Few cars have the power to redefine a market sector, and even fewer have the ability to remain at the top of a competitive class decade after decade. Yet that’s exactly what the Volkswagen Golf has managed to achieve, with 33 million sold since its launch back in 1974.
However, with the aftermath of dieselgate still hanging over the company, increasingly stringent emissions legislation on the horizon and the arrival of many strong – and arguably more innovative – rivals, the Golf’s dominant position has never been under greater threat. The phrase ‘the higher you climb, the further you have to fall’ comes to mind.
Volkswagen is well aware of this, and hopes that this facelift for 2017 will keep its best-seller relevant until an all-new model arrives in 2019. Sticking to a decidedly traditionalist approach, this update is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish the 2017 car from today’s four-year-old model, with only minor changes to its exterior styling. Up front, there's a lightly redesigned bumper with an altered grille, a reshaped front wing, revised LED headlights and new daytime running lights. The rear receives matching LED tail-lights, a more aggressively styled bumper and integrated tailpipes (if you opt for the popular R-line styling package).
Instead, the main focus of the changes have been centred on the interior. A new dashboard, centre console and revised door trims have been designed to give the interior a sharper look, and in line with other recent new Volkswagen models, the new Golf also gets a new optional Active Info Display with 12.3in high-definition monitor.
What's the 2017 Volkswagen Golf like to drive?
With virtually no mechanical changes aside from a new turbocharged 1.5-litre engine, this facelifted model drives in a very similar fashion to the Mk7 that it replaces. That’s to say the Golf’s chief qualities – refinement, comfort, integrity and usability – are all present and correct. And, despite running on slightly larger 17in wheels, our test car stayed nicely composed over scruffy roads .
Out on the open road it's clear that the Golf still doesn’t handle as sharply as a Ford Focus and doesn’t have quite the same level of body control as the firmer Audi A3. But as speeds increase, the Golf’s steering weights up nicely and provides accurate feedback, telling you everything you need to know about what the front wheels are doing. In short, it manages to strike an all-round balance that inspires plenty of confidence.
The new 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol engine is worthy of praise, too. A replacement for today’s 1.4, the new engine strikes a sweet spot between the frugal but slower 1.0-litre engine and the more powerful but less economical 1.8-litre unit further up the range. Press the accelerator down an inch and the engine will pull eagerly from low revs, allowing you to get up to motorway speeds smoothly, quietly and with minimum fuss.
The engine remains impressively silent at cruising speeds, too, and with the ability to shut down some of its cylinders when they’re not needed, we managed to achieve an impressive 52.0mpg on our mixed-roads route, just short of the official 55.4mpg.
Factor in equally impressively restrained wind and road noise, which is well suppressed regardless of speed, and you have one of the most refined family hatchbacks on sale today.
What's the 2017 Volkswagen Golf like inside?
Ergonomically, this 2017 model remains virtually identical to the car it replaces, which is no bad thing. Thanks to a huge range of seat and steering wheel adjustment, you should be able to find a comfortable driving position, no matter your shape or size. And, because of its thin window pillars, the Golf is still the best in the class for all-round visibility.
What has changed, however, is the aesthetic. Historically, the VW’s interior has been a cut above rivals, but in recent years its monochrome design has started to look increasingly dated. To rectify this, VW has treated the facelifted model to an all-new dashboard, centre console and revised door trims.
The combined effect of these small changes is an interior that looks and feels distinctly more premium. There’s still some hard plastic on display, particularly lower down inside and in the rear, but most of the materials feel of a high quality.
The real star of the show is the optional Active Info Display. We’ve seen this system before in both Volkswagen's Tiguan SUV and Passat saloon, and it works much the same way here, allowing you to choose between traditional-looking dials with an info screen in the middle, or a much larger info display for the sat-nav, phone, stereo or trip computer. It’s easy to use and displays a vast amount of information yet very clearly.
More disappointing, however, is the optional range-topping Discover Pro infotainment system. It comes with gesture control, a first for this market, which allows you to swipe through menus and change radio stations by simply waving your hand in front of the screen.
Good in theory, bad in practice. The system is at best a hit-and-miss affair, and at worst a distraction, due to slow response times and a sensor that's mounted too low down. Thankfully, you can instead use the updated App Connect feature, which comprises Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink, and is slick and easy to use on the move.
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