volkswagen golf mk7

And so, ‘The Car’ has arrived. Not just the car, but the one, if you are to understand what the term suggests. Such flourish is usually dripping with self-aggrandisement, but you’ll forgive the best-selling European vehicle on the planet from shouting it, and shouting it a bit loud. Because when you’ve sold more than 29 million examples, you simply can.

Enter then ‘The Car’, or if you will, the Volkswagen Golf Mk7, ready to expand on the excellent ground gained by its short-lived predecessor, the Mk6.

The Typ 5G may have arrived on the scene only late last year, debuting in Berlin in September and then entering the market in November, but the latest iteration of a car humbly named after the Gulf Stream has already scored big, named as the European Car of The Year for 2013, the second Golf to bag the accolade. It’s in the running for the World Car of The Year award too, and might even win it.

So, it has to be something, and it is. It’s the sort of car that’s both a technological marvel and comprehensive all-rounder from a driving perspective – from an engineering point of view, it’s a veritable accomplishment, and as an offering, this is what everything else in its segment class must measure up against. The thing is, how much does it advance itself over the last one?

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By more than a bit, actually. The Volkswagen Golf Mk7 may be a continuation of the process that began in 1974, but it’s a very significant reinterpretation of the form over the outgoing Golf. Where the Mk6 was pretty much a re-skin pressed into the equation by the slow-to-produce-and-thus-expensive-to-build Mk5, a lot of thought has gone into the Golf Mk7, and it shows up in many places.

Some of it is tucked away. The new underpinnings which it sits on, for example. It’s the first Volkswagen to utilise the new flexible MQB (Modularer Querbaukasten, or Modular Transverse Matrix in English) platform, which premiered originally on the third-generation Audi A3, and will sit on a whole slew of VW offerings to come about.

Others are more visible. For one, like just about everything else these days, there’s the size – the Golf Mk7 has gotten larger, now longer (4,255 mm) and wider (1,799 mm) by 56 mm and 13 mm respectively than its predecessor, but lower at 1,452 mm, a reduction of 28 mm over the Mk6. Wheelbase length has also increased, by 59 mm to 2,637 mm, with the front wheels now located 43 mm further forward.

The changes to the dimensions aren’t very obvious, nor is the Golf profile’s unmistakable presence. The overall resolution of the lines have changed though – the modulation of the surfaces have been restructured, and the shape now looks tauter, the depiction that bit more resilient and cleaner.

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Supposedly, the C-pillar pays homage to the Golf Mk2 and Mk4, so there’s more than a hint of a nod to the past – I quite like the way it flows, that C-pillar. On the whole, lean would best describe the form to the eye, and the lines look far better resolved than on the Mk6. Athletic? Quite.

That new found physical disposition also shows up in terms of weight; the Golf Mk7 sheds 100 kg off the scales, the result of a number of weight reduction measures. A more liberal use of aluminium in suspension components takes off 26 kg, and the additional introduction of hot-formed 1,000 MPa ultra high-strength steel and tailored blanks within removes 23 kg off the body-in-white, with other elements (seats, air-conditioning) making it 37 kg in terms of superstructure weight savings.

The EA211 four-cylinder engine family – which includes the 1.2 litre in both 85 and 105 PS output tunes and the 75 PS 1.0 litre three-pot as seen in the Up! – is also lighter. For example, the new EA211 1.4 litre turbocharged mill loses the supercharger as seen on the equivalent EA111 mill, but tips the scales 22 kg less than the older twin-charger unit. In all, the new engine block is 45% lighter, and the crankshaft and connecting rods weigh 20% and 30% less than that previously.

Fat suitably trimmed off, the new car enters the ring at under 1,300 kg – at 1,184 kg in its 122 PS form, it weighs 89 kg less than the Mk6 equivalent, a number that returns it to Mk4 weight levels.

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Inside, the Golf Mk7 benefits from the increased wheelbase length – the cabin gets a 14 mm increase length wise and there’s 15 mm more rear legroom. Shoulder room has also been upped by 31 mm to 1,420 mm and elbow room by 22 mm to 1,469 mm in front, and the rear gets almost similar improvements.

