Volkswagen Golf (2012 - 2019) review - Engines, performance and drive
Golfs span every taste, from a mild-mannered shopping car to a fire-breathing hot hatch
The Volkswagen Golf has always delivered high levels of comfort, refinement and handling poise, and the facelifted Mk7 is no exception. Enter a series of corners, where the Golf responds swiftly to the direct and well-weighted steering. There’s also bags of grip and rock-solid body control, which make the VW a confidence-inspiring machine. Better still, this agility is matched to impressive refinement and comfort. The ride isn’t as soft as a Renault Megane’s, but it’s better controlled over big bumps, while engine, wind and road noise are isolated from the cabin.
This is particularly true of the 1.5 EcoTSI petrol that comes as part of the Mk7’s revisions. The 148bhp version is astonishingly refined; indeed, at motorway speeds, even the Golf’s low levels of wind and road noise do become audible, just because the engine has faded so far into the background.
Regardless of engine, the Golf is almost ghost-like over bumps; it just glides over them. Progress can be made even more fluid by choosing the adaptive damping system as an option. They are around £850, but broaden the VW’s ability by adding more passenger comfort without compromising the overall dynamic ability and the chassis’s precision.
The direct and well-weighted steering means the Volkswagen responds well on turn-in, plus there’s plenty of grip and good body control. It’s not quite as engaging to drive quickly as a Honda Civic, but there’s not much in it. The real strength of the Golf is the way it blends that ability with refinement and comfort; it rides more smoothly than a Peugeot 308 in particular, absorbing bumps in the road surface admirably.
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Volkswagen fits all Golf models with over 118bhp with a more sophisticated multilink rear axle to help improve handling – although in most situations the standard torsion beam set-up feels nearly as composed. The small wheels and thick tyre sidewalls on entry-level versions make it a superbly cossetting car for the money.
With the exception of the five-speed manual in the entry-level 1.6 TDI, the standard gearbox across the Golf range is a six-speed manual. But one key switch of the 2017 facelift was the phasing out of the old six-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic in favour of a smoother-shifting seven-speed unit across all models.
If fun is top of your priority list, then opt for a GTD, GTE, GTI or R version. The GTD offers plenty of torque for effortless overtaking. Don't be fooled by the GTE though: despite the name, it's no hot hatch. It's faster in a straight line than the GTD, but the added weight means it's not much fun in the corners.
True performance fans will be drawn to the flagship R model. Available as a hatchback or an estate, the Golf R gets 306bhp and four-wheel drive, so it feels very sharp to drive and packs a tremendous amount of grip.
However, for most keen drivers, the legendary Volkswagen Golf GTI delivers an ideal mix of performance, value and fun. Standard cars now get 227bhp as part of the 2017 facelift, although you can get an extra 15bhp on top of that, and a limited-slip front differential, by choosing the Performance Pack.
We'd recommend going for the (hardly costly) Performance Pack, offering a trademark GTI blend of fun performance, agility and everyday usability, but with a more focused driving experience on the limit.
The GTE hybrid is less of a hot hatch to drive, mainly thanks to the additional weight of the powertrain harming responses in the bends. It's not as quick or as characterful as the GTI, either, but it does impress when you take it easy with its efficiency and smooth, silent town driving.
The revised Golf features a few new engines, but most of the line-up remains intact. It's also still the only mainstream car on sale that offers the choice of petrols, diesels, a plug-in hybrid and a full-EV.
The petrol engines are badged TSI and they start as small as a 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit producing just 84bhp (it replaced the old 1.2). It's not as slow as you might expect thanks to a turbocharger, and it's exceptionally smooth.
The 84bhp unit is available in S trim only, though; to best combine power, efficiency, kit and price, you’ll need to step up to its more powerful 1.0 sibling which offers 109bhp. It retains the refinement of the base car, but adds useful extra punch for overtaking or carrying heavier loads.
This three-cylinder 1.0-litre petrol was previously only available on the ultra-efficient BlueMotion. Despite its diminutive capacity, the turbocharged engine puts on a strong display. We recorded a 0-60mph time of 9.6 seconds in one, which was half a second faster than a more powerful 1.0-litre turbo Honda Civic, while it had a larger-capacity Renault Megane 1.2 TCe beaten during our in-gear assessments. For instance, it covered the fourth gear 30-50mph increment in 5.6 seconds, which was 1.1 seconds ahead of the Megane.
On the road, the Golf feels more lively as its more powerful rivals, pulling smoothly and eagerly from as little as 1,500rpm, even in the higher gears. With 200Nm of torque at just 2,000rpm, there’s little need to work the smooth engine hard – but the unit will spin sweetly to the 6,000rpm red line.
The 1.5 TSI Evo engine is part of VW’s powertrain offensive and a concerted push towards petrol in the wake of the Dieselgate emissions scandal. It replaced the 1.4 TSI petrol, but boasts the same power output of 148bhp. It feels strong as well, thanks to its maximum 250Nm of torque from as low as 1,500rpm. In a car weighing 1,294kg, it gives a good deal of flexibility, as the VW pulls strongly from the bottom end.
When we tested the 1.5 TSI Golf against a 1.4 turbo Vauxhall Astra, the VW was quicker than the Astra from 50 to 70mph in top gear, completing this acceleration test in 8.7 seconds compared with 9.2 seconds for the Vauxhall. The difference is partly because the Astra’s 245Nm comes in slightly higher than the Volkswagen’s, at 2,000rpm, so once the 1.4 turbo engine drops off the boost it takes longer for it to pick up and get into its stride.
In the lower gears, where the Vauxhall’s revs were higher, the Astra was faster than the Golf. The VW accelerated between 30 and 50mph in third and fourth gears in 4.2 and 5.5 seconds respectively, whereas the Astra needed only 3.9 and 5.4 seconds for the same test.
The 2.0-litre petrol power is all reserved for the GTI and R models, with outputs from 244bhp to 306bhp.
On the diesel side, there’s a 1.6 with 114bhp that’s available right across the Golf range. It’s capable enough for most uses, but if you want something with a little more guts (and a little less noise), VW offers a 2.0 diesel producing 148bhp and barely any more CO2. There’s also a potent 181bhp 2.0, but it’s reserved for the GTD.
The GTE plug-in hybrid mixes a 1.4-litre petrol and an electric motor for a combined output of 201bhp, while the e-Golf has been given a more efficient battery as part of the 2017 facelift, so it now promises 186 miles on a single charge. It's as smooth and easy to drive as it's always been, but with improved fast charging - you can now top it up to 80 per cent in 45 minutes with a fast charger, while a 21bhp power upgrade means it feels more sprightly than before.
In this review
- 1VerdictThe Volkswagen Golf continues to be an impressive all-rounder that justifies its price premium over family hatchback rivals
- 2Engines, performance and drive - currently readingGolfs span every taste, from a mild-mannered shopping car to a fire-breathing hot hatch
- 3MPG, CO2 and Running CostsAdvanced engine tech means most versions in the Golf range are very efficient, offsetting the high initial purchase cost
- 4Interior, design and technologyIt doesn't look or feel very exciting, but the Golf is well made and well equipped. The latest infotainment system can be fiddly, though
- 5Practicality, comfort and boot spaceDecent space inside the cabin and the boot make the Golf a solid family car choice
- 6Reliability and SafetyTop-notch safety is a big plus point, but the Golf might not be as reliable as VW would have you imagine