10 August 2016

Review: Volkswagen Golf Estate

It's a little bit late in the day to be driving a Volkswagen Golf, but I do like to revisit a car on occasion to see how it's getting on as it ages, writes Brian Byrne. The next generation isn't due until 2018, so it will be around for a while yet.

Besides, I hadn't driven the estate version of the car which has for a number of years topped the most popular model list in Ireland. Also the most aspired to, if we believed the hype and the related advertising.

The Golf has been the mainstay of Volkswagen's success for decades. Not many mainstream cars achieve icon status, but the VW has been blessed with two — this one and the Beetle which it supplanted as the company's breadwinner.

It is arguable that without the Golf, Volkswagen would never have had the cash and the financial credit status to build itself to be the biggest carmaker in the world — it just won that title back from Toyota in the last quarter, despite the issues over emissions cheating. The spread of its acquisitions over the last decades, Skoda, SEAT, Audi, Bentley, Porsche and exotics Bugatti and Lamborghini, is really quite breathtaking.

But the core brand is still the foundation. And the legend of Golf built on it. There's a thing about legends though. Sometimes the reality behind them has to be faced.

And I'm afraid the reality of Golf today is perhaps not what it was. Not that it is disimproved, more that it has been caught up to, maybe overtaken. Passed out in style, for instance, by the Mazda3 I wrote about last week, which is much better looking. It's all very well that an iconic shape shouldn't be tampered with, but style is near the top of most buyer influences and eventually they'll want something very fresh.

Quality has always been an underpinning of the VW brand, and particularly the Golf. There's no sense that this has deteriorated either, but in a very real way there are many more equivalents out there which have at least equalled the Volkswagen product in this respect.

Interior design is where an owner lives, and it more and more has to be classy and feel special to keep that owner interested. The Golf sits in the middle now, kind of spartan in spots, clean and clear in others. But not special any more ... the new Renault Megane, for instance, is a direct European competitor that is several notches above in how to hug your owner.

Safety technology is now pretty similar in most cars in the class, apart from how it is named and at what grade point do you get the full package, if you do get it without optioning a special pack? Most of the gubbins making it work is from the same external specialist suppliers anyhow. Golf doesn't differ significantly here.

Leaving emissions claims aside — it's only a tiny influencer for most would-be buyers — almost all of the diesel cars in the compact family segment are close enough in economy, power, and refinement. As we transition back towards petrol, and it is happening, we're likely to see a wider range of power offerings. Volkswagen has already developed a strong expertise in turbocharged petrol, and in the provision of dual-clutch gearboxes that match them well. Golf already has a probable lead here for now. The review car was the 110hp 1.6 diesel version, and proved adequate. A mere 5-speed gearbox didn't generate any enthusiasm.

So what is left to say about this re-review of a car that has served, and is serving, many people well in its current iteration? Well, the estate style is smart, and the format very practical. It's a pity that our local buyer preferences have moved to compact and small SUVs in this context. Plenty of boot space, and a real spare. And the tartan seat covering is attractive.

The bottom line is that the Golf as we know it now is reaching the end of its current generation, writes Brian Byrne. Will they make any substantial changes for the next one, to bring it back to the 'I want it' space the model used to enjoy? We'll see, eventually.

The Golf Estate is priced from €22,760. The Lounge grade of the review car in 1.6 TDI manual is from €27,775, road tax €190.