The fortunes of Volkswagen in the United States are moving steadily upward in direct correlation to how serious Wolfsburg has become about our market, a market it frankly neglected badly for about three full decades. The era of neglect is over now and the Germans are focusing especially hard on North American drivers who may have never owned a VW.
For many in the US, a first Volkswagen will be either a Jetta or Passat, both of which have pretty good trunks. But we just drove this all-new seventh generation Golf and it needs to be on that same consideration list because it is a nearly perfect, sensibly sized trunkless car.
The numbers for the Golf since its invention in 1974 are staggering. By the start of 2013, the Golf (called Rabbit for many of those bleakest years here in the States) will have sold nearly 30 million units worldwide. The Golf Mk VI, which is still offered in many markets including the US, remains the dominant best-selling car in all of Europe at the end of its life cycle. VW didn't really need to update much to keep the sales ball rolling.
But this Golf VII, introduced in September at the Paris Motor Show, is an all-new car, even though from the outside things look strictly evolutionary. The chief ingredient in making true this claim of being "all-new" is the use of a completely reworked architecture called MQB, which stands for Modularer Querbaukasten, or "modular transverse matrix." New architectures for any company signify shockingly massive investments, and therefore the damned things had better be really good for the bottom line. In the case of MQB, company leaders estimate the price tag for its four years of development totals $65 billion, so the intent is that MQB will stick around for at least a decade before a replacement architecture is even talked about.
Making certain it earns its keep quickly, VW Group has announced that MQB will be used on everything with transverse engines coming from VW, Audi, Seat and Škoda, ranging from models the size of the next VW Polo on up to the next Passat – that is to say, a major percentage of all cars produced within VW Group. So far, we've driven MQB with the new Audi A3, and now here with the four-door Golf Mk VII.
The Golf VII is an all-new car, even though from the outside things look strictly evolutionary.
For this event, we picked the upgraded 146-horsepower 2.0 TDI Golf in its top European Highline trim using an optional six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic with shift paddles. At this launch event, the TDI motor we chose was available alongside a revamped 138-hp 1.4 TSI gas engine with Active Cylinder Technology, but the latter is not on call for US deliveries, so we took the global diesel route. The current second engine to be used in North America is the recently re-engineered 1.8 TFSI four-cylinder with 158 hp, and it's this powerplant that will finally put the cast-iron block, 170-hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder out to pasture as the Golf's entry engine.
Maybe the most impressive feat of the current generation Golf VI is that it carried over almost everything from the Golf V – something it was criticized for at first – yet has actually gained market share everywhere it's sold. A global jury voted it the World Car of the Year in 2009 after its major midlife upgrade. [Full disclosure: Your author is involved with said awards.] So to repeat, we were not really looking for a long menu of notable improvements for this Golf VII.
The biggest challenge for Volkswagen was making certain that this first truly mainstream – and incredibly important – MQB model would carry on the legacy to the next level of premium. That's because the underbody changes here would only be noticed by the general public if they made the Golf less great than before. It's a $65 billion investment to make sure buyers notice almost nothing to disrupt the Golf legend, in a sense. And even VW bosses admit that while MQB does provide many welcome, albeit subtle, improvements for drivers and passengers, the new architecture is much more a move to contain spiraling costs in a spiraling world.
Underbody changes would only be noticed if they made the Golf less great than before.
So, the Golf Mk VII is monumentally important. Sort of like a European version of the expectations resting on the Ford F-Series pickup lineup in the States: Without its success, everything else in the car business would suffer, too.
Set against the Golf VI, the Golf VII, which arrives in the US by April of 2014 as a 2015 model year car, is 2.2 inches longer on the outside with a 2.3-in. longer wheelbase, half an inch wider, and 1.1 inches lower in overall height. This translates visually into a more attractive stance for the Golf without flattening it out – that look is still saved for the 16.3 CU. Given the slightly more upright Golf-original rear pillar and greater interior space, rear passenger legroom is up 1.2 inches and cargo space has increased by 1.1 cubic feet to 16.3 cubic feet, plus the load opening is now wider and lower to ease strain.
EPA figures should theoretically reach 36 miles per gallon city and 50 mpg highway.
All new models on the MQB sled weigh less than their predecessors and have more structural rigidity. For the Golf VII, the incorporation of finer gauge high-strength steels in the body and chassis, plus the use of aluminum, allow some trims to weigh in over 200 pounds less than before. In our 2.0 TDI's case with the existing six-speed DSG transmission, weight loss sits at nearly 50 pounds for a total of 3,024 pounds. A sliver of the weight loss can be traced to the smaller fuel tank on the Golf VII – down from 14.5 gallons US to 13.2 gallons. The 23-percent greater fuel efficiency for the new car's gas and diesel engines has made it possible to lower fuel capacity without compromising the car's range. This latest version of the EA288 TDI engine family renders the 2.0 TDI 18.5-percent more efficient, so EPA figures should theoretically reach 36 miles per gallon city and 50 mpg highway.