More numbers – boot size volume is 380 litres, an increase of 30 litres over the Mk6. The boot floor and aperture is now wider and the boot lip lower, making for easier loading of heavier or bulkier items. The Golf Mk7 also features a rear tow hook with a rather novel operation, but it’s unlikely to be specified on the Malaysian model. Not that we’re big into towing things anyway.

Elsewhere, design and ergonomics are up in the cabin, the dashboard looking a more modern and finely fitted affair compared to the familiar – and inherently boring – layout of the old, though familiar cues are still present. Changes include a centre console stack now angled towards the driver and the inclusion of an electronic parking brake (with an Auto Hold function), which offers increased stowage space on the console. On the whole, things are that bit tidier and the presentation, more polished.

The seats have also been redesigned for this one, and VW says they offer more optimal support and a higher level of comfort. As far as materials go, what was seen in the European test vehicles (all Highline versions) felt premium to both sight and touch, and the interior has a welcome feel to it – seat comfort was high, and the cabin feels an airier place than the Mk6’s.

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Three model lines were introduced for the Golf Mk7 at point of its European launch, these being the base Trendline, Comfortline and range-topping Highline. Even in base form, equipment levels are high, and the options just cycle it up to a comprehensive level.

Standard global equipment includes seven airbags and ESC, the XDS transverse differential lock as found on the outgoing GTI, engine idle Stop/Start operation, brake energy recuperation and a multi-collision brake system.

Other available equipment for the car includes an optional adaptive cruise control with emergency brake function up to 30 km/h, lane assist, fatigue detection, traffic sign detection and ParkAssist. The Golf Mk7 can even be had with an overhead parking system with 360-degree graphics, like that found in the Touareg.

Specified kit also includes a touchscreen, with three sizes to choose from. The base level offering is a five-inch unit, but the 5.8-inch and eight-inch versions of the screen come with a proximity sensor, the first in a VW. In this case, the display mode shows a screen reduced to just the essentials, but as soon as the driver or passenger moves a finger near the screen, the system automatically switches from display mode to input mode, where elements that can be activated by touch are specially highlighted.

Responding to wiping and zooming gestures much like a smartphone, users can scroll through item lists or browse through them by employing such action. In use, as explored on the test mules in its Discover Pro radio-navigation form during the media drive in Sardinia, the Alpine-based system turned out to be a gem.

Refined and comprehensive (works everything from entertainment to customising the individual drive modes), this is a well thought out product. The intermediate system, the 5.8-inch Composition Media unit, is to be found on the Malaysian-spec Golf TSI, which means that there’s no navigation in the mix.

A fair bit of equipment naturally won’t be specified for the local Golf Mk7, and the optional Adaptive Chassis Control (DCC), the second-generation form of which makes its VW debut on the car, is one of them.

Going the DCC route lowers the chassis by 10 mm compared to a normal one, and specific adjustment dampers with its own spring and anti-roll tuning are also part of the parcel, the system adaptively controlling the damper valves and tailoring the setting of the damper characteristic to the mode chosen.

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DCC still offers the three driving modes – Comfort, Normal and Sport – as well as Eco, which are selectable on the touchscreen as part of the Driving Profile Selection, with an additional Individual mode allowing the driver (or passenger, tee hee) to adjust steering, engine, dynamic bend lighting, ACC and air-conditioning operational values to taste, so to speak.

It’s all great fun – you can specify on the fly say, a steering with Normal values and keep the engine on Sport. Or if you decide to get wacky, dial the steering on Comfort and the engine on Sport, which my co-driver – who was at the wheel – didn’t find my particular choice of too amusing, given that he was on full pelt in the middle of some rather twisty terrain. The thing is, you can feel it at work.

Its omission certainly means that the car here will have a slightly different disposition, but even with DCC adding to the allure, which it certainly does, the Golf Mk7’s base dynamics are very good to begin with.

