Porto, Portugal - The rain was falling from a grey sky and the weather forecast threatened even more precipitation for the following day. It felt more like England than Portugal in late November and our mood was not improved when we learned that these were the only two days of rain to afflict the Porto region that week.
Rain is the nemesis of any car press launch, more so if you have to do a photo shoot as well. The only upside is the chance to explore handling and grip at much lower speeds than in the dry.
Bright colours look radiant in sunshine and they also work well in gloomy light. Picking the yellow Golf 2.0TDI for our first drive under leaden skies was thus a no brainer. An equally good reason was the popularity of the diesel powered Golf with European buyers.
Our first contact with the new Golf was in a photo studio near Munich back in September where the car looked good in isolation. On the road its sleeker lines and the new lower nose treatment in particular help it stand out from its predecessor.
While the styling shouts ‘Golf’ from the rooftops it was notable that 90% of the attention we received in Portugal was from drivers of previous generation Golf models. The remaining 10% of the looks we got were probably down to the lurid yellow hue of our test car. In comparison, the military shade of grey that was the alternative choice in the test fleet provided a cloak of invisibility in this inclement weather.
If the exterior is familiar the fresh interior design is a revelation. The cabin architecture and its detailing is as good as it gets in this class with the look and feel of the materials top drawer and well screwed together. The seats are comfortable, and on this cold and wet day we really appreciated the relative warmth and added grip of the fabric trim compared to the more fashionable leather option.
Operating the new touch screens is a fairly logical affair, but there were a couple of times when finding a particular function was not as easy as we would have liked.
Activating the seat heating was straightforward but when it came to demisting the windows we found that the relevant button had greyed out on the screen and we had to pull over and dig deeper into the menu.
In fact the glitch that found us resorting to the screen menu was the failure of the voice-activated system to understand to our request to demist the windows. In this respect the voice recognition software is not yet as convincing as the AI driven algorithms used by the Mercedes MBUX system.
We won’t labour the point about the revolutionary new digital instrumentation and infotainment system since our in-depth preview published on 25th October covered all this in detail.
On the other hand Golf owners really care about how their cars drive and as we know you are chomping at the bit to learn how the new model compares to its predecessor, here goes.
The 1,968cc TDI motor delivers 150hp from 3,500-4,000rpm, underpinned by a healthy 400Nm of torque between 1,750-3,000rpm. Paired with the 7-speed DSG twin-clutch transmission the diesel records a rapid 8.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint and tops out at 223km/h.
Once the engine is warmed through any diesel clatter fades into the background and the strong mid-range torque makes normal driving stress-free. You don’t need to use many revs to keep up a decent pace across country and this is reflected in the miserly fuel consumption.
However, it was the 1.5 TSI we drove on the second day that really engaged us as a total package. Its smooth and free-revving 1,498cc turbocharged petrol engine delivers 150hp at 5,000-6,000rpm, with 250Nm of torque peaking from 1,500-3,500rpm. Despite its greater size and weight the 7-speed DSG equipped 1.5 TSI easily matches the 1985 Mk 2 Golf GTI 16v’s 8.5 sec sprint to 100km/h, and decisively beats it for top speed with a 224km/h Vmax.
The Cd has been neatly trimmed from the Mk. 7’s 0.3 to 0.275 with a lot of work also done to make the car quieter at cruise. That proved to be the case on the stretches of motorway where the new Golf just purrs along on a light throttle at 120km/h in seventh gear. In fact a 140km/h or even 160km/h cruise on the autobahn feels quite natural with improved high speed stability in cross winds.
As before all Golf models use McPherson strut front suspension. The base 130hp Golf 1.5 TSI manual six-speed pairs this with a torsion beam rear axle whose roots are in the design used by the early Golfs. Crossing the 150hp threshold brings the more sophisticated multi-link independent rear suspension into play, which means both the 2.0 TDI and 1.5 TSI tested here.
Suspension settings and electronic helpers apart the fundamental weight distribution of a car still makes a difference to the way it handles and steers. So as good as the 2.0 TDI is when you move the responsive steering off centre the 1.5 TSI with its smaller, lighter all-alloy engine benefits from having 25-30kg less over its front wheels. The difference comes across loud and clear both through the steering and your seat of the pants the moment you start to attack a twisty road. This light bulb moment tells you the chassis engineers have done an outstanding job on both the electric power steering and the front-to-rear axle calibration.
I set up an interview with the chassis engineer and found myself face-to-face with Karsten Schebsdat, whom I last met on the launch of the Porsche 997 GT3 RS nearly a decade ago.
Engineers often move to other companies at various points in their careers. Enthusiasts will know Karsten Schebsdat as the man responsible for the fine chassis of the original Ford Focus of 1998, the car that some say, “democratised good ride and handling in compact hatchbacks.”
Karsten then went on to work at Porsche’s GT division at Weissach where we first met. A few years ago he moved north again to Wolfsburg where his enthusiasm for fine handling cars was most recently put to good use fettling the chassis of the Golf Mk.8.
