The seventh-generation, 2014 Volkswagen Golf sticks to the car's basic formula of practical and stylish design, but a new chassis helps reduce curb weight and improve fuel economy. On top of that, the Golf scores a range of clever active-safety features that were previously unavailable in the compact-car segment. Although the new Golf won't debut in the U.S. until early 2014, the updates and specifications announced for the European model closely predict the changes in store for our version of the Volkswagen hatch.
While the Golf's basic shape carries on unchanged, the entire car has been sharpened and revised. The nose adopts the narrow, laser-straight grille design seen on other new Volkswagen products, and smaller headlights contribute to a squinting front end. A sharp character line runs along the doors, a few inches below the door handles. A wide and slightly bow-shaped C-pillar gives way to a liftgate that has a pair of sharp creases, with narrow dark-tinted taillights. Compared to the current Golf, the 2014 model has considerably sharper and straighter lines.
The big news behind the scenes is that the Golf is built on Volkswagen's new MQB chassis architecture, which is like an Erector Set for new cars. Although several basic dimensions are fixed, the MQB chassis can be stretched or modified to accommodate vehicles of many different shapes and sizes. This helps cut down development and production costs for new models.
Moreover, the switch to MQB has helped Volkswagen trim as much as 220 pounds from the new Golf, meaning we can expect curb weights of 2700-2800 pounds. That's due to incremental diets in all parts of the MQB platform -- the electrical system of the new Golf is seven pounds lighter than before, the seats are now 15 pounds lighter, and a redesigned air conditioner saves six pounds. The biggest change of all comes from the body shell, which adopts stronger and lighter types of steel in order to save 51 pounds. Whereas the sixth-generation Golf used high-strength steel in 66 percent of its body, the new car's body is made of 80 percent high-strength metals.
That weight loss was achieved even though Volkswagen's hatchback has grown. It is now 2.2 inches longer, at 167.5 inches overall, and 0.5 inch wider, at 70.8 inches overall. That allows for 0.6 inch more rear legroom and 1.2 inches more shoulder room on the inside. At the same time, the roof is 0.8 inch lower and the front wheels are 1.7 inches farther forward than on the old Golf, translations designed to give the new car a sportier stance. Out back, the hatchback area grows by about one cubic foot, and the liftover height is lower so it's easier to load cargo. Dimensionally, the seventh-generation Golf is within spitting distance of the Ford Focus hatchback. The Focus is a few inches longer, but only a smidge wider and taller than the new Golf.
The passenger compartment shows the same design evolution as the exterior, with sharper lines but few dramatic styling changes. The center stack is now angled slightly toward the driver, and the center console has more storage and cubby spaces because the large handbrake has been eliminated in favor of a compact electric parking brake button. The instrument cluster remains a straightforward design, with an analog speedometer and tachometer bookending an LCD trip computer.
The new Golf is offered with touch-screen radio interfaces measuring 5.0, 5.8, or 8.1 inches diagonally depending on trim. A new proximity sensor allows the systems to switch between display and operation modes when the driver or passenger reaches toward the screen. Models with navigation have free map updates for the first three years of ownership.
There's also a variety of new technology meant to improve the driving experience, starting with variable-ratio steering, an electronic front differential introduced on the Volkswagen GTI, and adaptive cruise control. A new City Emergency Braking function uses a laser sensor to detect imminent collisions at speeds below 19 mph. It can pre-charge the brakes or apply full braking force if the driver doesn't react in time. Another feature called PreCrash automatically tenses the seatbelts and closes the windows if it detects panic braking or a loss of vehicle control. On top of that, Multi Collision Brake applies the brakes when the airbags deploy, so as to stop the car after a big crash.
The 2014 Volkswagen Golf also gains Lane Assist, which uses cameras to detect whether the driver is veering out of the current lane. If so, the system vibrates the steering wheel and steers the car back into its intended lane. A fatigue detection system sounds an alarm if it detects a drowsy driver. Finally, Dynamic Light Assist uses a front-facing camera to prevent the headlights from dazzling other drivers. The system uses a moving aperture to prevent the high-beam headlights from blinding oncoming traffic, and automatically switches to the low-beam lights if necessary.
Others gadgets that were already available on the European Golf include adaptive suspension, traffic sign recognition, self-parking, and push-button start.
Volkswagen says the 2014 Golf is 23 percent more fuel-efficient than the current model, an improvement attributable to the reduced weight and more aerodynamic body. In Europe, the automaker expects that a thrifty Golf with a new 140-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four engine will return the equivalent of 41 mpg. A 105-hp turbodiesel engine is expected to return economy equal to 52 mpg.
The American market won't be privy to such efficient engines, but the Golf should be made available with a choice of at least three engines. The current 2.5-liter inline-five engine should be replaced be a more efficient 1.8-liter turbo-four, alongside an updated 2.0-liter turbodiesel for the Golf TDI. The gas engine should finally approach the new 40-mpg benchmark on the highway, while the diesel should exceed its current EPA rating of 42 mpg. When the next-generation GTI debuts at a later date, it will reprise its 2.0-liter turbo-four gas engine, albeit with significant revisions expected to push power closer to 250 hp.
Unfortunately, we will have to wait a long time to see the 2014 Volkswagen Golf in the U.S. The new car probably won't arrive in showrooms here until early 2014, and when it does, the new Golf might lack some of the equipment touted in Europe. Because Volkswagen must import the Golf from Germany, the automaker is under intense pressure to keep the car's price down. And because the compact hatchback segment is typically very price-sensitive, Volkswagen usually can't bring the most efficient engines and newest technologies to our shores without pushing the Golf's price too high. It remains to be seen which of the new gadgets for the seventh-generation Golf will be offered in America. Expect more information on U.S. equipment levels and engine choices to arrive over the next year.