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Driven: Volkswagen Golf Mk8. Image by Volkswagen UK.

Driven: Volkswagen Golf Mk8
We’re not blown away by the eighth-generation VW Golf. In fact, we think a sinister conspiracy might be afoot…


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Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI 130 Life (Mk8)

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

Good points: refinement, passenger space, smooth and cultured drivetrain, usual Golf attributes

Not so good: drab interior, too much digitisation, inert chassis, outsmarted by its Leon and Octavia cousins in all regards

Key Facts

Model tested: Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI Life 130 manual
Price: Golf range from £23,355, Life 130 from £23,900, car as tested £26,775; or, Life 130 from £345.40pcm across 48-month/10,000-mile per annum contract with 10 per cent deposit and limited-time Volkswagen deposit contribution of £1,250, optional final payment of £9,804.60 (4.9% APR representative example)
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 122g/km (VED Band 111-130: £175 in year one, then £150 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 52.6mpg
Top speed: 133mph
0-62mph: 9.2 seconds
Power: 130hp at 5,000-6,000rpm
Torque: 200Nm at 1,400-4,000rpm
Boot space: 381-1,237 litres

Our view:

Allow us - or, more specifically, me - to put forward a thesis: Volkswagen intends to kill off the Golf. I know, I know; ridiculous, right? I mean, come on - you're talking about 45 years and more of heritage. A nameplate which has come to define its market sector for decades. And that's a market sector which is not some rarefied hypercar realm nor some junior league of disposable, budget city hacks, but rather the absolute core of vehicle ownership for so many families for multiple years: that of the mid-sized hatchback. Upmarket yet affordable, desirable without being flashy, the Golf has been always there or thereabouts at the top of the C-segment from day one.

Therefore, this is not a nameplate to toss away lightly. But I've got good reasons to suspect something odd is going on deep within Wolfsburg, and I had to don the 'Tinfoil Hat Of Reason And Truth' in the wake of having had this Mk8 1.5 TSI life 130 model for a week. So here we go. First of all, Volkswagen has binned quite a sizeable chunk of the Golf's long-nurtured design hallmarks. Oh, obviously the Golf 8 is still a Golf, and it rather understandably wears Volkswagen's latest aesthetic cues of hawkish headlights and a wide grille arrangement. But while its profile is recognisable and it has the de rigueur widely spaced model designation lettering on the bootlid - this is such a 2020s 'in-thing', daaaaahling - you wouldn't exactly call the Golf 8 good-looking. It works well in the bolder colours, like that Lime Yellow (a £625 option) used in all the promotional materials, and in higher-ranking specifications too, but as a Life on a set of 16-inch Norfolk alloy wheels then it's all a bit 'meh' to look at.

The interior is even more 'meh' and the problem here is that this was one of the traditional stomping grounds of many of the preceding generations of Golf. In order to make the Volkswagen stand out among the cheaper SEAT and Skoda alternatives that used the same hardware, the cabin of the Golf always felt that cut above, that touch more solid and reassuring than the ostensibly budget alternatives from within group. Not so the passenger compartment of the Golf 8. Of all four of the current Volkswagen Group products, we have to say the VW itself has the worst interior of the lot. 'Worst' is obviously a relative term rather than an absolute here, as the Golf will still shame many of the current C-segment crop with its interior ambience, but Volkswagen has put all its eggs in the digital basket, placing almost every major function of the interior on the large, central touchscreen. Audi does no such thing with its even-more-upmarket A3 range, leaving some simple-to-fathom climate controls in the middle of the centre stack, and while both Skoda and SEAT have also gone in heavily on the TFT in their comparable Octavia and Leon cars, the Skoda's menu structure is easier to operate and has some intuitive short-cut buttons beneath the screen, while the SEAT's system works in a very slick fashion. It's the Volkswagen which feels like it is lagging behind in this regard.

It's not just better infotainment interfaces in the Audi, Skoda and SEAT alternatives that worries me about the Golf 8, however, but the standard of the finishing. The Volkswagen does not have appreciably finer materials in all its key touchpoints than its Czech and Iberian cousins, and it certainly doesn't stand up to the interior on the A3 Mk4. It's also really dull to look at. The Leon, by contrast, has some interesting dashboard architecture and design flourishes to play with, while the Skoda's fascia looks classier and grander than the Golf's, with its broad sweep from door-to-door and the two-spoke steering wheel sitting proud. The Octavia also still has its trump card among these four: due to its external fastback dimensions, in terms of space its cabin is massive and it makes the Golf look pokey and overpriced.

Yes, overpriced. Some things never change. The Golf still (for some unfathomable reason) has the far stronger ticket than its Leon and Octavia counterparts, although Volkswagen will likely counter with the fact its imperious residual values mean competitive PCP deals are available for the Mk8. That said, VW had the nerve to charge £100 for floor mats in the 130 Life test car - an insulting form of daylight robbery that even BMW stopped perpetrating in about 1998 - and a meaty £1,600 for the decent Discover Navigation Pro package. Which meant that its list price was perilously close to 27 grand, whereas (for example) the Leon FR follows SEAT's current 'no options' policy. So, for £23,500, you get exactly the same 130hp engine and more equipment as standard too. Such as things like the ten-inch infotainment, wireless smartphone charging, three-zone climate control (which is an even more expensive option on the Golf that wasn't fitted to the 130 Life) and a leather multifunction steering wheel, for example. It's not just that the Leon is cheaper than the Golf; it's that it's better appointed, too.

