Good: engine feels faster than you'd expect for its size, build quality is top.
Not so good: can get expensive quickly with some options.
The Volkswagen Golf has enjoyed a long reign as one of the best hatchbacks on the market, but more recently, impressive efforts from the like of the latest Opel Astra and increasingly popular rivals from South Korea have increased competition. Cue Volkswagen's updated MKVII Golf.
At first glance, we'd forgive you for not noticing anything different about this seventh-generation model. The revisions made are subtle, but all combined it once more gives the Golf the edge over the majority of its rivals. New headlights carry a more detailed LED daytime running light design that incorporates the indicators for starters. A tidied up front bumper sees the radar sensor for the adaptive cruise control move into the round VW badge on the grille and at the rear there are new LED lights. The changes are all small, but add up to make a sharper looking car. And if you're not overly enamoured with the Turmeric Yellow paintwork of our test car, fear not, as there are still plenty of conservative colours in the brochure. We prefer brighter hues around here.
Where the Golf feels most ahead of its competition is inside. Granted, this is the range-topping Highline specification that includes the impressive 12.3-inch Active Info Display, which replaces the traditional dual instrument analogue dials. Even looking at this for only a few days makes it hard to go back to 'regular' instruments, which are an old black and white cathode ray tube box in comparison to the OLED television of its pin-sharp display and bright colours. Then there's the eight-inch Composition Media system with its clear glass touchscreen. Like the instrument display, this looks every bit as good as it is to use. There's no apparent lag regardless of how quickly you try to flick through the different functions. The system is also compatible with most smartphones, although the position of the USB port deep within the centre console does require some fiddling to get it right after you've turned the USB cable around the right way. Around the rest of the cabin there is a real sense of solidity in how everything is put together. All of the buttons have a reassuring quality to their action and where there are plastic surfaces the look and feel is better than in many other cars. Yes, it costs more than alternatives from Europe and Asia, but if you prefer the finer things in life, then you'll appreciate the smaller details in the Golf.
But the most impressive part of this latest Golf's repertoire is a new 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine. Already we can hear people instantly dismissing an engine of such compact size in a Golf, but hear us out. Firstly, it produces 110hp, just 5hp less than the abundantly popular 1.6-litre TDI diesel. It costs just €10 more per year to tax and if Volkswagen's official fuel consumption figures are to be believed, it returns almost the same levels of economy. Then there's the refinement. Three-cylinder engines often have a more vocal and 'thrum-like' note, but this is less so in the Volkswagen unit. Even under heavier loads there isn't as coarse a nature to it as can be found in other similar engine configurations. Over the course of our week with the car it used exactly one litre per hundred kilometres more than the official 4.8 litres/100km, which is similar to what we typically see from a 1.6-litre diesel. Considering that it is also €2,100 cheaper than the diesel to buy, that's already a bit of saving.
The performance levels are just as good and perfectly suit the Golf if what you mostly do is daily commuting and urban driving. On the motorway, you do notice the slight lack of torque that a larger capacity engine would typically possess, but it is far from underpowered. The six-speed manual gearbox feels great to use and has a very positive action to every gear change. Some keener drivers may long for better weighting from the steering, though for most the setup will feel perfectly suited the car.
Venture away from smooth black tarmac and the Golf retains all of its composure. The suspension setup is comfortably one of the best-tuned in the segment and this is one of the features that make the Golf feel more like a premium car. It soaks up surface imperfections with ease and just as importantly suppresses a great deal of road noise at the same time. Even on the larger optional 18-inch alloy wheels there is plenty of comfort on rural roads.
The Irish buyer has been told for many years that diesel is the answer, even in mid-size hatchbacks like this. But with rising scepticism surrounding the future of diesel, combined with the steady improvements in the fuel efficiency and performance of petrol engines, many are starting to consider a switch back. This 1.0-litre engine is one example of how less can be more. Look past what the cubic capacity of the engine is and more towards what it delivers and it's easy to see that this 1.0-litre TSI Golf is very much a car for the masses.