VW produced a short video of their Pikes Peak winning driver, Romain Dumas comparing equivalent Golf Mk.7 and Mk. 8 models on a short slalom. The footage shows the new car with the ghost of the old one superimposed on it for comparison.
The Mk. 8 is already ahead after the first cone and by the end of the slalom it has pulled out a near two car lead. Exhibiting clear improvements in agility, neutrality, linearity and precision, the new model recorded 9.24 seconds, a yawning 0.91 second, or about 10% ahead of its predecessor.
More than the objective stopwatch superiority is the fact that the video shows how much neater the new car is during direction changes. Romain is visibly and consistently able to shave each cone closer in the Mk. 8, the Mk.7 tending to run a bit wider at the front and visibly less tidy at the rear.
As we found out for ourselves on the mountain road the new chassis set up makes the handling of the new car crisper and tauter. Turning into bends enthusiastically but with reassuring stability even on wet roads, this is a car whose handling is both entertaining and trustworthy.
“While the basic suspension hardware is very similar we changed a few components and performed a lot of fine tuning on the suspension elastokinematics and steering,” Karsten explained.
The basic steering system now has a quicker ratio of 14.6:1 compared to 15.0:1 for the Mk.7. The variable system starts with 14.1 just off centre, reducing to 9.0:1 on lock. We also fine-tuned the power steering control software to reduce the response time between steering input and the reaction at the wheels.”
“The front suspension control arm bushes are now stiffer laterally and softer longitudinally for more precise handling with better bump absorption,” he continued. “The locating points to which the control arms are fixed on the body-in-white are the same but they have been strengthened as have the anti-roll bar mounting points.”
Cars with the optional Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) package have cast aluminium arms, which are stiffer and 31 grams lighter than the normal steel ones. DCC cars also have the stiffer and lighter alloy front sub-frame from the Mk 7 GTI Clubsport, which is a completely different shape from the steel component even though it shares the same mounting points.
The latest version of the multi-link rear axle has modified control arm bushes aimed at increasing the rear axle understeer slightly to balance out the faster turn-in response of the revised front axle.
In terms of numbers, where the Mk.7 needs 61° of steering lock to navigate the steady state cornering circle at 1.0g the Mk. 8 requires just 55°. This equates to a 10% lower steering angle at the maximum grip level with tyre pressures of 2.5 bar all round.
Work to improve the ride and handling characteristics of the dampers centres around the valves, which now open more smoothly and more precisely. This improves the cars low speed secondary ride over small, high frequency bumps.
The collective result of all this work is a car whose suspension performance envelope has been extended at both ends to make it ride better in Comfort mode and be even more responsive in Sport mode at the other end of the scale. Turn-in is faster and more accurate, and because the rear now follows the front within a narrower time response window the car feels more all-of-a-piece.
“The trick is to achieve this without making the car feel subjectively nervous,” said Karsten. “It was also our goal to ensure that its characteristic velocity, i.e. the linearity of its handling once you exceed the limits of mechanical grip remain fairly linear so there are no nasty surprises if you overdo it.” Of course should you actually manage to exceed the laws of physics the electronic safety systems are there to help you.
As I pointed the Golf Mk.8’s sleek nose towards Porto Airport, the clouds began to part with patches of blue sky appearing ever more frequently. On the slowly drying mountain roads the tarmac was bone dry in places, retaining a slight sheen of the overnight rain in others.
Front-wheel-drive cars will usually let go at the front end first in damp conditions as the combination of nose-heavy weight distribution encourages greater tyre slip angles and a march right up to the limits of mechanical grip into understeer country.
However, the accomplished chassis of the new Golf treated the mixed and constantly changing coefficient of grip on this challenging road as grist for the mill. As we pushed harder and harder into the bends, leaning more and more on the keen front end in every turn it was apparent that we had struck gold with the new Golf.
What we took away from this first drive is that the Golf Mk. 8 1.5 TSI is the finest handling hatchback in its class. Its ride and handling balance is an object lesson that a compact family hatchback does not have to drive like a compact family hatchback. The new GTI should be a knockout.
SIDEBAR - A BIT OF HISTORY
The VW Golf celebrates its 45th Anniversary this year, with over 35 million cars sold across seven generations since the Giugiaro-penned original first rolled off the Wolfsburg assembly line in 1974. That decisively beats the 21.5 million VW Beetles produced between 1938 and 2003.
In absolute terms the Toyota Corolla is the best selling car ever, having reached around 45 million sales across 12 generations since its launch in 1966. But unlike the Golf the compact Toyota never made cult status; each generation so far removed in styling from its predecessor there is no design continuity for owners to hang a hat on.
Instantly identifiable family resemblance and the Golf GTI phenomenon that pioneered the hot hatch segment in 1976 turned the compact VW into a cult car, and many customers stay loyal even when they can afford to move up the ladder.