PRODUCT EYE: Volkswagen Golf
New engines, high-strength steels, interior components and the electrical system have each contributed to an average 100kg weight loss for the Mark VII Golf
It's up to 100kg lighter, will be the largest volume model on the MQB platform and replaces a model that was only four years old. Glenn Brooks drives the new Golf and finds it a big step forward for Volkswagen.
The media first saw this car back in late September when it was revealed at the Paris motor show and it's been available in LHD European markets since late last year. Sales in Germany, which will remain its largest global market, are off to a strong start, the new model helping the Golf nameplate to end 2012 in first position for the 32nd consecutive year. If you're wondering, the tally was 240,702 cars, and it would be 38 years running had the Mercedes-Benz W123 not taken the top slot in 1980.
The UK market might be a million units smaller on Germany but it's also the second largest in Europe if you exclude Russia from that definition. Here, Golf sales dipped by 2% in 2012 to 62,021 units of which 58,252 were hatchbacks. That made it the third best selling C-segment model range behind the Astra (63,023) and Focus (83,115) according to the SMMT numbers that I looked up.
With an updated Astra not due in showrooms until the second half of the year, the new Golf should easily outsell the Vauxhall this year, not that VW said anything about that to journalists on the recent UK market media launch. The importer is also so modest that it never claims to be Britain's number one car company, even though it is. Ford might be the long-time best selling brand, but the combined sales of all the Volkswagen Group's brands puts it firmly in first place.
Volkswagen the brand arguably has a stronger image than other mass market competitors too. You only need to see the posters that have sprung up all over the country in the last fortnight to know that. There's a simple slogan - 'Born Again' - and an image of the car. Depressingly for VW's rivals, this car just about sells itself in the UK.
Last year, the Fleet/Private customer split for Golf sales was 68/32, with 85 percent diesel-powered. Overall, the 1.6-litre TDI SE five-door will be the best-selling model, Volkswagen believes, and the company sees little change to the current situation whereby 90 percent of this market's Golf hatchbacks are five-door cars.
All of Volkswagen's hard work over many decades has got the brand to the point where it can command premium prices for most models in Britain. The Golf is no exception. The range now starts at £16,285 and for that you get an 85PS 1.2 in S trim, while the top-spec GT 2.0 TDI costs £24,880. As ever, the five-door bodystyle in middle SE model grade is expected to be the most popular.
Pricey it might be compared to some rivals but you get a lot more for your money compared to the Mark VI series. That includes a 5.8 inch colour touch screen (an eight inch display for the SatNav is optional), ABS and ESP which are compulsory in European markets, seven airbags, Automatic Post-Collision Braking System (to prevent the car rolling downhill towards another collision) and an electronic differential lock which VW terms XDS.
The new Golf is 56mm longer and 13mm wider, while the boot gains another 30 litres of cubic capacity, taking it to 380l. A colleague who is six foot two made himself comfortable at the wheel while I, four inches less lanky, positioned myself in the back. The amount of room for rear passengers is like being in Business Class and me, who has always thought of C-segment models as too small to be used as family cars, has finally found one that truly is. I suspect all this means that the next Passat, due out later this year, will become similarly sized to the Mondeo, the current giant of the D segment.
I tried out the optional Park Assist and can report that it works far better than older generation technology, such as you might find in something like the more expensive Skoda Superb. If you're someone who worries about getting parked in, fret no more, for Volkswagen's new system will twirl the wheel to guide you out of the tightest spots – just as for getting into any space, you do need to operate the pedals and shift the gears. An arrow between the instruments tells you when it's safe to move forwards or backwards and a series of beeps warns you when to stop. I can see many people buying a Golf for this feature alone.
This car is infuriatingly difficult to fault. Every control you touch or press is well-weighted, the instrumentation is clear, and the steering has just the right amount of precision in it but somehow also prevents the worst of the potholed winter roads from kicking back. A few hours driving this car – and I tried the 1.6 diesel as well as the 1.4 TSI which are expected to be the top sellers – made me see just why so many owners keep coming back to trade up for the latest model. If it's possible for a car to have been so thoroughly engineered that it gives you a constant sense of well being, then I've now driven it.
Golf production: MQB goes global
While most of the new VW370 series Golfs to be sold in Europe will be sourced from the giant Wolfsburg complex, the car will also be made in China by FAW Volkswagen at the new Foshan plant in Guangdong province. This factory has been constructed especially for MQB platform cars and is likely to build the forthcoming Audi A3 sedan and, possibly, the new SEAT León too.
The Puebla plant in Mexico should begin building North America's next Golf and Volkswagen GTI from 2014, and as a replacement for the fourth generation car, still made in Brazil, is well overdue, don't be surprised to see the new Mark VII model entering production at São José dos Pinhais (Curitiba).
More Golf derivatives to come
Back in Europe, there are more Golf variants in the pipeline: the estate has just been confirmed for a debut at the Geneva show in March, to be followed by the 88.3mpg and 85g/km BlueMotion, the GTI, as well as a GTD high performance diesel. The GTI will again be powered by a 200PS 2.0-litre turbo engine but a 10PS upgrade will be available, as will VAQ, a mechanically-locking front diff. I asked about the replacement for the Golf Plus and was told that we won't see that model until 2014, the same year as the first plug-in Golf, the Blue-e-Motion, is set to appear.
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