In fact, it’s the standout point of the car. Lively, nimble and agile are suitable descriptors for the way the car tackles tarmac (how much of it is the result of the DCC in tow, one wonders). The electric-assist steering is fast, yet nicely weighted and accurate, if a bit dull in feel. Meanwhile, the chassis responds to input cleanly and with great poise. Best of all, the ride never feels unruly, even though it firms up a fair degree in Sport mode and running on 17-inch wheels. In some ways, like that accomplished by the F30 BMW 3er over the old, the Golf Mk7 makes the Mk6 feel a bit ponderous, dynamics-wise.

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It however does not make the outgoing car feel slow. The subtraction of 20 horses and the omission of the supercharger from the equation may have something to do with it – the EA 211 is a pretty free-revving and willing engine, and with 140 PS at 4,500 to 6,000 rpm and 250 Nm at 1,500 to 3,500 rpm the numbers sound like there’s decent enough poke. Indeed, with 10 Nm more, there should be no lack of pull coming off it compared to the 160 PS TwinCharger mill of the Mk6 TSI.

But there is, and it’ll be evident especially when attempting to belt along on straights, where the disposition of both engine and seven-speed DSG gearbox’s tallish ratios seem more attuned to a leisurely gallop than anything resembling frantic.

Of course, the argument to this is that this is a 1.4 TSI, not a GTI, and as an all-rounder there’s more than enough freeway pep to keep most users happy. I suppose this is the case, but the old one might have spoiled the crowd, you see, and a chassis as sharp as this one will invite the inevitable exploration to push.

Well, the suggestion is to do so on the corners, where the lack of grunt isn’t felt as much. It is here that the sense of lightness really makes the Golf Mk7 shine – it might even bring out the odd cheesy grin. Clean input obtains returns that flatter average drivers and rewards better ones. Set up nicely, turn-in is crisp and follow-through neat, and provoking doesn’t upset the equilibrium too much, with a fair amount of room to maneouvre out of in all but the silliest cases.

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At a certain stop point on the route around Porto Cervo, I decided to do a quick return clip on what was a very good stretch of winding turns, alone. Ditching the co-driver – who remained to take photos of other examples – for the moment provided for an even better sense of agility (no small fella he, the Top Gear Malaysia editor) and precision. Yes, it’s a shade clinical, what’s being served from an emotional impact POV, but it isn’t completely devoid of life. Or short of fun; clean has its moments too.

So much so, the balance of the 1.4 TSI is preferable to that of the 2.0 TDI, which was the model running the return leg to the airport the next day. The EA 288 unit, modified from the current TDIs, offers 150 PS at 3,500-4,000 rpm and 320 Nm from 1,750 rpm through to 3,000 rpm, and exhibits all the pull expected of it.

Out on the open road, the oil burner makes short shrift of overtaking and handling the uphill bits, areas that expose the 1.4 TSI’s shortcomings. But once in the thick of returning radius country, it’s less free-spirited despite the oodles of torque at hand. Its nose heavy nature makes its petrol-based sibling significantly tidier and more entertaining around the bends.

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More importantly, it shows just what has been accomplished in the case of the 1.4 TSI – an impeccable sense of balance and lightness of character. It is this that makes it winsome, enough that while it didn’t make my top five pick in the 2012 year-ender list, it sat sixth in my choice of ten. I tend to like cars with a strong emotional quotient (which usually reads old), but the Volkswagen Golf Mk7 baulks that thinking because its deft, light-footed disposition shines through its matter-of-fact nature.

Sacrificing punch for agility may not sound like a great idea, but the carrot dangled in the form of improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions cannot be ignored in this day and age. The lack of heft may be a source of contention for some, but it shouldn’t be for many. In any case, speed in a straight line isn’t everything, and it isn’t for this one in the larger scheme of things.

UPDATE:: The Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI made its Malaysian debut last night at a gala event, but the pricing and full specification of the sole variant – the 1.4 TSI – that marks the entry of ‘The Car’ into the Malaysian market was only released tonight – it goes for RM157,888, without insurance. Stay tuned for our drive report on the local variant soon.