There are first drives and there are preview drives, and this is definitely the latter. The new, seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf, which is just now being launched in Europe, won't be arriving in North America until the spring of 2014, likely as a 2015 model. The model year -- like a lot of other things about our version of the new Golf -- hasn't been decided yet, but we got a hint of what is to come with an early drive of the European version.
One reason Volkswagen of America is not in a tremendous hurry to get us the seventh generation of its worldwide bestseller is that the current, sixth-generation car isn't that old. Introduced in Europe in 2008, and in the States in 2009, the Golf VI is being ushered off-stage early. That's not because it has been a subpar performer, but because the Volkswagen Group is moving to a new platform system -- the so-called MQB platform for transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive cars, of which the Golf is a key model.
Many of the advantages of the MQB layout have to do with cost and manufacturing efficiency, which is swell for the VW Group's bottom line, but for the end users, one of the more tangible benefits is reduced weight. The U.S.-spec Golf VII will be at least 95 pounds lighter than its predecessor, thanks to savings in the following areas: body-in-white, 51 lb; seats and other interior fittings, 31 lb; electrical wiring, 13 lb. (The Golfs for other markets will weigh as much as 220 lb less due to lighter engines and other equipment differences.)
The weight loss comes despite the fact that the car casts a slightly larger shadow than before. Width is up a fraction and height is actually lowered (for aerodynamics) but length is increased by some two inches. All of that falls within the wheelbase, as the front axle has been moved forward, the front overhang shaved, and the cabin moved slightly rearward, allowing for proportions that are a bit less like the typical front-wheel-drive car. Changes like this delight designers, but the team here might have made better use of its opportunity. The primary character line under the door handles, which unlike in the previous model does not continue onto the rear quarter panel, gives the Golf an unfortunate everycar look. The front end, though, is clean and purposeful, and the U-shaped channels within the headlights make for a standout design statement; the rear, like the front, emphasizes width with its horizontal elements.
The interior also has been completely restyled, and the effort here is more successful. The wide center stack is canted slightly toward the driver, and the gauges are deeply set into an angled dash face, as in the Passat. The interior is much more impressive for its materials, however, than for its design. It's executed to an extremely high standard and marks a return to class-leading interiors for VW. Soft-touch surfaces are everywhere (in our top-spec test cars) and the cabin is awash in high-gloss black trim, even on the steering wheel, a flat-bottomed unit wrapped in smooth leather and featuring more spoke-mounted buttons than ever. It's a good thing they're well-designed and easy to use. Our cars also had the Golf's new, extra-large touch screen (a smaller version will be standard), which has a neat proximity sensor, like that in the Cadillac CUE system, which automatically presents virtual buttons as your finger approaches.
As nice as the new Golf is inside, however, we're pleased with how easy it is to see out of. Thin A-pillars and a wide backlight buck industry trends and make for clear sightlines. The great outward visibility complements the excellent driving position. The seats are firm and supportive, although their deep lateral bolsters might be confining for larger drivers. The cabin is wider than before, and the rear seat is spacious and comfortable, even in the two-door. VW also claims one cubic foot more space in the cargo hold, although the load floor seems quite high. Buyers can brighten the interior with a new, ultra-wide panoramic glass sunroof, just one of a slew of luxury-car features available -- in Europe at least. Others include: adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, automatic low-speed braking, lane departure warning, automatic parking assist, blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert, keyless ignition, a power driver's seat, and a driver drowsiness monitor, but it's still to be determined which of those features will come to the States.
That uncertainty also makes it difficult to give a definitive report on how the new Golf drives. Yes, we can tell you that the cars we drove exhibited a new level of sophistication not only for the Golf -- and for small cars in general -- but there are many caveats. Take the 1.4-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder, for instance. Making a stout 138 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, this mighty mite is surprisingly strong, even off the line, and zings the little VW from 0 to 62 mph in 8.4 seconds, although it feels faster, with great responsiveness across the rev range. Too bad it's not coming to America. We will be getting a new gasoline engine to (finally) replace the 2.5-liter five-cylinder; European bureau chief Georg Kacher tells us it will be a smaller version of the 2.0-liter turbo four, displacing 1.8 liters.
The 2.0-liter TDI that we drove, however, is confirmed for our market, since the current diesel engine has a 25 percent take rate in the U.S. Golf. The new version of the 2.0-liter turbodiesel sees horsepower increase to 148 hp while torque remains at 236 pound-feet. According to Volkswagen's measurements, the new Golf TDI is 0.7 second faster from 0 to 62 mph (at 8.6 seconds). The engine's robust torque easily flung the new Golf from corner to corner on the curving two-lanes of Sardinia, where our test drive took place. Except at idle, this engine's diesel clatter is well muted. Even better though, is the revised six-speed DSG, which operates with perfect smoothness, having shed its sometimes-jerky behavior in stop-and-go driving. The six-speed stick also makes a strong case for itself, however, with low-effort throws and delightful clutch action.
In either powertrain, torque steer is conspicuous by its absence, banished with the help of Volkwagen's XDS differential, which brakes an individual slipping front wheel to mimic a limited-slip differential, and which is standard on the Golf (again, in Europe). Both cars we drove were equipped with Dynamic Chassis Control, which offers a choice of five drive modes that affect the dampers, throttle, steering, transmission, and A/C. The differences were subtle at best -- but no matter, since DCC won't come here. Regardless of the setting, the steering is rather light but the new, variable-ratio rack effectively keeps wheel-winding to a minimum even in hairpin corners, and does so without the weirdly unpredictable response you get in other manufacturers' systems; here again, though, this option is not confirmed for our market. Serene quietness and a supple ride (on seventeen-inch wheels with 45-series rubber) give credence to the new Golf's upscale ambitions, and yet the car is still fun and tossable. Rear-end squat under acceleration is more prevalent than body roll in corners, but even though body motions aren't totally suppressed, the light and lively VW was a willing playmate on the empty back roads on the northern edge of this Mediterranean island.
The new Golf exhibits outsized polish and sophistication for a compact hatch. Just how many of its premium features we will get is for now an open question. Certainly, with the Jetta and the Passat, VW of America recently has been moving in the opposite direction; Volkswagen insiders, though, tell us that the new Golf will be positioned above the Jetta so maybe the cost pressures won't be so intense. We'll see how much of its considerable charm the new Golf retains when it finally arrives at our shores, but our preview drive certainly was positive.
2015 Volkswagen Golf
On sale: Now (Europe); spring 2014 (USA)
Base price: $19,000 (estimated)
1.4-liter I-4 turbo
138 hp @ 4500-6000 rpm
184 lb-ft @ 1500-3500 rpm
2.0-liter I-4 turbodiesel
148 hp @ 3500-4000 rpm
236 lb-ft @ 1750-3000 rpm
Fuel mileage: N/A