Some of us can measure our lives out in the seven generations of the Volkswagen Golf, now in its 38th year of production.
In that time, the VW Golf has become one of the best-selling cars in all of Europe, but its start in the U.S. was a little rocky. Part of the problem was that it wasn't a Golf at all. It was badged Rabbit and Americanized in a way that spoiled the clean simplicity of its European lines. The Rabbit was a lower-grade device than its European-built cousin, its low-rent, utility tailgate also deterring Beetle buyers by the thousands.
But America's taste for hatchbacks is growing — or its distaste diminishing at least, so VW hopes that the seventh version of the car will take one more small step toward making it more mainstream. We went for a drive to see if it has a chance.
A Familiar Face
It takes only the swiftest of glances to see that this car is a Golf and that is entirely the point, its instantly recognizable identity the key to its success. But there are distinct differences like a longer wheelbase and lower ride height that make this version unique.
The 2014 Volkswagen Golf now rides on the VW Group's all-new modular MQB platform (for Modularer Querbaukasten), which allows the front axle to be pushed forward within the length of the body. That reduces the front overhang, stretches the wheelbase and frees up more passenger space.
Though these new proportions gave the Golf's shapers a bit of challenge, says designer Andreas Mindt, early versions of the car "looking a bit like a dachshund," the awkwardly long-bodied look was eliminated by pushing the cabin rearward. Aerodynamic aims have resulted in smoother fenders, and the quest to produce a low-slung, sporting look has given it shallow, slightly wedged side windows and subtle indents at the roof's edges.
A Slimmer Structure
Apart from the styling changes, there are significant engineering advances, too. Chief among these is the shaving of up to 220 pounds from the Golf's weight despite the modest increase in length and width. The weight savings were achieved by increasing the use of high-strength steels in the body, lightening the interior trim and redesigning most of the engine lineup to pare poundage and increase efficiency.
That lineup begins with a 1.2-liter turbo gasoline engine and a 1.4 turbo for Europe along with a 1.8-liter turbo and a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter five-cylinder that will be used in the U.S. models. There are substantially redesigned 1.6- and 2.0-liter diesels, too, the bigger of which is also destined for America. Transmissions include a six-speed stickshift and VW's dual-clutch, DSG self-shifter with six or seven speeds.
The Golf's MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension has been redesigned for reduced weight, and there's a new, simple twist-beam rear axle for smaller-engined European models. In other words, no radical reengineering, but plenty of incremental improvements.
The Diesel Does Nicely
Our seat time was limited to the 2.0-liter diesel, which produces 148 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque from as little as 1,750 rpm. It delivers it all with impressively smooth civility, too. You'll hear the odd light rattle from up front during warm-up, and a little vibration through the steering wheel, but otherwise the only things to remind you that this is a diesel are positive, in the form of really strong pulling power and the excellent economy. There are no EPA numbers yet, but expect over 40 mpg in the real world.
The manual shifter is unusually silken and so are the gearchanges from the DSG, although it will occasionally jolt from gear to gear. With Sport and Manual paddle shift options, this automatic is a good compromise for those who don't want to work a clutch in traffic.
There's a new driving profile selector that offers four modes to choose from: Eco, Sport, Normal and Individual. The various modes allow for adjustment of the throttle map, transmission shifts, steering weight and even shock stiffness if the Dynamic Chassis Control option is selected. The effect isn't that great, though, as the ride only firms slightly and the throttle sharpens a fraction. The most noticeable effect is on the steering, which gains some pleasing weight in Sport mode.
Predictable. Maybe Too Predictable
Despite these changes, the fundamental behavior of the 2014 Volkswagen Golf does not change much when you're thrusting hard along a twisting back road. It corners with precision, it's slow to let understeer build and feels completely stable and safe. But it also feels a little dull — the front end doesn't dart into corners with the enthusiasm of a Ford Focus, and there's virtually no scope for refining your trajectory through a fast curve with deft throttle adjustment. Instead, it's very capable, but pretty inert.
And though you can switch off the stability control, its interventions don't completely disappear. Which is probably a good thing considering the vast array of buyers expected to buy this new Golf. The only occasional disappointment is the ride, the suspension thumping like an unwanted neighbor's party over ridges and potholes. That's a surprise given this VW's sophisticated multilink rear axle.
Feels Sturdy, Looks Much the Same
Inside there's a grander-looking dashboard than previously, its center console angled toward the driver to produce a slightly sportier ambience, and an increased surface area of decorative trim to heighten the aura of quality, which this car oozes in spades. From the reassuringly solid structure of its dashboard to the classy piano-black steering wheel inserts, it's a finely built piece.
The center of the dash is dominated by an infotainment screen that's offered in three sizes and five levels of sophistication, some including an iPad-like swipe feature to access music. All of this creates a pleasing first impression of this seventh-generation Golf, from the muted clunk of a closing door to the subtly enveloping support provided by the seats.
The cabin is not only comfortable and convenient but quiet, too, only the faint rush of air at 80 mph intruding on the impressive calm at speed. There's no question that the Golf Mk7 makes an impressive long-distance device, especially with the turbodiesel's pulling power.
Built in Mexico?
It will be a long time before American drivers even get a chance to see what this new Golf is all about, as it's not scheduled to arrive until early 2014. Why? Mainly because Volkswagen is more concerned about Golf sales in Europe, where it's the company's bread-and-butter model. There's also the possibility that American Golfs will be built in one of Volkswagen's factories in Mexico to make it less expensive.
A competitive price would go a long way toward making the Golf more acceptable to American consumers. The Golf may be the most refined hatchback in its class now, but it's a growing segment that includes plenty of competent contenders. And who knows? By 2014 there could even be a few more with newer and better features. We'll have to wait and see.
For now, the 2014 Volkswagen Golf feels much like the old Golf in terms of refinement, which is a good thing. It's solid on the highway and the diesel is as good as it's ever been. The extra space inside doesn't hurt either, so it's well positioned to grab even more buyers if the price is right. We'll find out in about 12 months.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.