Volkswagen Golf review: eighth-gen hatch tested

By topgear, 05 December 2019

OVERVIEW - What is it?
Can it really be that time again? Like your MoT or the start of the football season, a new Golf always seems to come around sooner than you expect. Here we are then: the eighth of the line.

The Golf is the lingua franca of the hatch world, universally known and understood. Although it’s always bang up-to-date, each generation is an evolution, springing few surprises. That’s key to its success. No Golf buyer ever had to engage with a conversation that began, ‘You’ve bought a what?’

Something’s different here though. This generation Golf lies at a crossroads. At the same time as it hits the streets, VW launches the ID3. The ID3 is mass-market electric car that you can own for similar money (probably more to buy but less to run). A future-facing pod propelled by new energy – literally and metaphorically.

So in some ways the Golf faces backward, like the Cutty Sark, last of the great tea-clipper sailing ships. A highly perfected version of something the world might no longer need.

Backward? Yup it’s even got a diesel engine, albeit a new one with a double urea cat to get rid of the NOx. The stuff that means people no longer trust diesels. Which was, lest we forget, VW’s doing in the first place.

But it also looks forward, with a glass cockpit running new highly connected systems for info, entertainment, control and hazard warning.

The Mk8 uses the same MQB platform as the Mk7, so you’ll find no significant changes in dimensions or basic hardware. Instead most things in the suspension and powertrains are gently improved and finessed.

All panels are new. If only a bit. Recognise it by the new front graphic, a blade that slashes across the vestigal grille and into the shallow all-LED headlamps. On the side, a new crease runs through the door handles. Out back we find new-shape tail-lamps and, because it’s more teardropped, a more slit-like rear screen.

DRIVING - What is it like on the road?
The engines are mostly upgraded versions – cleaner, more economical – of what went before. Three-cylinder 1.0-litre options will come just after launch. So too will a plug-in hybrid GTE with 245bhp, and a useful 13kWh battery for at least 40 miles (approx. 64km) e-range. Oh and by the end of 2020 a GTI and an R and a GTD.

We drove the 1.5-litre TSI. It comes in 130 or 150bhp setups, and ours was the 130 in six-speed manual, likely the biggest seller. It’s OK but not great – notably laggy low down, a little rough around the critical 4,000rpm band. But in the end quiet and reasonably economical.

The 150bhp engine, when you spec DSG, comes with a 48V mild-hybrid system. Its electric motor/generator is connected to the engine by belt, as these things usually are. Out on the road it works well, ameliorating the lag by nudging the engine for a moment as you floor it. And it reclaims energy on the over-run, and starts the engine super-quickly after a junction stop. The economy boost is claimed to be about 10 per cent.

We also had a crack at the 150bhp diesel, a reasonably quiet example of the kind. The DCT transmission keeps its efforts flowing with few jerks.

The low-power versions have a twist-beam rear suspension. It tracks nicely on A-roads. As you peel into a bend it’s a little soggy, but get it loaded up and it tautens its sinews, resisting understeer well. That’s partly because in the background it pinches individual brakes to keep the thing faithful to your steering.

Mind you the test car had the optional adaptive damping – and who will pay £1,000 for that on a base Golf?

Once you get to 150bhp, a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension is yours. This one has more precision and progression in all its reactions, and really quite good steering feel. Again our tester had the adaptive dampers.

Golf 8
Golf 8
Golf 8

The ride’s mostly nicely supple especially over coarse gritty impacts. But the firmer-spring diesel is a bit more knobbly.

So you’ve got a car that nudges Focus levels of handling and ride, though just like a Focus it’s spec dependent. The BMW 1 Series in contrast has a multi-link axle in all versions.

ON THE INSIDE - Layout, finish and space
The Mk8 Golf isn’t all small evolutions. There’s big-time change in the dash and infotainment, and the level of connectedness.

We’re slightly unconvinced by the dash – the screens don’t look very integrated, resembling an engineers’ test system that’s been hacked into a last-gen car. And their glossy plastic surround looks cheap.

And in many ways it’s annoying to use. There’s no volume knob, only a capacitive slider that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t respond to your fingertip. Shortcut buttons to take you directly to screens for climate, driver assist, and park assist, which is good. Unfortunately they’re tiny, badly marked and not that easy to reach.

Still, the 10-inch central screen itself has clean graphics and is responsive. The climate has some settings labelled with effect rather than cause: ‘warm feet’ for instance.

All Golfs get Car2X. Before long cars of all brands will be able to use this hazard-warning swarm intelligence. Say a car around the corner ahead of you activates its hazard flashers or airbag or ESP or fog lights. You’ll get a message if it’s relevant. Infrastructure – the same info that feeds motorway gantry signs – will also knit into the system.

Golf 8
Golf 8
Golf 8

As usual for a Golf, the front seats and driving position are just fine. In the back it’s more than competitive, and you can get rear climate control.

OWNING - Running costs and reliability
At the time of the Golf’s launch, VW hasn’t homologated any fuel or CO2 figures. But they say the eTSi DSG saves 10 per cent fuel over the old 1.5 DSG, so call it 48mpg. The diesel is supposed to save 17 per cent versus its predecessor.

With the number of active safety features on the menu, and the V2X that’s standard on all cars, you’d hope insurance costs fall, but again no figures at the time of writing.

Golf 8
Golf 8

Every single Golf sold in the UK will get a digital instrument pack and 10-inch infotainment screen with web connection. Most include navigation, but with a base car you can activate nav, like some other features, over-the-air via an in-car app store.

Apart from all that, a Golf will always be a supremely easy car to own and sell on, because it’s such a well-developed and well-known object.

There wasn’t a whole bunch wrong with the Mk7 Golf. And actually, most of the time in the new one we longed for the clarity of the old car’s infotainment. While some of the new system’s functions are proper wow-factor stuff, the no-buttons pratfall dismays us.

But the rest of the car is, sure enough, finely polished. Better steering, better refinement, better safety, more modern lighting. All of them steps ahead from a car that already pretty much led the class. Get yourself a 150bhp TSi with the multi-link axle and you’re laughing.

Oh and by the way, for the next few years, VW doesn’t even see Golf sales falling away. Early orders suggest ID3 buyers will come from other places, while yesterday’s Golf buyers stick to today’s Golf. They won’t go far wrong.


New eighth-gen Golf remains the lingua-franca of the hatch world. A finely polished machine


General competence. Ownability. A great drive if you spec it right Compulsory glass cockpit isn't actually that sorted
SCORE 8/10


Golf 8