ROAD TEST VW GOLF PLUS: It's a Golf Jim, but not as we know it

Size is everything in the niche-obsessed car world, and VW's latest `experiment' lets its stalwart model walk tall in a crowded market, says John Simister

IMAGINE YOU have a plastic Airfix kit of a current Mk5 Volkswagen Golf. The instructions are clear enough, but I'm going to depart from them slightly. Please locate and cement all four wheels to a baking tray, then place model in a warm oven. Leave five minutes, remove from oven and pull gently upwards on roof. What have you got? A Golf Plus.

The Golf Plus is the upwardly mobile Golf. A Golf with deeper flanks, a steeper bonnet pulled up by the windscreen pillars. It's 3.75in taller (it looks more), the front seats are 3in higher (the rear ones are raised further to give a `theatre view'), there's more space for legs because there's enough height for shins to sit more vertically, and naturally there's more headroom. The boot is bigger, too, and has a two-storey floor. Marvellous. Are we, in fact, talking here about a Golf MPV? A kind of Golf version of Renault's Megane-based Scenic? Well, yes? I mean no, because a Volkswagen marketing person has just tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me about the Touran. The Touran, based on Golf underpinnings is the practical MPV, yes: boxy and bulky and style-free and available with seven seats. But people buy compact MPVs for reasons other than ultimate people-and cargo-carrying capacity. They like a compact MPV's airiness and versatility, the fine view out, the fact they can carry lots of stuff in a car with a `footprint' no greater - if it's the right MPV - than a regular hatchback's. It's easier to park than an estate car, and less claustrophobic.

Besides, the hatchback breed is growing upwards anyway. Look at a Honda Civic, a Peugeot 307; they're almost MPVs, what with the Civic's open- plan cabin and the 307's clap-hands windscreen wipers. It's entirely possible that the five-door version of the future Golf Mk6 will be Golf Plus-shaped, leaving the three-door as the regular low-line hatchback. Volkswagen considers the Plus as an experiment, to see how it tunes in with the times; the company can make whatever quantities of each shape the market demands, as they both go down the same line at the Wolfsburg factory.

Golf Plus and Golf Minus are much the same below the surface, but outwardly the only common body parts are the door mirrors, the door handles and the badges. Innovations for the Plus include LED tail lights in which the indicators form a ring around the brake lights, and the option of steerable headlights (the first car in the class to offer these). As with the recently-launched GTI, the headlight bulbs have a little VW logo on their tips; apparently, if you shine the lights at a nearby wall the logo is projected in front of you.

Inside, too, everything changes with a big slab of a dashboard and eight facia air vents. The optional satellite navigation screen is placed near the slab's summit, to make it easy to see and use, and there are many places - up to 43 in all - to put things. The pull-out bottle opener that divides the cupholder between the front seats is a witty design touch, and the top Comfortline (SE or GT in the UK) model's sequence of pop-down roof compartments gives fantastic opportunities to lose things for weeks. The rearmost one can contain a DVD screen if you so desire, but to have this row of boxes means you can't have a sunroof because they occupy the same space. Never mind; sunroofs are passe anyway.

Seats. Something MPV-ish must have some clever seatisms. Here, the wide left rear seat slides independently from the narrow right one, and you can fold the centre section (attached to the left seat) down separately to make an armrest and storage box. The backrest angles are adjustable, and locked in the vertical position they make a good bulkhead for bulky rectilinear objects in the boot or the back wall of a mobile kennel. The seats are folded and stowed with a one-handed operation which cantilevers the cushions forward and down to make space for the folded backrest on top of it. This then aligns with the boot's false floor, level with the rear hatch opening and able to support 200kg of weight.

Beneath this false floor is a storage compartment, and below that the spare wheel or inflation kit to choice. Or you can take the false floor out entirely, complete with its sliding filler panels to cover the variable gap between floor and sliding seats. The panels are held on with elastic strings. You lose the flat load bay with the false floor removed, but you gain about 4in of load height. Base-model Pluses (if that's not a tautology) forgo the false floor.

The front passenger seat, if so specified, can fold forward to make an extra-long and slender load bay while still letting two people sit in the centre and left rear seats - but this idea falls apart with a right- hand drive Plus because, then, the wide part of the seat is behind the front passenger seat. We should feel cheated; `We'll look at it,' said the Plus project leader, Carsten Unverricht, stung by our indignation. Maybe the UK should have changed to driving on the right a long time ago, but it wasn't going to happen then and it's too late now.

And to drive? The Plus should feel like a Golf, but taller and maybe more precarious. Surprisingly, though, the centre of gravity is just 0.6in higher and the Plus stays virtually as taut and flat as a regular Golf. That it feels thus shows how very little the dynamics have changed, because your higher seating position would amplify any increase in body lean. The current Golf is already one of the best-handling and best-riding cars in its class, shaded only by the Ford Focus with its more naturally-weighted steering, and what's this?

The Plus actually has more pleasing steering than the regular Golf, possibly because the revised body topology makes the rear wheels work harder. This, for various kinematic reasons, can have a subtle effect on steering sensations. Whatever, it works well here; I can't think of an MPV-flavoured car as keen and nimble as this one.

Maybe, then, a Golf Plus GTI would be good, but there will be no such car. The 2.0-litre, direct-injection FSI petrol engine's 150bhp is as high as the Plus will go. This engine suits the Plus perfectly, and gets better in each new Volkswagen group car to which it's fitted: smooth, sporty-sounding, eager to rev but willing to pull. The 1.6-litre, 115bhp FSI is similarly honed nowadays, proving that petrol engines are fighting back against recent diesel dominance; you can have 1.9/105bhp and 2.0/140bhp examples of those. There's also a 1.4-litre petrol engine.

We'll have to wait till June for UK-market Golf Pluses, at pounds 500 more than the corresponding regular Golf, and the 2.0 FSI won't be available straight away. But if you like the quality and iconography of a Golf and the usefulness of an MPV, here is the great reconciliation.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Volkswagen Golf Plus 2.0 FSI GT

Price: pounds 18,900 approx

Engine: 1,984cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, direct injection, 150bhp at 4,000rpm, 148lb ft at 3,500rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 125mph, 0-60mph in 10.0sec, 32.8mpg official average

CO2: 106g/km

THE RIVALS

FORD FOCUS C-MAX 2.0 ULTIMA pounds 18,250

Boxier and bulkier than the Golf, but delightful to drive in the usual Focus fashion and this engine is a strong performer. Rear seats can be three cosy or two spacious, according to deployment.

RENAULT MeGANE SCeNIC 2.0T PRIVILeGE

pounds 18,910

Today's iteration of the original compact MPV looks surprisingly sporty and has a soft, sumptuous interior. Seats are removable, driving experience feels oddly synthetic, turbo 165bhp engine outpaces those of its rivals.

SEAT ALTEA 2.0 FSI SPORT

pounds 16,000

The striking Altea is almost a Plus-like MPV and is nearly identical under the skin, but overall it is thwarted by insufficiently clever seat- folding. Interior surfaces are hard but generally look good, the steering - bizzarely - is more anaesthetised than the Golf's.

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