Volkswagen likes to tell us the Golf is the car for everyman, which is a non-gender-specific term also embracing everywoman and running the social spectrum from everytoff to everychav. But truth is, in Britain at least, we all know the Golf is as ineffably middle-class as speech day at a minor public school. How could it be otherwise, given its unchanging small-‘c’ conservative being, and its air of understated superiority? Its very solidity is the four-wheeled embodiment of the mildly smug ‘British reserve’.
Yet oddly, there have been times when the Golf’s designers have snuck a dose of radicalism beneath the radar. I’m thinking of the beautifully proportioned Giugiaro Mk1, and the Mk4’s gorgeously disciplined surfacing and shut-lines. Not to mention the epic quality leap of the Mk4’s cabin.
Despite new VW Group shapes- gaffer Walter de Silva overseeing the design, you’ll be aware the Mk6 doesn’t attempt to be anything like so memorable. The detailing of the lights is nice, and the general effect is elegant albeit busier than before, but this won’t be in any museums in 30 years’ time. Er, what has actually changed? Everything bar the roof, but not by much. The nose is the new VW family face, the sides get a crease just above the door handles, and the tail emphasises its horizontal lines more, all in aid of making the Golf look lower and wider. Which it isn’t: the basic structure is actually the same as the last car. Unlike most other car makers VW has managed to improve crash safety without lengthening the nose or adding weight. A creditable achievement.
Of course we’re only five years on from the launch of the last Golf. Why the unseemly rush? Because the Mk5 was a bit too expensive to build and wasn’t far enough ahead of the rivals in its cabin quality. Sure enough, the new one has nicer finishes, and they range over a wider area of the cabin before your fingers arrive at the hard scratchy stuff. The dials and switches have little metal embellishers, and the seat fabrics go up a notch.
The instruments themselves sit in angled circular shrouds, and the fuel and temperature needles swing through almost a full circle, which mysteriously looks classier than the usual quarter-arc. I guess it implies they read with more precision, but I wasn’t prepared to run out of fuel just to test this theory. The seats adjust through yards of travel and have the usual Golf firmness to them.
Adding to the general grown-upness is a major assault on noise: there are some impressively refined engines and the car itself has better sound insulation. There are basic 1.4 and 1.6 petrol engines, but they’re slow. You need to look out for the TSI badge, which gets you a turbo on a direct-injection 1.4. There’s 122bhp, which is all the power you’d expect from a 1.8 and probably more torque. And when the TSI has a red I on the boot-lid, you’ve got a supercharger as well as the turbo. It’s just as smooth and quiet, but makes 160bhp. The torque kicks in well below 2,000rpm and stays there, blissfully lag-free, to the red line. You can have these TSI engines with a seven-speed DSG too. Seven seems a bit excessive, given the torque spread, but it helps economy.
For the moment, there are two 2.0 diesels, at 110 and 140bhp, with a 1.6 to come, and a 170 2.0. Dunno about the 110, as VW hasn’t got any test units yet, but I can say, blimey the 140 is quiet. No, honestly, if you’re imagining one of those much-praised diesels from Honda or BMW, this is another level, like putting on a pair of earmuffs. And it goes well too. The 110 is noteworthy as it does 119g/km CO2, the same as the old Bluemotion. And next year’s Golf Bluemotion will get that CO2 number down into double digits, a match for today’s Polo Bluemotion.
Because the significant chassis bits are just five years old, we don’t get any big changes there. And let’s not be grumpy, we don’t need them. The whole thing’s been recalibrated though, and rather well. And top models get the adaptive damping from the Passat CC and Scirocco.
This really is a revelation. The ride is superb, a lovely quiet pliancy that never goes floaty. It’s good at all speeds, big bumps and small, low frequencies and high. Sadly, the diesel, its heavier engine having called for stiffer front springs, isn’t as good, though to be fair it’s still well above average. It feels a bit clumpy on sudden ridges, and pattery on short-cycle small bumpiness, even if you set the dampers to ‘comfort’.
Handling I’ve left until last, because you hardly ever see a non-GTI Golf being driven on the door handles. But anyway, it’s fine. It was greatly improved for the Mk5, and the Mk6 is but a consolidation of that: progressive and controllable, with steering that’s calibrated to be stable and reassuring in A-road curves rather than super-agile when you’re hooning through roundabouts. In fact, the ESP can’t be switched off, which curtails the wilder hooning options anyway.
The new Golf is all about reassurance. So it couldn’t have come at a better time. These are uncertain days, and VW has built the antidote.