Motoring correspondent Mark Gallivan test drives the new 2020 Volkswagen Golf Mk8 and describes it as an acknowledged, reassuringly polished car.

Here it is, the new Volkswagen Mk8 Golf. The benchmarked perennial choice of Irish buyers that want the most accomplished all-rounder. No need to go hunting for a crossover, mid-ranking saloon, estate or coupe. Just buy a Golf. That is, and what has been for years, a mantra widely shared with anyone searching for the best in five-door hatchery. Even for me testing a brand new generation of Golf is a big event.

The new Golf arrives to Irish shores at a time when the cliché of disruption is having the absolute time of its life. Before we delve in the new car here’s a quick guide to the Volkswagen Golf. The original 1974 Mark 1 was the best looking, purest design. It was followed by a few so-so generations until the Golf regained its mojo with the Mark 5. Good cars followed and here we arrive wide-eyed at the latest one.

“In a disruptive world, Volkswagen appears to have disrupted itself”

It’s the foregone conclusion then that it’s still the best hatch out there. That is still correct, isn’t it? Wolfsburg is hardly going the break the run of championship wins because the Golf remains their most important car. Maybe hold that particular thought for one moment.

Exterior styling

Let’s begin with the new exterior styling. As if to reflect the misery of Covid-19 and a world ranked with a paucity of any political decency the new Golf wears a new curiously brooding frown. The bonnet’s front leading edge almost falls over itself onto the headlights and is met with dubious colour coded styling strips in the lower front air intake.

The side and rear view are better resolved and here the styling is unmistakably a Golf. Getting back to that thought you were holding, Volkswagen is busily pumping big investment into its zero-emissions range of cars starting with the ID.3 single e-motor rear-wheel drive hatch that will come initially with a 58kWh battery and an estimated range of 420km. That isn’t the only Golf pretender to the throne. Both the BMW 1 Series and the new SEAT Leon are set to make the obvious choice that more confusing. In 2020 it is not as clear cut a decision after all.

For driving dynamics, interior layout and premium badge the BMW is giving the €31,550 mid-tier 1.5eTSI, 150HP DSG Golf I tested an unforeseen headache. The very compelling and good to drive BMW 1 Series is priced from €33,865. Now the foregone conclusion of a Golf being the best hatch – let alone premium – out there is ambushed by a range of choices. To recap, there is competition from within Volkswagen itself and now one from BMW. Here is a brand that would very much like a piece of the profitable hatch action. Also there is the new SEAT Leon starting from €23,910. Early reports suggest the Spaniard has enough brio and sharp looks to be a class leader in the MQB platform family.

Controls

I drove the new Golf over a shortened 48 hours and immediately I had difficulty getting familiar with the new button-free cockpit. The Mark 7 car was the high point of Golf incarnations with all the best parts of the previous Golfs honed to a glossy perfection. Volkswagen has introduced a new touchscreen MIB system with streaming music on tap using that I discovered was less than intuitive.

During my first drive in the car I got stumped by the menus spending over 10 minutes trying to get my streaming music back up and working again. With no main physical buttons to return to a home position I was left swiping this way and that to get back to where I was. Volkswagen needs a rethink of this system and add Home switches or knobs. They worked perfectly well before and are safe to use controls having been sacrificed for unrequested aesthetics.

Replaced as well are the rotary air conditioning controls. For 2020 the new car has two plastic indentations just under the touchscreen. To raise or lower the climate control functions you now slide your finger left or right across the plastic groove just like on a smartphone. It’s not an exact approach and like any Apple or Galaxy mobile it proved equally imprecise. My question is this: how many potential Golf buyers suggested to Volkswagen that ditching quality rotary knobs for this was a good thing?

The new Golf’s dimensions are imperceptibly changed – 9mm longer and just 10mm wider. It still has the same wheelbase as the last car. But the interior quality feels like a solid Golf and has probably improved. VW has held firm here.

On the road performance

On the road the 1.5 litre four-cylinder engine was smooth using an 48-volt starter motor with braking regeneration but it’s less of an lively powerplant. In fairness, it did well in gobbling up the miles on a few long drives. This will suit existing Golf owners just fine. The steering was a disappointment and felt too light but with it did have decent feedback in corners. A little more weighting would have been very welcome. Ford’s new Puma shows how a steering system up can offer genuine dynamic engagement.

Oddly the brakes felt didn’t feel as sharp in my test car as they should have. The initial bite was soft but with more pressure came the progressive response I expected. Granted it was something the Mark 7 Golf never portrayed so other versions of the Golf needs to be tested to draw any final conclusion.

If this review sounds negative it shouldn’t do. The new Volkswagen Golf is an acknowledged, reassuringly polished car. The new controls need familiarity as they are far from the optimal solution. To find your ideal new Golf maybe your should consider the 1.0 liter TSI petrol engine with 110 hp or the 2.0 TDI diesel with 115hp. They may be your best petrol or diesel starting points.

In either the best Golf is quite likely to be found. The big question is this – has the 2020 Mark 8 VW Golf hung onto its crown as being the best hatch you can buy? BMW will sell you an excellent 1 Series at higher Golf prices which makes the choice tougher.

Even within Volkswagen Group itself, you can opt for the forthcoming Volkswagen ID.3 electric or the compelling new SEAT Leon.

In a disruptive world, Volkswagen appears to have disrupted itself.

You’ll like: Polished and accomplished. Still feels one of the better overall hatchbacks under €30,000.

You’ll grumble: Smartphone inspired infotainment is fiddly. Steering is too light. SEAT’s Leon is on the prowl. Same-again exterior styling lacks the necessary generational jump.

Published: 21 August, 2020

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