Volkswagen Golf long-term review

We're running a Volkswagen Golf for three years to see what it's like to own as a new, nearly new and used car. We're already into year two...

Words By Rob Keenan

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The majority of cars we run on the long-term fleet at What Car? remain with us for one year. This Volkswagen Golf is going to give us the most complete ownership experience we've ever had, because it's with us for a full three years. That means we'll be judging it as a new and a used car.

The car Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI 105 Bluemotion Technology SE 5dr (since superseded by Match trim)
Run by Rob Keenan, senior sub-editor
Needs to Cope with a long motorway commute, a week's worth of food shopping, trips to the tip
Run by What Car? since January 2014
My rating

What is the Volkswagen Golf like?

It’s a hugely popular family hatchback, both with private buyers and company car drivers, thanks in part to the kudos the VW badge brings and impressive build quality.

There's a huge range of petrol engines available – from a 1.2 with 84bhp to the 2.0-litre R with 297bhp – as well as several diesels; our 1.6 isn't the least powerful in the range, but it's not far off. The 1.6 TDI 105 Bluemotion Technology SE 5dr - gets extra Brownie points by being economical (with a True MPG of 54.5mpg) and reasonably clean (99g/km means annual tax is free in the first and subsequent years).

What's the Golf like to drive?

The 1.6-litre diesel engine is paired with a five-speed manual gearbox, which means it tends to rev more than you'd like on the motorway; several colleagues have criticised the engine noise. Fortunately, few vibrations make their way into the cabin via the pedals or gearlever.

We were disappointed with our Golf's economy in the first few weeks of ownership, with the average consumption working out at around 47mpg. However, a bit of fiddling with the tyre pressures (they've been increased to the maximum recommended pressure for a fully loaded car) has improved that. The Golf has been averaging more than 50mpg for quite a while now. In fact, it was colleague Euan Doig's trip to Dundee that yielded the most impressive figure: 53.9mpg - a surprising feat, because Euan isn't known for having a particularly light right foot.

Other journeys have resulted in figures of between 50.5mpg and 52.9mpg, mostly from trips on the M3 and other motorways, but also from some town driving. The ride is a shade nobblier in town (manhole covers and ruts aren't damped as well as before - but then the ride quality was brilliant to begin with), but it's a small price to pay when you consider I'm getting another 40 miles out of every tank.

The Golf isn't the sharpest-driving thing in the small family car class. Pricier Golfs have independent rear suspension, but our car has a simpler set-up. There's a fair bit of body roll through bends and around roundabouts, and there's zero feedback from the steering wheel. An equivalent Ford Focus is a much more nimble thing. That's not to say the Golf is a dynamic disaster, though - it's competent enough for most people, and when things do look like they're going to get out of hand there's plenty of safety kit to keep you on the straight and narrow, including radar cruise control which will used the brakes to maintain a set distance between you and the car ahead.

Winter tyres

In late November 2014 the Golf was taken away for a few days to have its winter tyres fitted. However, we had hardly any snow here in the south of England, so you have to question why we'd have wanted to spend Β£932 for the rubber and, admittedly good-looking, 16-inch Aspen alloys.

Granted, motorists further north had a fairly torrid winter, so winter tyres may have more appeal - or you could simply spend less than Β£100 on a pair of snow socks, which will get you around in a snow emergency.

What's the Golf like inside?

Our Golf's dashboard is dominated by plastics that do a very good job of impersonating brushed metal.

Car makers have been trying to make plastic look like other materials for decades, with varying degrees of success, but you know they've got it cracked when you find yourself rapping the dashboard with your knuckles and touching it with your fingertips to see if you get that ’cold metal’ feel.

The Golf's dash is also beautifully assembled, with very tight, consistent β€˜shutlines’ and - so far - no rattles, despite the car being driven over some rather nasty speed humps on a daily basis. The suspension hasn't been quite so quiet over those humps during the winter months, though (see 'problems' below).

