Volkswagen started with an absolutely virgin-clean sheet of paper here. It could have built anything to replace the MkVI Golf. It could have made it a low-slung wedge, endowed it with elaborate curves, switched to a tall ovoid MPV-ish silhouette or, come to that, a pineapple shape. Instead, it came up with a Golf. Look at the thing in pictures, and you'll wonder whether VW actually did bother throwing everything away and starting afresh, or whether this is all an elaborate hoax and this is just a mild facelift, after all.
But, no, when you see it going down the road, it's clear the bones are all-new: it's lower, wider, longer in the wheelbase. Can't do that with a facelift. Why is the redesign so nearly a facsimile of what went before? Because the previous six Golfs have been such a riotous success over so many years. Since 1974, they've sold 29 million of them (and that doesn't even count the related not-Golfs such as Jettas). Why mess with it? Just improve it. So VW did.
In search of a fully modernised Golf, the designers tweaked every line on the thing, leaving no stone unturned but none entirely inverted either. Same with the mechanicals. Pretty well every part is new, but familiar principles remain in place.
Why bother? Because inside it allows a better, lower driving position, and more space all-round. Because it means that as it goes down the road, the ride is more placid but the handling more agile, thanks to better weight distribution. New steels and techniques make the shell stronger but lighter.
And when you combine lower drag and much lower weight (minus 100kg in some models) with all-new more efficient engines, you're up for improved performance and far better economy. That, then, is why they wanted to start from scratch. And because this is prospering Volkswagen and not its financially waterlogged European rivals, it could afford to. Oh and it'll prosper more now, because, compared with the old Golf, the new one is far cheaper to make, and far easier to adapt to more diverse spin-offs.
Before you think I've drunk myself senseless on the Wolfsburg Kool-Aid, note I'm not saying that every aspect of the new Golf is perfect, and certainly not that every aspect is to my own taste. But I am saying there are good reasons why you're going to be seeing an awful lot of these about.
What's not perfect? Most conspicuously the 7spd DSG transmission, which I drove with the 1.4 TSI engine. Interestingly, this is the one major assembly that isn't all-new. And it remains, as ever, an intensely irritating thing. It's jerky when you're manoeuvring, it's wilfully inconsistent about accepting your shift instructions if you try to override it and, if you leave it on auto, the kickdown is often harsh and messy. It's not entirely without merit, as it allows the remarkable combo of a lively petrol engine - the 1.4 140bhp TSI - and two-pedal driving with a CO2 rating of 110g/km. If I only understood the byzantine complexities of company-car tax, I'm sure that'd be good news.
But me, I'll take the manual. That's a thoroughly acceptable way to enjoy this new engine. It's part of the new EA211 series, as are the unblown triples in the Up. Unlike the old petrols, the exhaust manifold is at the rear side of the cylinder head, and the engine is tilted backwards in the bay. This improves weight distribution and means they use the same engine mounts and gearbox flanges as the diesels and bigger petrols, because this modular platform is designed with interchangeability and standardisation in mind. It means VW can build more variations if that's what we want.
Most of the time, this version runs as a four-cylinder direct-injection turbo, the same deal as countless VW Group cars before. What's new is that when you need less than 63lb ft and use less than 4,000rpm, a special set of cams on the middle two cylinders will shut the air supply and their injectors cut the fuel, so the engine runs on just the outer pair. If you listen hard, you can make out the softly flatulent beat of the engine running on two, but the transition between two and four and back is always buttery smooth. And running on two saves a surprising amount of fuel.
You've got diesel-ish economy and diesel-ish low-rev torque (albeit with a fair bit of lag if you fling open the tap below about 2,500rpm). But instead of diesel rattle you've got near-silent petrol refinement at town speeds. Best of all, you've got an engine that's happy to rev out beyond 6k, rather than running out of puff as diesels do.
You'll be wanting this quiet engine in your new Golf because everything else about its straight-line progress is wonderfully placid. The ride is little short of a revelation. Over the sort of knackered tarmac that every British town specialises in, it just gently hovers above the disturbance. On motorways, it glides. And yet it's not floaty or nauseating. Admittedly, the cars I tested had the optional adaptive dampers. But while that technology can subtly improve good suspension, it certainly can't disguise a bad one. The Golf's is plainly a million miles from bad.
With less weight - especially at the nose - plus all-new suspension, the Golf never really dissolves into understeer unless it's a tight, wet roundabout or some such. Sure, you wouldn't call it agile, but it's faithful and actually serves up far more chassis feedback than the supple ride might have you expect. The stability system doesn't intervene, even if you go up to or a little beyond the limit, but, of course, that means when it does activate, it's abrupt. The steering is progressive and so clean-acting that you never misplace the car, but I'd choose more weight and definitely more feel, please. There's a job for those working on the GTI.
But provided you're not trying to carve the living daylights out of some tarmac rally section, then the handling really is just fine, thanks. It is, after all, an economy-minded family hatch, and if you want me to mark it down for not having perfect steering feel, you've either got the wrong car or you're reading the wrong magazine.
By the way, it uses a multi-link trailing-arm rear suspension. The low-power versions get a torsion beam, also totally redesigned. It probably affects the handling slightly, but, anyway, with low power, who's complaining? No doubt it was worth VW's while designing it because of the big range of cheaper cars this MQB platform will support, and it's cheaper and 11kg lighter than the posh set-up, which is itself 4kg lighter than the old Golf's. It all shows the huge scope of this project.
If the unerring stability, superb ride and general quietness make this a superb car for long trips, so does the cabin. It engenders the sort of calm, orderly well-being that Golfs always did, but, again, VW's gone through every nook and cranny and given it a rethink and a spruce-up. The new platform brings a shallower-angled steering wheel and fresh seats, so the driving position is more relaxed than ever. And every switch, button and stalk is new, all of them operating with a finger-friendly snick.
If you spring for the top-level nav system (basic nav is standard on the GT), you get a screen far better than the standard fare. Resolution is higher, graphics smoother and there's no latency to your finger strokes. It also has proximity sensing: the map screen is normally uncluttered, but when you bring your finger close, an extra set of soft-keys magically appears.
Of course, there are a lots of driver support options. Well done, VW, for making the following standard: active cruise control, active braking, self-dipping headlamps, lane keeping, speed-limit sign recognition, blind-spot warning and so on. But the Ford Focus has had them for a while, and that's cash, so let's not get too excited.
But, as you can see, we're struggling to pick holes. Just like VW promised, the result of a colossal engineering effort is a car that feels exactly like a Golf but a better one. This is a wall-to-wall future-proofing exercise.
1395cc, 4cyl, FWD, 140bhp, 184lb ft, 60.1mpg, 110g/km CO2, 0-62 in 8.4secs, 132mph, 1268kg
You might think it po-faced and humourless, but you just can't argue with this sort of comfort, economy and quality.