IAIN ROBERTSON 

As the world’s largest carmaker, you might fairly expect VW to get its products absolutely right, highlights Iain Robertson, but he has started to doubt the integrity of some aspects of Teutonic engineering, as he tries to place a finger on them.

When a product, service, or individual arrives on whatever scene might happen to relevant at any given time, as long as they are ‘the first’, the innovator, the ground-breaker, the one that sets a fresh trend that can only ever be upheld, or modified, by them, only then can the descriptive term ‘icon’ be used in direct relationship. Today’s youth is far too superficial and ill-educated to appreciate the tenor of that statement and their misuse, even abuse, of that word drives me sometimes to distraction.

In 1974, launched by a car company that had been forced into producing a ‘people’s car’ for pre-WW2 political reasons, followed post-war by a continuation of a car (the ‘Kaefer’, or Beetle) that became the world’s best-selling single model that was equally political, Volkswagen was presented with little choice but to introduce a ground-breaker. The Golf was born. Apart from being front-driven, it was so radically different to anything that the company had produced before and the Wolfsburg company, 46 years ago, leant heavily on the design skills of Turin-based Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Even investigating the latest iteration of the Golf in Mark 7.5 form, while so much larger than the Ur-Golf, in much the same proportion that the BMW Mini is over the Issigonis original, the direct links between the two versions are still obvious. It has certainly been produced in so many versions and variants around the world that it can only be described fairly as an icon. As a previous owner of an original Golf, I can tell you that the latest iteration, apart from its increased size, is significantly heavier but a million miles removed from being an equivalent driving experience.

Stick with me on this, because I do not dislike the latest Golf but I was not as enamoured by it as I had hoped I would be. After all, the exceptionally focused Golf R, in its present form, is a real star turn. Of course, it is markedly different to the original R version but customers do pay through the eye teeth for the privilege of owning one and I am not suggesting that it is a ‘rip-off’, rather that I just cannot afford one…it is petty envy on my part!

Powered by the latest 1.5-litre, 147bhp petrol engine, hooked up to a 6-speed manual gearbox, its list price of £24,280 is a surprise, albeit not one as steep as the £31,640 of the car ‘as tested’, complete with lane assist, light assist and traffic sign recognition (adds £630), LED headlamps (£1,285), climate control (£415), hide upholstery (£1,900), electric adjustment of driver’s seat (£325), keyless entry (£365), heated front screen (£295), TFT dashboard (£495), rear-view camera (£265) and the fancy yellow paint-job (£570). Caution is advised when ticking the options boxes, because that is one heck of a sum of money for a 1500cc Golf.

Yet, we all know that car prices are exorbitant at the moment, partly, in this case, as VW is funding its exhaust emissions’ misdemeanours and the massive under-writing of early period PCPs. It is all very well for VW personnel to suggest that their products represent ‘good value’, when they run company supplied hardware and are not spending their own funds on the latest Golf model. Unless the car is funded by somebody else, its invoice value will affect a lot of potential buyers. Unusually, perhaps, it is not the monetary exchange that is preoccupying my concerns about the latest Golf.

For what it is worth, my gradually increasing, middle-aged girth of the past few years is dwindling slowly but surely, as my current diet takes effect. I tell you this, because a number of motorcars have been put off-limits to me in recent years and I wanted to remedy a situation that I felt was untenable personally. No Golf has ever been that tight on space that, even in my bulkiest hey-day, I was unable to fit comfortably. For some reason, the electric driver’s seat adjustment on the options’ list seems to have compromised my driving position in the test car. I could fit comfortably enough but my head was much closer to the headlining and my legroom seemed much tighter than before. Considering that hip-height access and depth of front seat movement in most VW models has always been exceptionally well-considered, it highlights that something else has taken place in, or below, that front command perch, that clearly does not agree with my dimensions.

However, my gravest concern surrounds the altered dynamic balance of the Golf’s previously renowned ‘chassis’. It was a situation exacerbated by the lightness of the power steering and an inability for the suspension to absorb bumps with the fluency of other Golf models I have driven even in the past six months. I did try to ‘individualise’ the adjustable suspension and Eco, Normal and Sport dynamic vehicle settings but to no avail, the same ‘instability’ was inherent to this car. It was manifested in straight-line directional behaviour, which was not as good as it ought to have been, requiring more micro-corrections than I care to remember. Bump absorption was also less effective, the car crashing unsettlingly on road surface imperfections, in a manner I have not noticed before in a Golf.

Whether, or not, this is partly due to the ‘semi-autonomous driver aids’ fitted to the test car is my question. While we all appreciate that autonomous motoring is coming our way and that there is little we can do to resist it, I fear that introducing some of the devices is slowly but surely destroying the driving pleasures once intrinsic to certain cars. The Golf being a case in point. For as long as I feel it is possible, I would never specify the Lane Assist device, which is where I believe the issues exist.

Yet, the automatic headlamp control was fascinating, even though it did encourage other road-users to be distracted during some nocturnal drives. The best such system that I have experienced on any car is that of Vauxhall’s Intellilux, even though it can gulled into some illumination errors that demand driver intervention. While I can comprehend carmakers investing in LED technology, in my opinion, Xenon lights still provide a better spread of illumination and less likelihood of being caught napping in certain weather situations. Is there any real need for ‘automatic’ full beam settings? No. I do not believe so.

The new 1.5-litre petrol engine that VW has introduced on this model is outstanding. It not only features a cylinder-switching process that knocks-out two pots, when cruising on a light throttle, but it also shuts-off the engine completely in throttle-off situations. Its activation is imperceptible, apart from a tiny digital reminder in the base of the rev-counter, but the benefits are immense, not least on the fuel economy front. Although given an Official Combined fuel economy rating of 55.4mpg, on a trip I made between Lincoln and Henley-on-Thames, the Golf recorded an outstanding and highly satisfying 56.7mpg on its trip computer.

It is an eminently engaging motor that makes very good use of its 184lbs ft of torque that weighs in from around 1,500rpm, reaching its peak some 2,000rpm later and thus verging on diesel levels of pulling potency and frugality, while being significantly more refined. It is not lacking in performance either and can despatch the 0-60mph sprint in a moderate 8.0-seconds, with a posted top speed of 134mph. It is worth highlighting that its CO2 emissions are an equally impressive 116g/km, which equates to an annual road tax at the standard fee of £140. Once again, a latest generation petrol engine can demonstrate that a diesel alternative is just an expensive frippery.

No matter how you measure the Golf, its standards-setting performance has never been in any doubt. Its door shut-lines are intimately tight. Its interior décor is passionately warm and tactile. The Golf has led the compact hatchback sector since the outset, being both the car-to-emulate, as well as having fostered a plethora of ‘Golf-platformed’ models that have helped VW to scale the sales slopes to the top…but, perhaps it is that very escalation that is allowing some aspects to slip?

Conclusion:   Despite a much-vaunted stance of Teutonic perfection, I fear that a run of problems and the sheer bulk of VW’s operation is allowing some of its sheen to become tarnished. I am hoping that the test car was an isolated instance, because of my personal Golf fascination, and that I may be wrong. If I am, I hope that VW resolves that car; if not, then VW may have to peer a little deeper.

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).