2021 Volkswagen Golf Mk8 review

The 2021 VW Golf Mk8’s Australian debut has been delayed until 2021, but we were able to give the new hatchback a thorough testing ahead of its arrival.

If success breeds complacency in the car business, one car above all others ought to bear it out: the Volkswagen Golf. And yet, over nearly five decades, we’ve yet to see much more than a sniff of proof of it. In the Golf’s case, the standing of one of the industry’s quiet icons only gets greater and greater.

However, there now enters something of a gamble. The Golf Mk8 might be the boldest redefinition of Volkswagen’s enduring family five-door since the Mk5. This, remember, from a car maker not habitually given to risk-taking.

Allied to its crisp-looking new suit of clothes, this car’s newly hybridised powertrain armoury, sharpened ride and handling, reductionist cabin design and market-leading active safety technology can be seen, when viewed together, as the most concerted effort that can be made by one of the world’s most powerful car makers to arrest the steady shrinking mid-sized hatch segment.

The Golf’s typically fulsome model range is somewhat truncated for now, the entry-level 1.0-litre TSI petrol engine only just having been added to it. GTI, GTD, GTE plug-in hybrid and R versions will come later, although it remains to be seen what models the Australian market will get.

The Golf is trying on some freshly ironed tailoring in this eighth-generation form. From bonnet to flanks to bootlid can be found sharper creases and a greater number of feature lines than the traditionally simple hatchback has used in previous versions.

Underneath the Golf Mk8, which has grown by one solitary inch in overall length but is otherwise almost exactly the same dimensions as the Mk7, is an updated version of the same all-steel MQB platform chassis. Like its predecessor, the Mk8 can be had with either all-independent suspension or torsion beam rear suspension, the latter of which is combined with any engine producing less than 110kW.

As with the Mk7, it comes with coil springs and fixed-rate gas dampers as standard. Upper-end specifications get a variable-rate steering rack that quickens as you add lock, just as the Mk7 got; but this time, the lower-end Golf’s steering has been quickened, too, while suspension rates have increased all round on both versions and the car’s subframes, links and bushings have been relocated and redesigned. DCC adaptive dampers feature as an option on higher-end cars and, allegedly, now work harder.

Automatically softening or stiffening either to rein in body movement or improve ride comfort, the new dampers can also stiffen asymmetrically as you turn to improve handling response. They’re effectively networked with the XDS electronic torque vectoring system so as to work more harmoniously alongside it. Beyond all that, the dampers have a new specially selectable extra-soft ‘decoupled’ mode to make for even better ride comfort in very particular situations.

VW’s engine range starts with a 80kW 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol, rising to include several 1.5-litre TSI Evo turbo four-pots – one of which comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and 48V mild-hybrid assistance. It also takes in 84kW and 110kW 2.0-litre TDI diesels, and for the moment – until the familiar GTI, GTD, GTE and R versions are added – that’s where the choice ends. In this test we drive a 110kW 1.5-litre eTSI mild hybrid, but (not by choice) without those adaptive dampers.

Anyone familiar with the painstaking care with which previous Golfs have presented their banks of physical switchgear is in for a surprise here.

The Mk8’s perfectly set, dead-straight, medium-height driving position feels familiar; the nicely bolstered seats of mid-level Style trim feeling reassuringly comfortable, too. But the arc of glossy black plastic running around behind the steering wheel, and surrounding both the instrument binnacle and infotainment set-up, is new – and likewise is the sense of sparseness about the rest of the environment.

Technological sophistication is this Golf’s calling card. The car gets a 10.0-inch infotainment system and fully digital instrumentation.

You worry, at first, whether VW has been too keen to follow the lead of companies like Tesla, making you go through that central screen interface to control everything from ventilation circulation to driver aids. Some will conclude that it has been. However, the few fixed controls and capacitive, touch-sensitive ‘zones’ that are provided are well located and – in tandem with the switchgear on the steering wheel spokes, and thanks not least to the configurability of the instrument display – they do effectively provide one- and two-touch access when you need to simply mute the radio, for example.

There is no doubt that this new MIB3 touchscreen infotainment system takes some getting used to but, as you learn to operate it, it does feel as if its functionality and usability have been sweated over in a way that few equivalents can match.

In contrast, perhaps the Golf’s long-nurtured sense of distinguished perceived quality hasn’t been sweated over quite enough. Less switchgear makes for fewer opportunities for the kind of tactile seduction that this car used to go in for, granted; and this is no cheap-feeling interior.

But you can find a few more harder plastics around this cabin than we’re used to from a Golf, and one or two sharper-edged mouldings. Cabin space is broadly unchanged, sufficient as it is for largish adults to travel in the back without issue, and for largish things to be carried in the boot, but in neither sense is it class leading. This Golf’s trick continues to be to offer greater space than you expect in what remains a fairly compact footprint.

The 10.0-inch Discover Navigation infotainment that comes as standard on the Golf is no mean system. You can pair two mobile phones to it simultaneously and it does wireless phone charging and smartphone mirroring via Apple, Android and MirrorLink formats (wirelessly for Apple CarPlay).

Our test car had the optional Discover Pro system, which, although its touchscreen is no bigger, adds voice and gesture control. It is easily navigable thanks in part to the shortcut buttons just below the system itself and the ‘home’ button, which is fixed on the right of the screen. As a result, you’re never more than a couple of prods from the menu or the function you need.

