New technology keeps Volkswagen’s Golf ahead of the pack
AND you thought cooking shows were competitive. There are more companies trying to sell you a small car than there are people trying to make the perfect chocolate fondant for five minutes of TV fame. The small-car class is the most competitive automotive category in the world — and represents the largest slice of the pie when it comes to sales. A new Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy might come out once a year, but there is a fresh selection on the smallcar menu almost every month. In the past six months alone we’ve seen the arrival of an overhauled Toyota Corolla and Mazda3, all-new versions of the Subaru Impreza, Holden Astra and Honda Civic, and a refreshed Kia Cerato. The next generation Hyundai i30 is just around the corner. Europe’s top-seller, the Volkswagen Golf, hasn’t been sitting idle either. The former Carsguide Car of the Year and World Car of the Year has had a makeover four years after it went on sale. Among Volkswagen aficionados the current model is referred to as the “Golf 7”, as it’s the seventh generation since 1974. What we have here is the “Golf 7.5”, a midlife update before the next full model change — common practice in the car industry to keep the range fresh. In most cases, car companies use the opportunity to add technology and/or make improvements to how the car handles the daily grind. In the case of the Golf 7.5, Volkswagen has added a heap of optional technology, given the car a nip and tuck, and adjusted the model line-up. The exterior visual changes are subtle: new headlights, front fenders, tail-lights and bumpers. When the update arrives in Australian showrooms in July, the current $22,990 driveaway base model — the awkwardly named 92TSI — will be dropped. The new base model will gain the more powerful version of the same 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine from the 110TSI (at least it’s a round number). Currently a Golf with this engine starts at $34,990. More power for the base car is the consolation for Australia not getting the new super frugal 1.5-litre turbo petrol introduced in Europe. The $22,990 starting price of the range is not expected to change radically — especially as Golf sales were down by roughly 12 per cent last year — but if you tick all the boxes on the extensive list of optional technology you will likely eclipse $40,000. Every model in the new line-up will come with automatic emergency braking (with pedestrian detection), a wider audio display screen with “pinch and swipe” functionality and 16-inch alloys rather than plastic wheel covers. This is in addition to a standard rear-view camera, remote entry and Apple Car Play and Android Auto phone projection that will continue from the current car. Optional traffic jam assistance (which will brake, accelerate and gently steer the Golf automatically up to 60km/h) is said to be a first for the small-car class. Radar cruise control will continue to be optional, but the sensor is now hidden behind the VW logo in the grille rather than a behind a blank piece of plastic in the lower bumper. Automatic lane keeping — cameras monitor line markings and make sure the car doesn’t wander — is also on the options list. A super-wide audio display (9-inch versus 8-inch) with gesture control (eliminating the need to touch the screen for certain functions) will also be available. The larger screen is a treat but the gesture control only worked some of the time on our test and was more of a distraction than a driver aid. Its big party trick is the option of a digital widescreen that replaces the instrument cluster. Taking advantage of VW’s family connections, it’s the same type of screen used in Audi and Lamborghini supercars — and an option on the latest VW Tiguan SUV. There are two grades of LED headlights: a basic design and a dearer option with intelligent high beam that doesn’t dazzle oncoming cars but still illuminates the road around them. Tech geeks will likely go gaga over the strip-thin horizontal indicators in the new LED tail-lights which scroll outwards as they illuminate — just like they do on the latest Audi and Lexus luxury cars. It all adds up to the biggest midlife facelift in the Golf’s history. VW says it’s a sign of the competitive market, rather than a plan to extend the current model cycle.
ON THE ROAD
Volkswagen seems to have subscribed to theory “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The Germans haven’t turned a
spanner on the suspension on the Golf 7.5. They didn’t need to. It was already the class benchmark, seeing off newer competition in every comparison test over the past four years. Whether this is enough to stop the Golf from being overtaken by newer rivals over the next three years or so — before the new model arrives — remains to be seen. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes the Golf so sublime to drive. It’s also hard to explain why the best brains in the car business are yet to ace Volkswagen at its own game. The Mazda3 may have sharper reflexes but is not as plush over bumps, the Astra is a big step up but still not as polished as the Golf, and the Toyota Corolla comes close but lacks the VW’s refinement. The Golf feels surefooted on patchy surfaces, and is the best in its class at pampering you during the daily grind. Inside, the cabin materials and presentation are also upmarket and of higher quality than the average fare. The new widescreen audio display is a welcome improvement, although we expect not everyone will be delighted with the absence of a volume knob — you’ve either got to tap the screen or the button on the steering wheel. Neither option is as fast as turning a dial up or down quickly with your fingertips. The engineers fought to keep the volume dial, but the designers lobbied to delete it. The designers won. And that possibly explains just how good the Golf still is. The only thing I could criticise was the lack of a volume dial.
Volkswagen has inched the bar forward, rather than raise it by any significant margin. However, when you’re at the pointy end of the field, it’s harder to make giant leaps. The Golf is still the benchmark in the class. Let’s just hope Volkswagen doesn’t get greedy on price.