The driving position is excellent, with plenty of head- and legroom for all shapes and sizes, and height-adjustment on both front seats, and the steering wheel adjusts for reach and height.

The plastics in the rear of the cabin aren't so good, but they're still acceptable. At least there's plenty of space for two adults to be perfectly happy over long distances, but three adults may find things a bit tight, partly because of the tunnel in the floor.

The Golf’s boot opening is brilliant; well shaped and large, you can fit all sorts of odd-shaped things in without feeling like you’re competing in The Krypton Factor. You can also alter the height of the boot floor to create a flat load space.

There aren’t any clever space dividers or restrainers to help keep things in place, but as long as you pack things in tightly they’re never going to roll around.

Volkswagen Golf specification

SE trim (which has now been superseded by Match trim) brought front and rear electric windows, Bluetooth, air-con, eight-speaker DAB radio/CD player, 6.0in colour touch-screen, adaptive cruise control, auto lights and wipers and a space-saver spare wheel.

That’s a decent kit count but, as you can appreciate, we wanted to add a few extras to help make several winters and summers pass more comfortably. Hence sat-nav with three years of updates (Β£750); a wireless Climate windscreen (Β£295) which speeds up defrosting and helps cool the cabin; the Winter pack (Β£375), which brings heated front seats, headlight washers and windscreen washers; the Mirror pack (Β£95) which allows the heated, electrically adjustable mirrors to be folded electrically and adds puddle lights; front and rear parking sensors (Β£455); and the essential floor mats (Β£80). We also opted for the Perth design of alloy wheel, which keeps the size at 16 inches and is a no cost option.

All in, our car comes in at just over Β£23k. Without these extras it costs Β£20,990, which is Β£1750 more than its key rival, the Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI SE.

Volkswagen Golf service

At around 18,000 miles, an advisory note appeared telling us that the Golf's first service would be due in a few hundred miles. It's now imminent, so we're in the process of ringing local dealers for prices and will report back when we've had the work done.

Such a long service interval may be rather alarming for older motorists - I'd been wondering how much longer it would be before the Golf needed an oil change - but modern oils and engines are much better than they used to be, and it seems this is par for the course.

Volkswagen Golf problems

It’s not unusual for creaks and rattles to appear when cold winter temperatures cause plastics and other materials in a car’s cabin to shrink. Even the well-built Golf’s cabin isn’t immune from such things. However, I wasn’t expecting the suspension to be so vocal over speed humps; there are lots on the back roads of south-west London. Hopefully the noises will go once spring arrives.

We had to add a litre of oil - pricey at Β£20 - at 11,550 miles, but you could hardly call that a problem, and the handbook says that rate of consumption is more than acceptable. Nevertheless, we're keeping an eye on it - via the engine dipstick and a sensor that warns you when the level is at the minimum.

The heated windscreen consists of a conductive layer within the laminated glass, rather than the wires that most cars get, but it's definitely not as quick at melting ice - you have to wait a good five minutes before you're able to drive away safely. At least the heated seats do a great job of keeping you comfortable while you're waiting.

The laser-assisted city emergency braking and radar-operated front assist is designed to operate at low speeds in town, but it has cut in briefly – and unexpectedly – on a motorway journey (the CEB symbol also flashed up on the dashboard). We weren't close to any other vehicles at the time, the adaptive cruise control was turned off and we were travelling at much more than its supposed maximum operating speed of 18mph, so this is some cause for concern. Fortunately the incident lasted for less than a second and it didn't cause us to lose control of the car, but it's something we wouldn't want to go through again.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI SE specification

Price Β£21,390 (Match trim)
Target Price Click here for the latest price
Mileage to date 18,325
Fuel economy 54.0mpg
True MPG 54.5mpg
Emissions / company car tax 99g/km / 15%
Cost per mile 41p
Insurance group 13
Typical quote Β£457