlamps switch on automatically in low light.
Spend more again on a 92TSI Comfortline and you get bigger, 16-inch wheels, shod with wider and shallower – or lower profile – tyres. These quicken steering response slightly and add grip. Various trim touches help the cabin feel nicer. Dual-zone air-conditioning lets the driver and passenger set temperatures independently. And there is satellite navigation.
On Highline models the alloy wheels grow to 17 inches and the tyres get wider again. The cabin is trimmed in leather, and the front seats are heated. Keyless access allows you to unlock and start with car while your key remains safe in a pocket or bag. And you get either the more powerful 110TSI petrol engine or the 110TDI diesel.
The sports-oriented Golf GTI rolls on 18-inch wheels with the same width but still shallower tyres. Its most relevant additional feature is the much stronger, 2.0 litre engine. Seats are sports versions but covered in cloth. Headlamps are extremely bright, bi-Xenon units.
The Golf GTI Performance increases the wheel size to 19 inches and adds a front differential lock, which improves drive when accelerating hard out of corners, as well as auto-dipping headlamps. Trim is suede-look Alcantara.
At the top of the performance tree is the Golf R, with the most powerful engine, 19-inch wheels and yet wider tyres, adjustable suspension and all-wheel drive. The interior trim is leather and the front seats are heated.
An option on most Golf variants is a Driver Assistance Package. That includes automatic cruise control (which matches your speed to a vehicle ahead), automatic emergency braking (which helps you avoid rear-end collisions below 30km/h), and automatic parking (which steers the car into place). Cost is about $1300.
A commemorative, limited-run variant of the Golf GTI, named the Golf GTI 40 Years, has auto cruise control and auto braking standard, as well as a significant power boost and cosmetic enhancements.
Does any upgrade have a down side?
Wider, lower-profile tyres on bigger wheels ride more roughly and cost more to replace. High-performance tyres on the sportier models are likely to wear faster.
How comfortable is it?
Inside, the theme is stylish yet practical, with clean metal finishes breaking the formality of the dark plastics. There are ample storage areas, from the covered centre binnacle to the generous glovebox. Seats are supportive, with some firmness that helps over long distances. The cabin is impressively hushed at speed, when the car feels smooth and refined.
Around town the Golf is a cinch to steer, with a refreshing lightness and ease of manoeuvrability.
What sets the Golf apart from rivals is the ease with which it deals with poor road surfaces, of which Australia has plenty. A suburban pothole or grate does little to upset its demeanour, while a large bump in the middle of a high speed corner is handled with eerie assurance.
The GTI and R receive a stiffer suspension tune than regular Golf models, but it never jars and is surprisingly compliant in its softest Comfort mode.
What about safety?
The high level of standard safety equipment, which includes a reversing camera, means all Golfs rate well for safety. Excellent vision helps the driver relax, and the optional automatic emergency braking offers a safety net around town.
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the Golf its maximum safety score of five stars.
I like driving - will I enjoy this car?
Golfs have always been at the pointy end of the small-car field when it comes to driving enjoyment, and the latest Golf 7 is no exception. The Golf sets the class benchmark for fluid yet responsive steering, cornering poise and overall agility.
The turbocharger endows even the 92TSI’s engine with hearty pulling power from very low in the rev range. The peppier 110TSI is surprisingly adept at overtaking at freeway speeds, helped by the Golf’s light weight.
The 110TDI is more responsive again. Occasionally from the diesel you feel a bit of vibration.
Driving through all four wheels, the Golf R is a reassuring and deceptively quick hot hatch. It punches brilliantly out of corners and has immense flexibility across its rev range.
Throw in a rorty exhaust note with some popping and crackling during gearchanges and the R is a tantalising package. Acceleration to 100km/h is claimed at 5.0 seconds – that’s very quick.
Impressively, the Golf GTI is not far off. While it drives only the front wheels, it does so with convincing grip, brought about by clever electronics that work as an electronic limited-slip differential to improve drive. It is also lighter than the R by about 100kg.
The GTI Performance raises the front-drive grip another notch, and is a great alternative to the R.
Yet the GTI and Golf R are equally at home when making city life that little bit more enjoyable.
How is life in the rear seats?
The Golf’s truncated exterior hides a clever interior that offers generous rear leg room, and thoughtful touches such as rear air-conditioning vents (they’re not common at this end of the market).
How is it for carrying stuff?
Boots on the hatchbacks are well proportioned and do not shy away from bulky items such as a pram. Rear seat backs fold forward to add load space with a 60/40 split.
The wagon stretches the regular hatchback body by about 30cm. All of the extra length is in the boot, where there is half again as much usable space: it grows from 380 litres to 605 litres.
Where is it made?
Australian Golf 7s were built in Germany.
What might I miss that similar cars have?
The Mazda3 offers a blind-spot warning and (on Astina versions only) high-speed auto emergency braking. It also has a head-up display on some models, projecting a speedo closer to the driver’s line of sight.
Among other Golf alternatives are the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai i30, Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Kia Cerato.
High performance alternatives to the Golf GTi and Golf R include the Subaru WRX, Ford Focus ST, Peugeot 308 GTi, Audi S3 and Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport.
I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?
Our reviewers like the Golf GTI. All Golfs have a functional interior and great driving dynamics. The GTI adds brilliant performance.
When did Volkswagen update this Golf?
The Golf 7 (denoting the seventh generation) went on sale in 2013. An update that arrived in the third quarter of 2015 brought slightly more power to the 1.4-litre petrol engines, with matching changes to the model names: the 90TSI gained 2kW and became the 92TSI, while the 103TSI gained 7kW and was renamed the 110TSI. That update also equipped the Golfs with bigger touchscreens, better multimedia features (including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), and more equipment on some models.
In July 2017 Volkswagen introduced a mid-life facelift that it called the Golf 7.5. It offered only 110kW petrol and diesel engines, and auto braking was standard. Facelifted Golf GTIs and Golf Rs arrived in August 2017, again with auto-braking standard.