And then we come to the driving. Here, the Leon's sprightly chassis has the Golf's licked for sporty endeavour - as has always been the way - but it doesn't sacrifice anything in terms of refinement or ride comfort by way of compensation. The Skoda, meanwhile, is no more or less exciting with regards handling than the Golf, but it feels the larger, more comfortable car on the move, all down to its dimensions again; it has a longer wheelbase, you see. And the Audi? The A3 truly does feel like a step up in quality from all of them, making its higher purchase price worthwhile. All of which leaves me wondering, from a kinematic standpoint, what the Golf's USP is. It is not the most refined of the four. It is not the most enjoyable to chuck about. And it doesn't offer the greatest all-round spread of attributes, either. OK, the 1.5-litre engine is nice and the steering is clean enough and it resists understeer well, but it does absolutely nothing remarkable - either in the corners nor when it is cruising along a motorway. Oh, wait; a best economy return of 64.5mpg on a ten-mile run into my local town was pretty impressive, over and above an equally commendable weekly figure of 52.6mpg across 170 mixed-roads miles. So the 130 is an economical car, at least. But you know what I'm going to say next. So is the SEAT. So is the Skoda. So is the Audi. This frugality on fuel is not a stand-out reason enough to buy the Volkswagen.

Sure, people who have always adored Golfs will love the Mk8. It's reassuringly familiar because it doesn't break any new ground, digital interfaces aside, and it is perfectly proficient as present-day C-segment hatchbacks go. But don't, whatever you do, let anyone try and erroneously tell you that it's somehow a better car than the Mk4 versions of both the SEAT Leon and the Skoda Octavia, because it just isn't. It doesn't have the Skoda's elegant gracefulness or immense practicality, and it doesn't have the SEAT's interesting visuals nor sparkling chassis. You used to pay a premium for the Volkswagen because you got a superior cabin to those two, but even that is no longer the case as the passenger compartments on both the Spanish and Bohemian vehicles are every inch the match of the Golf's.

And so I come back to my original point. I think Volkswagen is killing its icon off through mediocrity. There's no way this new Golf is a class-leader in the hatchback market. Its drab cabin is neither intuitive enough to operate nor adventurous enough to gaze upon. Its exterior styling is so-so, especially in lowlier Life trim and in plain colours. And it is wholly unremarkable in the driving department, too. But there's more to it than that. It's as if Volkswagen has decided that sales of traditional C-segment hatchbacks with conventional forms of power can now safely go to the Leon and the Octavia, while aspirational customer-types will instead migrate fully to Audi and the A3. The money will still go to Wolfsburg in the end, just via a more indirect route. And then we come onto the ID.3.

The world's automotive marketplace is changing drastically. Right now, crossovers and SUVs are bigger business than hatchbacks, and Volkswagen is a big-business operator. It'll get more margin and more profit from the likes of the T-Cross, T-Roc and Tiguan than it will from the Golf 8 in the short- to medium-term. Then there's the ever-tightening emissions regulations, that have seen daft edicts like the 2030 UK ban on new cars with internal combustion engines only being sold. The inevitability of this movement is that electric cars are the longer-term future, and that's where Volkswagen has cleverly seen the lay of the land. Out of all of the marques in its group, only Volkswagen itself currently has a pure EV family hatchback - the ID.3. It is that car which Volkswagen wants to succeed in the middle ground, that car into which it has poured its vast reserves of quality know-how and show-stopping desirability, that car which will surely consign the Golf to the history books. Volkswagen isn't going to switch the four-letter G-word from the machine you all know and love onto the bootlid of its high-tech EV hatchback; the ID branding is here to stay.

All of this is why I think you're watching the endgame of the Golf, the fading light of its near-50-year dominance of the family hatchback market. It has had a good innings, to be fair. It has given us many fond memories and high points. And there may still be one or two more flashes of brilliance to come from the performance models of this Golf 8. But here and now, on the evidence of a week with this 130 TSI Life, the regular Golf is no longer the king of its C-segment market castle. Good grief, it's not even the lord of its own in-house manor, as you get finer all-round offerings from both SEAT and Skoda these days. The death of the Golf? Hysterical nutjob conspiracy theory it might sound, but on the basis of this evidence you've got to admit that I might just have a point...


Ford Focus: as it ever has been, the Ford is dynamically more interesting than the Golf. Mind, that hasn't stopped people flocking to the VW instead in the past.

SEAT Leon: a few weeks before we had the Golf, we had this Leon Mk4 with exactly the same engine. And it's not just us being perverse and favouring the underdog, as a result of some ulterior, anti-Volkswagen motive - no, it's the plain truth that the SEAT is far more preferable: about £3,200 cheaper for a better-equipped and nicer-looking FR, as good on refinement and material quality throughout, and superior in every other regard to the VW.

Toyota Corolla: don't read 'Corolla' and think this car is boring, because it's anything but. Sharp TNGA chassis, a high-quality and nicely styled interior, and even a pleasant 2.0-litre hybrid drivetrain make the Corolla a strong contender in the class.

Matt Robinson - 20 Jul 2020    - Volkswagen road tests
- Volkswagen news
- Golf images

2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.

2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI life 130 UK test. Image by Volkswagen UK.


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