The importance of the Golf for VW simply cannot be overstated. Sure, the company may have been flogging more examples of the Tiguan crossover than its C-segment hatchback lately, but that’s not the point - the Golf is the definitive Volkswagen.
It’s all the good stuff we’ve come to expect from the German auto giant distilled into one car. It’s a classless, do-it-all motor that is usually the go-to recommendation a petrolhead would give to someone clueless about cars. Awkwardly, though, the new one has a few issues.
Let’s start with the good stuff, as that outweighs the bad by far. Although I’ve seen a fair few label the looks as ‘bland’, I’d rather dub them ‘inoffensive’, and that’s exactly how it should be with a Golf. It shouldn’t be a Marmite mess of creases. Depending on the spec, the 8 can be pretty handsome, too.
On the move, it’s quiet, refined and rides well. The touchscreen infotainment system is well-laid out, and brilliantly responsive. Much like the outside, the cabin design doesn’t necessarily blow you away, but it’s a pleasant space you’ll happily spend a lot of time in.
Exactly how the Golf 8 handles depends on the model you go for - those further down the pecking order use a more basic torsion beam suspension setup, but derivatives like the 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol we tested are fully independent.
These models do more than enough in the dynamics department - chuck plusher chassis’d Golf around like 99 of owners never will, and it reveals itself to be stable and dependable - with a little hint of fun. Traction from the front end was better than I expected it to be, and when you reach the end of it, the stability control doesn’t cut in too aggressively.
The 1.5-litre TSI ‘Evo’ doesn’t have that punchy ‘mini EA888’ feeling of the lovely old 1.4 it replaced a while ago, but it’s probably a better fit for the car. It’s smooth and hushed, and while it doesn’t seem to want to do a whole lot under 2000rpm, the inline-four is nicely gutsy after that point. 0-62mph happens in a respectable 8.5 seconds (comfortably quicker than an Up GTI), while the top speed is 139mph. More importantly for anyone buying one of these, the fuel economy incredible for a petrol engine - on a run you can push the MPG well into the 50s without even trying.
The new six-speed manual pretty much picks off where the old one left off. There isn’t a whole lot of mechanical feeling to it, but the throw is short and the lever slots into each position neatly. It’s better than pretty much every other ‘normal’ car’s manual, save for anything from Mazda.
Normally with a Golf, that would be it. A list of good things, and hearty recommendation. But not so fast - there’s one big irritation with the 8, and it involves that touchscreen we were praising earlier.
VW has seen fit to follow the annoying trend of stuffing most buttons - climate controls included - within the touchscreen, desperately trying to emulate smartphones. Smartphones you’re now allowed to use behind the wheel, because - funnily enough - they’re too distracting.
Even on a smooth road in a comfortable car like the Golf, your hands wobble around while you’re trying to stab the desired part of the screen. It’s frustrating to see VW, normally a bastion of sensibility, chase after this ridiculous trend some carmakers are now actively calling out.
You do at least get physical shortcut buttons for the climate and other functions, which do help, but the whole setup is a fiddly backwards step. Also, having strived to declutter the dashboard, VW has seemingly squandered all that free space by putting the left-hand driver’s air vent in a position where it’s blocked by the steering wheel. In fact, all the vents are weirdly low, although my friend with a Bichon Frise tells me they’re at ideal small dog height. So that’s a plus, maybe?
What stands out the most with the Golf 8 is that it doesn’t really move the game on from the last one. That’s partly down to the 7 being awfully good (and make no mistake, as is the 8, all things considered), but it’s also probably a symptom of VW shifting its focus to electric, as the ID3 vies to take the Golf’s place as the definitive Volkswagen.
If you have a Mk7, it’s probably not worth upgrading to the 8 just yet. But if not, and if you’re in a market for a new C-seg hatch, the Golf is still - despite the new foibles - the one to have. We just need to look at the alternatives to see why.
The Honda Civic is much more spacious, but can you really live with the looks and the ancient infotainment system? The Ford Focus is sharper to drive, but doesn’t have the badge kudos and isn’t as nice inside. The BMW 1-series is still short on space despite switching to a front-wheel driven platform, and the less said about its gopping face, the better.
The Mazda 3 is a seriously tempting alternative, but the engine line-up isn’t as good. On the petrol front, there’s either a relatively low-powered N/A or the unusual SkyActiv-X high-compression engine, which won’t be for everyone. You could have a Mercedes A-Class, but you’ll end up spending more, and again, the engines are a sticking point. There are other VW Group options, of course, but the Golf still looks to be the pick of the bunch.
The 8 remains the go-to. The one you’ll recommend to people when they find out you’re a fountain of car knowledge. The difference is now, it only just nabs its place at the top.