Review

Volkswagen Golf Mk8 review: still the king of family hatchbacks?

4/5

How do you improve on the best all-rounder in the business? VW hopes that generous equipment, space and reputation will seal the deal

2020 Volkswagen Golf Mk8 1.5 eTSI 150 Life

A new Volkswagen Golf is always an important event. This, after all, the most popular car in Europe and is Britain’s second most popular family car after the Ford Focus; it’s one of the most desirable, too.

The outgoing version was, for the vast majority of its life, the best family hatchback you could buy, with an unbeatable blend of space, efficiency, practicality, comfort and driving pleasure. And if it’s to retain its crown, the new eighth-generation version will have to fend off challenges from a slew of recently updated contenders, including the Focus, the BMW 1-Series, the Mercedes A-Class and the Toyota Corolla.

We’ve already driven the Mk8 Golf on the international launch at the tail end of 2019, but now, as lockdown eases, we’ve got behind the wheel here in the UK. Read on to find out whether the new Golf is as all-conquering as ever – and don’t forget to register or login to find out our decisive verdict.

Pros: Smart, spacious and tech-laden interior; generous equipment

Cons: Noisy engine; fiddly infotainment; mild hybrid fuel efficiency questionable

What’s under the skin?

At the moment there are six engines to choose from in the Golf range: three petrols, two diesels, and the 1.5-litre mild hybrid petrol we have here.

It kicks out 148bhp, and uses a 48-volt electrical system and a tiny electric motor to generate charge when you’re slowing down, which is then re-used to give a boost to the engine when pulling away from a standstill. The system can also power the ancillary systems like the power steering and climate control for a short amount of time, allowing the engine to turn off completely when you’re coasting at high speed.

The entry-level Life version, which is the one we’ve got to test, is very well equipped – adaptive cruise control, ambient lighting, and a 10-inch colour touchscreen all come as standard; bits of kit you’d normally expect to see included only on far more luxurious models. 

Consequently, we reckon it’s the one to have; should you want more toys, though, the Style model gives you more chrome, larger wheels, plusher seats and three-zone climate control, while the R-Line adds sportier styling, stiffer suspension, and a heated steering wheel – though, oddly, not heated seats. 

What’s it like day to day?

It isn’t really exceptional in any way, but this new Golf is perfectly pleasant to tool around in. It rides adequately; even with this car’s smaller wheels it fusses slightly over unkempt road surfaces and potholes, but you probably won’t notice unless you’ve a particularly sensitive backside. 

It’s pretty easy-going to drive, too; flip the stubby gear selector into ‘D’, and off you go. The gearbox can be a little hesitant away from a standstill, which means you sometimes get a pause followed by a surge in acceleration if you put your foot down too hard, but once you’re off and running, the progressive brakes and accelerator mean you don’t struggle to keep things smooth.

That said, the Golf isn’t the quietest thing on the move. Even when you’re cruising along, there’s a bit of a background drone from the engine, and when you accelerate hard, the gearbox drops down a gear and the engine flares, at which point it sounds surprisingly coarse. 

The large central display has an all-new software system, and while it can occasionally be a little laggy, it generally works pretty well, and is easy to find your way around. 

We’re disappointed by Volkswagen’s decision to integrate the majority of the climate control functions into it, though. You do get separate touch-sensitive pads to raise or lower the temperature, but if you want to adjust anything else you have to leave the audio or sat-nav screen you were using, and go into a separate menu. 

Will it fit into your life? 

In a world of ever-expanding cars, it comes as a bit of a breath of fresh air to discover the Golf has actually shrunk. It’s narrower than it was before, so easier to squeeze around in town, although it’s also slightly longer. No matter; its dimensions are still sensible and manageable, and good visibility makes it easy to park.

Inside, there’s a tonne of room, too. In the front, you’ve got space to stretch out, while even the back seats feel airy, with room for your knees, elbows and head. For four adults, or maybe even five at a push, the Golf still feels plenty spacious enough. 

Those rear seats are utterly conventional, in that they fold in a 60/40 split (the Mercedes A-Class gives you a more flexible 40/20/40 split to play with), and don’t slide backwards and forwards, as they do in some small SUVs. On the plus side, they fold flush with the boot floor when flat, and the boot floor itself hides a compartment where you can store smaller items out of sight. 

How much will it set you back?

The cheapest Golf doesn’t actually look particularly cheap on paper, but that’s because there isn’t a stripped-out, bargain-basement entry level version of the Golf any more – so the most affordable model is now one you’d actually be happy to own.

Its high equipment level puts it roughly on a par with the Ford Focus Titanium, an equivalent version of which will cost you a few hundred pounds less, and that makes it look like good value. That said, a Kia Ceed 3 with a similar engine will set you back about £2,000 less, although you don’t get as many toys. 

Against its premium-badged rivals, the Golf looks like good value, however. The 1.5 TSI 150 Life costs a touch more than the BMW 118i SE and Mercedes-Benz A180 SE, but it’s more powerful and much better equipped – you’d have to add several costly options to bring those rivals up to the same standard. 