Inside and out, this Golf VII is easily the most impressively premium small family car in the not-quite-an-Audi segment of the import market. That said, we honestly prefer the entire Golf VII package over that of the new Audi A3. In fact, it's difficult to justify choosing the pricier A3 over the Golf VII. Keeping in mind that our tester here is what might in the US be the equivalent of the top trim four-door Golf with Technology Package and other cushy add-ons, the general feel to this re-design, even in base trim, is very sophisticated and pleasantly more driver-oriented than the Golf VI.
We honestly prefer the entire Golf VII package over that of the new Audi A3.
Along with manual transmissions and their clutch pedals, there is a diehard love that burns for the large-levered handbrake. Well, sadly, that's all gone now on the Golf VII, so no more forced oversteer in slippery parking lots will be allowed. In a tradeoff, the area around the driver is much cleaner now and the center console gear lever has moved eight-tenths of an inch forward, which, though perhaps sounding small as changes go, is a better orientation for most modern-day arm lengths. As with the A3, the center dash is also now tilted more toward the driver.
Legroom in the front footwells is pleasantly increased due not only to the longer wheelbase, but also the new universal orientation of every engine mounted crossways on the MQB platform. Every single model built with MQB will have a transverse engine – gas or diesel – set at a 12-degree angle leaning toward the rear and with the exhaust side also toward the rear, thus simplifying the routing of the exhaust system while gaining that space for knees and feet. And though overall height is down by 1.1 inches, the new body-contouring passenger seats get squabs that are less thick and therefore able to be placed lower in the cabin, resulting in greater headroom for all. All of this reorganizing has also affected the exterior's ability to slip through the air – the drag coefficient is down from 0.32 to 0.28, and this has helped lessen wind noise while cruising at speed.
Drag coefficient is down from 0.32 to 0.28.
A standard feature on all Golfs now that was previously reserved for hotter varieties is the XDS virtual e-diff that works on the front brakes to stabilize the car while driving into, through and exiting curves. This, coupled with the new generation of optional Dynamic Chassis Control on our test car, turns even the 146-hp TDI with 236 pound-feet of torque into quite the nimble everyday driver.
We can clearly feel the car's added stiffness and level-headedness in corners and transitions, while the steering's feel through the assisted rack and newly designed three-spoke steering wheel is appropriate for this more civilian trim while we await the future GTI model. Acceleration to 60 mph with this trim is down two-tenths of a second to 8.4 seconds, and the soundproofing measures in the chassis and acoustic glass make all of these acceleration runs go off without unpleasant noises. All the while, the 17-inch Dunlop tires on the VW's widened axles behaved strictly according to plan and never forced us to compromise what we had in mind as we dashed along.
Acceleration to 60 mph with this trim is down two-tenths of a second to 8.4 seconds.
The new top-of-the-line Discover Pro onboard interface comes with screens of 5.8- or 8.0-inches, and they feel very much like a piece of modern consumer electronics with their pre-touch sensing of the screens that pops up the main menus before you touch the surface. Beyond this cool factor, the system itself works well and is lightning fast at all important functions. Having this level of interface with full 3D-capable graphics feels downright Phaeton-like to us. Once again, the MQB design under the skin has made a new wiring harness possible, which allows for many options that used to be reserved for richer cars. Adaptive cruise control, automated parking assist, lane departure warning and a raft of other high-class safety and convenience tech is now available.
Europe starts getting first deliveries of the Golf VII toward the end of this month. As happened in the US and Canada for Golf VI, we will wait 18 months before our first new Golfs arrive. On the plus side, that means VW is holding off on our markets so as to have the new GTI ready by launch time.
VW is holding off on our markets so as to have the new GTI ready by launch time.
This new Golf hatch is a solid step up compared to the current generation, and it's filled with standard and optional offerings that were not possible prior to the MQB architecture. All the same, given the tough global economic times times and the need to maintain sales numbers despite the ongoing crisis, VW is determined not to change its prices by much or at all. The 1.8-liter TFSI two-door ought to come in around $18,000 for the base trim with new six-speed manual, while the 2.0 TDI four-door we tested in the highest trim offered with a DSG gearbox will likely be around $29,500. Expect the future 217-hp two-door GTI with a six-speed manual to start at a little over $24,000.
Add another little German to your shopping list, kids; the new Golf VII feels like a car costing... about as much as a new Audi A3 Sportback. Or better. Could this get awkward for Audi?