The most powerful of the new Golf’s mild hybrid drivetrains, the 1.5 eTSI driven here, distinguishes itself with inherently effective properties that should ensure it finds favour among traditional petrol engine car buyers and diesel stalwarts.

With 110kW at 5000rpm, the turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder unit isn’t exactly brimming with energy. However, it is remarkably smooth and revs freely to the 6400rpm cut-out, endowing the new Golf with a moderately sporting performance when you dial up the sport mode. In everyday driving, though, there’s no need to work it hard, because with 250Nm of torque available from 1500rpm it delivers a good amount of mid-range urge.

The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox boasts improved step off qualities, while the latest petrol-electric powerplant propels the new Golf from 0-100km/h in a claimed 8.5sec, with a top speed of 224km/h. By comparison, the non-electrified 1.5 TSI model it replaces boasted figures of 8.7sec and 217km/h. The 48-volt belt-driven starter motor brings additional functions, including brake energy recuperation, a coasting function and a more immediate stop/start system.

There’s a persuasive maturity to the on-road characteristics of the latest Golf, whose handling is distinguished by its progressiveness, balance and accuracy. The new model is noticeably more direct in its actions than before. This might surprise those coming from the comparatively relaxed confines of the seventh-generation model, but for enthusiast drivers it makes for a more compelling car – one with the dynamic ability to firmly challenge the best in class.

Wolfsburg would have you believe it is all-new underneath. However, the latest Golf is based around a carry-over platform and chassis. Lower end models continue to receive a MacPherson strut (front) and torsion beam (rear) suspension, while upper-end models, including this 1.5 eTSI, run a more sophisticated combination of MacPherson struts (front) and multi-links (rear).

All models receive passive dampers as standard, though as with its predecessor the new Golf works best with the optional continuously variable dampers (we’ve tested prior), which come as part of the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC). That also features a driver profile system with four modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual.

We’re yet to sample the standard fixed-ratio steering, but progressive steering system fitted our test car proved nicely weighted, wonderfully precise and quite predictable in its actions. The new Golf communicates with greater feel and boasts faster reactions than before, especially in the initial degrees of lock.

It might not deliver the overall feedback of some key competitors but it is meticulously accurate and always dependable, allowing you to confidently place it at the entry to corners. Turn-in on a trailing throttle and you discover excellent body control with progressive movement as lateral forces build before the fast-acting steering allows you to feed off the lock at the exit. On the right road, it is never anything less than entertaining.

Another key attribute to the new Golf is its excellent directional stability. As a result, it feels right at home at higher speeds on the motorway, with long gearing providing it with hushed driveline properties and its improved aerodynamics bringing about a noticeable reduction in wind buffeting.

The superiority of the Golf over its volume market hatchback rivals may not be quite as marked as it once was. But this new model has managed to raise the game and distance itself from the competition.

It betters its predecessor in a number of key areas, delivering a familiar range of qualities bundled together with newfound dynamic attributes and new age digital and connectivity functions.

The attention to detail in its engineering gives the new Volkswagen an immediate feeling of deep-seated integrity from the very first kilometre. The added performance and refinement from the electrified drivetrain and inherent maturity and resolved qualities of its chassis make it a highly gratifying car to drive on just about any road and in any environment.

If Volkswagen’s claims are to be believed it is also significantly more efficient, with improved fuel economy and fewer emissions than ever before no matter what model you choose.

Without the optional adaptive dampers we mentioned earlier, no selectable drive modes to flick through, no lowered sports suspension and no optional variable-rate steering, our test car was pleasingly straightforward to drive.

Its medium-paced steering was fairly lightly weighted and could therefore have made for a more enticing introduction for keener drivers. But in the way the car mixes supple, rubbery-feeling ride comfort with good outright grip and body control, and likewise an impressive if slightly understated sort of handling agility, the Golf Mk8 is quite plainly one of the most dynamically versatile and finely polished operators you’ll find anywhere at the affordable end of the new car market.

It has taken bravery to redefine what remains the biggest-selling new car in Europe as Volkswagen just has.

Some will simply see it as ‘another Golf’. Others may not even think it a particularly attractive one. And yet there was clear risk in subtly but markedly reappraising this car’s ride and handling as VW has; and more so, probably, in reimagining the cabin ergonomics, and in betting big on relatively expensive touchscreen infotainment technology and the latest active safety systems.

While this car lacks a little of the lavish material plushness we’ve grown used to from Golfs, it’s no disappointment for perceived quality. Meanwhile, in the way it drives – for its laudable refinement, economy, versatility and drivability and, above all else, simply for its ready-for-anything completeness as a compact family car – it remains in a league of one.

Just as with previous Golfs, it’s not necessarily the outstanding operator in any one area that may particularly interest you; not for premium feel, performance, efficiency, on-board technology or driver appeal. But being so strong in so many areas can leave it in only one lofty place among its peers.

Matt Saunders

Final Verdict:

2020 Mercedes-Benz A-Class vs Audi A3

The Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class are strong competitors in the premium hatchback market - we find out which is best. The Audi A3 is...

2021 BMW 128ti Prototype Drive Review

The new BMW 128ti has its sight set on the Volkswagen Golf GTI

Opinion: “Honda is back in rude health”

Honda is back in full strength, beating even the fabled Ferrari at one of motorsport's greatest competitions. For a third of a century, most of...

Related articles