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Driven - new VW Golf raises the bar

By Denis Droppa, in Sardinia

It’s joked that the most overpaid people in the motor industry are the designers of the Porsche 911 and Volkswagen Golf, given how little the styling of these cars changes from generation to generation.

But the truth is these designers probably have among the industry’s most stressful jobs as they have the responsibility of ensuring that super-successful cars and market leaders in their categories continue doing exactly that. And the one thing you don’t do with an icon like the Golf, which has sold more than 29 million units in the past 38 years, is radically redesign the shape and risk alienating its loyal customer base.

AT EASE WITH ITSELF

So critics can argue that the new seventh-generation Golf looks too much like its predecessor, but it’s precisely this conservative and evolutionary styling strategy that has played a large part in the Golf’s long-lived success. It gives a sense of continuity, a car at ease with itself, as VW design chief Walter de Silva puts it.

VW believes a Golf should be instantly recognisable from 200m away, and with that familiar silhouette and unmistakably wide C-pillar, version Seven looks right at home in the Golf family photo album.

But it’s also had enough of a redesign to stand out as an all-new car instead of a facelift. The wheelbase is stretched by 59mm to push the front wheels forward and give the car a more “premium” cab-rear design, while the nose and tail have been given the obligatory tweaks to render a handsome reinterpretation of an icon.

LIGHTER, ROOMIER

If VW has played the outer wrapping mostly by the numbers, the stuff underneath gets a slightly more intensive reworking. In contrast to the usual size-and-weight-increase package deal, VW has made Golf 7 a little roomier but around 100kg lighter.

The engines are more powerful and simultaneously more fuel-efficient, and the car gets new technologies that have filtered down from the premium segment including active cruise control, second-generation Dynamic Chassis Control which softens and stiffens the dampers, fatigue detection, and lane assist, among others.

The chassis has been completely reworked for improved ride quality and roadholding, and every Golf 7 now employs the traction-enhancing XDS electronic front diff lock that was previously reserved for the high-performance GTI. A new option in the latest Golf is a function on the touch-screen to select one of four driver modes: Eco, Sport, Normal and Individual, and a fifth Comfort mode with the DSG transmission.

GTI IN JULY

The aforementioned weight-saving’s been achieved without using exotic and expensive materials like aluminium or magnesium, which has allowed the new car to be launched in Germany at the same price as the outgoing Golf 6, and hopefully this will apply to South Africa too when the Golf 7 is introduced here at the end of January. The car will debut here in four engine versions initially, followed by the GTI in July.

Trimming mass by, for instance, using thinner but higher-strength body steel in places hasn’t imbued the car with any cheaper or less solid feel. On the contrary, the new Golf has made even further strides in reducing noise, vibration and harshness – an area where its predecessor already excelled.

VW’s evergreen hatch delivered no surprises when I drove it at the international media launch in Sardinia last week. We’ve come to expect a certain elevated level of refinement and driveability, and the newcomer raises the bar even higher. No matter what surface condition or direction change the road offered up, the car dealt with it with the unflustered air of a swan gliding over a calm pond.

The Golf’s celebrated agility has moved up yet another notch, allowing the car to be hurried through twisty tar with confidence.

TURBO ACROSS THE BOARD

In the quest for power with leaner consumption, all Golf 7 engines are now turbocharged. When the car arrives here in January the normally-aspirated 75kW/148Nm 1.6 petrol will fall away as the baseline, to be replaced by a 1.2-litre turbo with a stronger 77kW and 175Nm – and notably this output will be on offer at all altitudes.

The four-engine range will be completed by a 1.4-litre petrol in 90kW/200Nm and 103kW/250Nm guises, as well as a 110kW/320Nm 2.0 diesel.

Transmission choices are six-speed manual or DSG dual-clutch automatic (in either six- or seven-speed, depending on the engine it’s paired with).

PICK OF THE LITTER

Of the two cars I drove, the 2.0 diesel was the pick of the litter with its effortless midrange torque, and VW credits it with a 0-100km/h ability of 8.6 seconds and a 216km/h top speed, along with a distinct lack of thirst at 4.1 litres per 100km (4.4 litres for the DSG).

However, the 103kW 1.4 petrol wasn’t far behind. It’s rated at a slightly quicker 0-100 time of 8.4sec and a very useful 212km/h top speed, but just slightly lags behind the diesel version in overtaking punch. It sips petrol at the rate of 5.2 litres per 100km, or 4.7 litres if you opt for the optional ACT (Active Cylinder Technology) version which deactivates two of the cylinders to save fuel when the engine’s not under load.

Seating space is roomy and comfortable in the slightly enlarged cabin while the boot’s grown by a useful 30 litres. The cabin eschews any styling fireworks and follows VW’s time-honoured recipe of a premium feel with calm elegance, although functionality improves with a new touch-screen interface that’s standard on every Golf 7.

The car will probably sell millions, as usual. -Star Motoring

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