FIRST DRIVE | We tell you what it's like to pilot the VW Golf 8
Porto, Spain: The Volkswagen Golf Mark 8 has arrived, reasserting its place as the world’s best hatchback and raising the bar in the class considerably.
The Golf Mark 7 (really, the facelifted Mk 7.5) was still almost certainly the best hatchback in the world, but it was hearing footsteps from the Mazda3 and Ford Focus.
The Golf was also under threat internally, with the similar-sized ID.3 electric car swallowing billions of euros in VW’s investment, including taking the new Golf’s traditional pride of place at the Frankfurt motor show.
But if VW walked a fine public line between perceived sustainability and the cars people actually buy, its engineering division didn’t. It threw everything it could at the Golf Mk 8.
The interior, all touchscreen and sliders and digital surfaces, could easily have outrun the ability of older buyers to operate it, but it mostly hasn’t. It could have looked tacky and flimsy, too, but it enhances the interior’s quality, rather than detracting from it.
It’s easy to use, far more intuitive than it might have been and brilliantly clear to see and understand. Within 10 minutes we’d found everything, at least once.
The engines are crisp and cleaner than ever, and they’re about to get cleaner than that, even, with the pending arrival of both mild-hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions.
The whole car smacks of a unity and an integrity that is rare to find and harder to engineer, all rooted in a chassis that has taken an almost inconceivable leap forward.
Updates to the Modular Transverse Matrix (MQB) chassis have delivered crisper, more accurate, more nuanced steering and a more secure, confidence-inspiring front-end feel, along with a gentler, calmer ride.
Well, that was the case for the cars we tested, which were all fitted with the multilink independent rear suspension (the entry cars have a beam rear end and passive dampers to go with the MacPherson strut front end).
If anything stands out it’s the competence and sheer breadth of ability of its chassis and the way it rides and handles.
The Golf keeps the usual stability and ride quality and “heavy” on-road feel, but now has a sharp turn-in, flatter body control and more enthusiastic effort from the rear on direction changes.
The biggest news, though, is at the front end. The optional adaptive dampers and direct steering (fitted to all the launch cars) give the Golf Mk 8 an agility lacking even in the Mk 7’s GTi versions.
The direct steering pulls the lock-to-lock turns down from 2.75 to just 2.1, and in the corners it responds with tremendous enthusiasm to any suggestions from the steering.
A big part of this now is the adaptive damping. It has another trick up its sleeve, with its Individual setting allowing for even softer damping than the preprogrammed “Comfort” setting and its range slides all the way up to a harder dynamic setup than the preprogrammed “Dynamic” setting.
It’s a mature piece of engineering. It’s unfailingly accurate to the driver’s inputs, and it can be placed wherever you want it to. Its body roll is beautifully controlled and it is entertaining to throw around.
It’s assured on highway cruising, too, and proves very resistant to crosswinds and undulations and generally behaving like a much larger machine than it is, and its bump absorption has improved at all speeds.
It scores so much electrickery that it feels like a luxury car inside.
Its driver assistance systems are comprehensive, allowing it to use its combination of adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and autonomous emergency braking to deliver “hands-free” driving at up to 210km/h.
It’s also the first VW model with Car2X, the always-on technology that allows it to listen in (over WiFi) to fast-arriving emergency vehicles or even road infrastructure at construction sites or trouble zones, then it warns the driver.
There’s a wildly styled front end (for a Golf), with the narrow LED headlights pumping out aggression and hints of athleticism in a nose that is much lower than before.
Its suite of driver assistance systems is comprehensive — right up there with the best from Audi or Benz — and astonishing for the price.
That interior, though. The instant you step inside, it’s unmistakable that the game has changed at VW and, therefore, it will change for everybody else in the class, too.
That cockpit doesn’t dominate like you’d think it should, even though the instrument cluster is digital and the infotainment screen is now on the same level. It’s not quite an A-Class’s screen, but it’s not far behind it.
It’s also obvious that the Golf is being aimed at a younger buyer than it ever has, because the 26cm instrument cluster screen can be switched between four views (BMW gives you just one …) via a button on the steering wheel.
It’s easy to use. It’s faster and simpler to find the driver-assistance systems than it was, to change the temperature or volume via the slider beneath the screen or to find any of the digital functions in the car.
There’s also an advanced voice-control system for people who prefer not to be distracted by touchscreens while driving.
There’s a full-time SIM cars in it, too, and it’s always connected to the internet so it can stream traffic information in real time, as well as music.
Ambient lighting is fitted throughout the cabin and it switches colour with changes in driving modes.
It’s not a lot bigger inside overall, even though rear-seat legroom was one of the Golf’s shortcomings to some of its rivals.
It retains the old wheelbase, though it’s 29mm longer overall than it was and 10mm wider, though just 4mm taller. Its luggage space is good, but not overwhelming, with 380l of capacity with the seats locked into place and 1,237l with them folded down.
We used two engines on the launch drive: the 110kW eTSI mild-hybrid version of the 1.5l petrol four-cylinder and the 110kW version of the 2.0l TDI, but that’s not all that’s coming.
There will be five hybrid models in all, including a pair of plug-in hybrids, each with more than 70km of pure electric range, and another three mild hybrids.
First, the 110kW petrol motor, with 250Nm of torque, feels a lot stronger than it sounds.
It’s a smooth, smooth motor, too, and mates with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
It is strong down low, and reaches 100km/h in 8.5 seconds with either transmission and tops out at 224km/h.
The mild-hybrid system ensures that it doesn’t need more torque than the engine delivers, because the integrated starter-generator gives it all the extra boost it needs at low revs.
There’s just no need to smash the throttle all the time, because the boost from the 48V system helps even when you don’t notice it.
The diesel doesn’t score that technology but it’s cleaner and stronger than it was, with 360Nm of torque. It’s quieter and more flexible, too, reaching 100km/h in 8.8 seconds.
It is clear that the Golf Mk 8 is a huge step forward from the Mk 7, and probably more of a step forward in the handling and ride than it has any objective right to be.
The frightening part for everyone else is that just as they felt they were closing in, the Golf has eased away from them all over again.
The new eighth-generation Golf will go on sale in SA in late 2020.