That said, we’re not sure we’d pay the extra for this mild hybrid version unless you really need the automatic gearbox it comes with. Granted, it is more efficient than its automatic rivals, but it’s actually less economical than the non-hybrid petrol Golf with an identical power output – a quirk Volkswagen puts down to the weight of the hybrid gubbins, which seems somewhat self-defeating. 

In straight petrol form, the Golf is quite a bit more economical than most of its rivals too, which makes you question the need for the mild hybrid add-ons further. If you’re happy with a manual, then, stick with the standard car, and save yourself the near-£2,000 extra cost. 

Maintenance costs are reasonable, and the Golf loses its value relatively slowly, which means when all is said and done, it shouldn’t cost you too much to own.

Is it fun to drive?

Calling the Golf fun is probably over-egging the pudding, but it is at least satisfying. True, there’s just a touch of slop in the suspension when you initially turn it in which means you sometimes have to adjust the steering slightly, and combined with the steering’s lightness that makes the Golf feel more remote and less involving than a Focus or 1 Series.

But the nose turns in linearly and predictably, and the response of the chassis is always faithful, which means you can hustle the Golf along with confidence. And for most people, that’ll be more than enough. In this form it feels reasonably potent,too, although you need to push it a little to get the best from it. 

Most Golfs will spend far more time on the motorway than they will on Britain’s back roads, and happily, at these speeds the engine feels gutsy and responsive. The Golf rides more smoothly here than at low speeds, too, even if there’s still a touch of background jitter, but there’s a fair amount of tyre noise, so it doesn’t feel quite as relaxed as, say, a 1-Series or a Focus.

Does it have the feel-good factor?

From the outside, at least, the Golf is rather dull – to the untrained eye, it looks almost identical to the old one in profile and from the rear. The front’s more interesting, at least, with bubble-shaped headlights and gill-like slats on the front bumper.

But when you climb aboard, you realise this is more than just a heavy facelift. The new dashboard looks and feels glossy and up-to-the-minute. A TFT screen now replaces analogue dials on all models, and together with the wide standard touchscreen, lends the interior a truly sleek, upmarket look. And it’s all built from the sort of high-quality materials we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen.

For all that, though, this is a car that’s easy to admire, and even to like, but hard to love. The new Golf does everything very well, but it doesn’t really tug at your heartstrings. 

The Telegraph verdict

Volkswagen has done just enough to keep the Golf near the top of its game, and the smart, high-tech interior will certainly woo buyers. But beneath the surface, it no longer feels all-conquering; there’s a sense a few corners have been cut, particularly in the areas of suspension tuning and sound deadening; as a result, this is merely a good car, where the previous one was truly great.

What’s more, this mild hybrid version is somehow more polluting and less economical than the conventional petrol version it’s based on, yet it’ll cost you quite a lot more, which renders it rather pointless. It is, of course, the only petrol auto, so unless you desire such a thing, we’d give it a swerve in favour of one of the conventional petrol models with a manual gearbox.

That caveat aside, the Golf as a whole is still spacious, practical, pleasant to drive, and easy to live with. It’s bland, yes, and no longer is it head and shoulders above its rivals – and as newer, more advanced competitors come out in the next few years, it’s in danger of being surpassed. But for now, there’s not much it does wrong.

Telegraph Rating: Four stars out of five

The facts

On test: 2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 eTSI 150 Life

How much? £26,390 on the road

How fast? 139mph, 0-62mph in 8.5sec

How economical? 47.9mpg (WLTP Combined Min-Max)

Engine/gearbox: 1,498cc four-cylinder petrol engine, 148bhp, seven-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive

The electric bits: 48V lithium-ion battery and starter-generator with belt drive

Electric range: 0 miles

CO2 emissions: 142g/km

VED: £165 first year, then £140/year

Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles

Boot size: 381 litres

Spare wheel as standard: Yes

The rivals

Ford Focus 1.5 EcoBoost 150 Titanium Automatic 148bhp, 44.8mpg, £25,140 on the road

This more powerful version of the Focus isn’t as efficient as the Golf, and you have to make do with a tackier, less glitzy interior. Ford has sneakily swapped the better, multi-link suspension set-up for the cheaper, less satisfying twist-beam one in this 1.5-litre version, too, though despite this it’s still more enjoyable to drive – and quieter – than the Golf. 

Toyota Corolla 2.0 Hybrid Icon Tech 182bhp, 57.6mpg, £27,880 on the road

Believe it or not, the Corolla is now the interesting alternative. With a potent full-hybrid powertrain, a long warranty and a good equipment list, it’s asking some serious questions of the Golf – and while it’s pricier to buy, it’s also more economical and cheaper to tax. It should last an age, too. 

Kia Ceed 1.4 T-GDi 3 DCT 138bhp, 45.6mpg, £23,405 on the road

Cheap to buy, long of warranty and pretty decent to drive, the Ceed is a very sensible family car these days. It’s nowhere near as snazzy as the Golf inside, but there’s plenty of kit and space on offer. Yes, it’s less efficient, but when you’re saving this much on the price, will you care?

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