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Volkswagen Golf 2013 - First Drive

The seventh-generation Golf manages the challenging balance between continuity and change

Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI GT ACT 5-door

Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged petrol with cylinder deactivation technology

Transmission: six-speed manual

Power: 140 PS between 4,500 and 6,000 rpm

Torque: 250 Nm between 1,500 and 3,500 rpm

Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 58.9 mpg

CO2 emissions: 112g/km

Top speed: 132 mph

Acceleration (0-62 mph): 8.4 seconds

Price: £22,705, new Golf range from £16,330

Replacing one of the world’s most successful cars is a hard job but with the new seventh-generation Golf, Volkswagen has managed to get the balance between continuity and change just right. It’s a car in which owners of older Golfs will immediately feel at home, but also one that incorporates a number of important improvements.

At first glance, the new car’s shape appears a little unadventurous. But look at little more closely and you can see that this Golf is subtly jazzier than its predecessor. The rear quarters, for example, with their sportily raked C-pillars, recall those of the Golf IV, one of the more handsome models in the series.

And under the skin, it’s all change, because the latest Golf uses Volkswagen’s MQB architecture, a system of sub-assemblies shared between cars that is more flexible and scalable than the previous “platform” concept. The Golf is only the second MQB-based car – the first was the latest Audi A3, introduced earlier this year, and the third, the new Seat Leon, appeared in public for the first time at this month’s Paris Motor Show. One achievement, which the new Golf shares with the A3, is a weight saving of about 100 kg compared with the sixth-generation model, an example of a trend towards lighter cars that is now gathering pace – the smaller Peugeot 208 and Renault Clio, for example, also weigh quite a bit less than the models that came before. That 100kg seems to be made up of lots of small savings made all over the car, rather than a single big breakthrough – the body is 23 kg lighter, for example, the seats up to 7 kg, the air conditioning 2.7 kg, and so on.

The engine line-up has a deceptively familiar look to it, with similar capacities to before and the usual TDI and TSI badging, but worthwhile improvements in power and economy – not least because Volkswagen has decided to offer fuel-saving stop/start technology across the range. There are two turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol engines, badged TSI, providing 85 and 105 PS, and two 1.4-litre TSI engines rated at 122 and 140 PS. The 140 PS engine also has a cylinder deactivation system (Active Cylinder Technology in Volkswagen jargon) that means it runs on just two cylinders under a light load, helping it to a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 58.9 mpg and emissions of 112g/km of CO2.

Diesels at launch are a 1.6 developing 105 PS and a 150 PS 2.0. Next year, an economy-oriented BlueMotion model will be added using what is described by Volkswagen as a “completely new” 110 PS diesel that promises to return 88.3 mpg and 85g.km. There’ll also be a sporty GTI version - previewed at this month’s Paris Motor Show – expected to deliver 220 PS from a two-litre TSI engine.

This latest Golf also incorporates a number of important safety features, chief of which is an interesting multi-collision braking system fitted as standard across the range. A significant number of accident casualties result from a secondary impact that follows an initial accident and the new system brakes the car in order to lessen the risks involved. Other (optional) safety features include adaptive cruise control, city emergency braking, a driver alert system and a lane-keeping assistance system.

The new car’s interior is excellent, and promises to become the benchmark for affordable cars in this class. The materials used and the standard of fit and finish wouldn’t look out of place in a car from any of the premium brands. The overall feel of the interior is familiar from past Golfs, but a few subtle changes have been made – the controls are angled slightly more towards the driver and the in-dash equipment has had a revamp with DAB radios, Bluetooth and USB connections.

I drove two versions – the two-litre 140 PS diesel with a six-speed self-shifting DSG transmission, and the 1.4-litre TSI with a manual transmission and the ACT cylinder deactivation technology – which were quite different in character. The diesel was a pleasant, relaxed wafter that didn’t really feel like it wanted to be hurried but the 1.4 TSI was something else. Eager, agile and economical (it achieves 58.9mpg in the combined cycle test) this petrol Golf edges towards the top of the class for driving enjoyment. If I had a quibble, it was with the driver profile selection system that will be fitted to most UK cars, which allows a driver to choose between four modes, Eco, Sport, Normal and Individual, each associated with a given combination of settings for engine mapping and other parameters. On the basis of fairly brief acquaintance, “Normal” seemed to be so well judged that there didn’t appear to be much point in bothering with the other modes. “Individual” allows a user to tinker with each of the system’s parameters individually but I can’t imagine even the geekiest test engineer or the subtlest of test drivers making full and frequent use of that facility. “Eco” influences the engine settings, air conditioning and other systems in the interests of fuel economy, though, so may prove worthwhile in the long run.

The new Golf seems sure to be another hit. Volkswagen will be taking orders from 18 October, and the first cars will reach customers in January next year.