Volkswagen Golf Mk5: best cars in the history of What Car?

We're looking back over the past 47 years to find the best car in the history of What Car?. Today, editor Steve Huntingford makes the case for the Mk5 Volkswagen Golf...

Volkswagen Golf Mk5 front cornering

On sale 2003-2009 | Number sold 3.27 million (worldwide)

During the 47 years that What Car? has been around, there has been a huge amount of change – and that’s just in the car world. We’ve seen many historic brands fold or merge, safety go from ‘you’ll be lucky’ to something that’s taken for granted, the rise and fall of diesel, and buyers switch from saloons to MPVs to SUVs. But there’s been one constant for all but one of those years: the Volkswagen Golf.

When the first version (below) arrived in 1974, the family hatchback class was in its infancy. Indeed, it was the Golf's huge popularity from the word go that inspired many others to enter the sector and which turned it into the colossal one it is today; even last year, three of the top five selling models in the UK were family hatchbacks, with the Golf the most popular of the bunch.

Volkswagen Golf Mk1 front static

However, while this means you could argue a case for both the original and most recent variants to be named the best, personally I think the Mk5, produced between 2003 and 2009, represents peak Golf.

The fact that its interior set new standards for quality, ease of use and practicality was perhaps to be expected, given the progress its predecessors had made in these areas. But the Mk5 also represented a quantum leap forward in terms of the way it drove, thanks to its combination of a stiff, wide-bodied platform and all-round independent suspension.

Even the Ford Focus, which had long set the standard for driving manners in this class, was made to feel a little ordinary, with our first group test of the cars pointing out that the Golf suffered "less body lean" and offered "sports car levels of grip".

Volkswagen Golf Mk5 dashboard

That Volkswagen was able to achieve these things while retaining a composed and comfortable ride made the Mk5 Golf all the more of an achievement. And when we pitted the 1.6 FSI petrol version against five of its best rivals, we discovered that the Golf was the quietest cruiser of the lot, too.

Small wonder, then, that we named it our 2004 Car of the Year, concluding: "With such rounded abilities, no car better fills the brief of fitness for purpose." Our meetings to decide Car of the Year often get quite heated, but on this occasion I remember there was total consensus.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5 front cornering

The following year saw the introduction of the high performance GTI model (above), and this was every bit as impressive, taking our Hot Hatch of the Year award.

Explaining the decision, we said: "What sets the GTI apart from more frenzied rivals is the way it develops strong, usable power right across its rev range. It also turns into corners fluidly and delivers stunning levels of grip, yet despite its sharp handling it retains a suppleness that eliminates skitishness and allows the car to flow through bends in imperious fashion."

Perhaps the ultimate proof of the Mk5 Golf’s greatness, though, can be found in the way it stood the test of time. Even at the end of its life it was winning group tests, leading us to declare: "Volkswagen appears to have discovered the recipe for the perfect family hatchback."

Volkswagen Golf Mk5 rear tracking

And, indeed, when it was time to replace the car, Volkswagen didn’t really do so; the Mk6 model was essentially a heavily facelifted Mk5, with this approach more than enough to keep the Golf at the sharp end of the class for another four years, both in terms of sales and outright ability.

Come back tomorrow to read about our next contender for the title of best car in the history of What Car?: the Land Rover Discovery 3

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