Volkswagen has not messed with the external design very much.    Picture: VOLKSWAGEN
Volkswagen has not messed with the external design very much. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN

While the Golf wasn’t in great need of an overhaul, the "Mark 7.5" version of the biggest-selling Volkswagen is still a welcome step forward.

Besides a new 1.5l motor, there are three different multimedia solutions, a digital virtual cockpit and refinements of the same Golfness that kept it at the top of the small hatch tree.

There was a time when a certain slice of society got its jollies from levering badges off Volkswagen grilles to use as necklace adornments. Try that today and you’ll get caught up in a bunch of wires, cables and computers because the VW logo in the centre of the facelifted Golf 7’s grille does double duty as its forward-facing radar.

There seems to be no end to the luxury market tech that has found its way to the king of the class-crossing default option for the SUV stop-outs around the world. Its top-end multimedia system, which includes an enormous 9.2-inch glass touchscreen, gets gesture control (in addition to voice control, the steering wheel buttons and old school physical touching) at a level that only BMW’s 7 Series offers today.

New LED tail lights dominate the rear.  The interior gets more technology.   Picture: VOLKSWAGEN
New LED tail lights dominate the rear. The interior gets more technology. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN

But the big news is the engine. The era of downsizing is over at VW, with the 1.4l four-cylinder giving way to a motor 0.1l larger. There are two versions of it, too, though we only had the 110kW version to sample. And it’s a terrific unit, feeling stronger at low to middle revs than the 250Nm torque figure would suggest.

(At this point I need to jump in, because Volkswagen SA says we will not get the new 1.5 motor in SA. Instead we will be stuck with the old 1.4. VWSA has not given a reason for this. It is a shame because the new motor is a big improvement. We are hoping the company will change its mind. — Ed.)

It gets cylinder-on-demand to turn itself into a two-cylinder motor when torque demand is low. The Eco versions can also turn the engine into a glorified air pump to coast along using no fuel whatsoever.

It spins up to 6,000 and it never feels uncomfortable that high, though it feels as if something is artificially preventing it from getting wheezy, rather than managing it "organically".

The EA 211 Evo engine’s best work is saved for low and middle revs and that makes sense, given the way people drive Golfs in the real world.

We tested both the six-speed manual and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, and the differences between the two versions of the 1.5 Golf run deeper than you might imagine.

The manual allows you to load up the engine in ways the DSG would never do, such as letting you force it to pull sixth gear from just 30km/h, which it does without any audible complaint. Mind you, it does so without any obvious acceleration either, but it’s an astonishingly impressive performance.

At 100km/h, the 1,498cc four-cylinder turbo motor is pulling only 2,200r/min, which plants it right in the thick of the torque curve (which tops out at 3,500r/min).

That helps to explain how quiet and calm the Golf 1.5 is at highway speeds. It spins quite freely up to 5,000, where the 1,000r/min-wide power peak begins; there are signs it could get tremulous at around 3,000rpm but it never happens.

It gets to 100km/h in 8.3 seconds and on to a 213km/h top speed, and VW claims it pulls a figure of 5.0l/100km (for the DSG) or 114g/km of CO2 emissions. That’s about as quick as it feels, and that’s about as quick as plenty of Golf owners need.

If it set the refinement benchmark when the Golf Mk7 launched, it has raised it substantially again with the Mk7.5.

The six-speed manual is a slick unit to use, with clean, crisp shifts and easy gate control, along with near-perfect weighting and springing across the gates.

New LED tail lights dominate the rear.    Picture: VOLKSWAGEN
New LED tail lights dominate the rear. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN

The DSG feels even better and pulls better economy numbers by dint of its extra gear ratio. It’s flawless these days, with no wobbly shifts and no delayed operations. Its so smooth and slick that it becomes invisible.

The steering is a highlight, with perfect weighting, a wonderfully sized rim and accurate self-centring.

Body control refuses to allow the stance of the 1,317kg hatch (the manual is 1,294kg) to become undignified. The Golf might not be the most agile of handlers in the hatchback class, but it’s clearly the most progressive and the most dignified.

It steps forward in automated driving, too, with radar cruise control, traffic-jam assist to brake, accelerate and steer at low speeds, lane-keeping systems and automated braking — but this little collection of niceties only comes with the DSG, as we found in the manual when one automated braking simulation nearly went excruciatingly wrong.

Nothing has changed in the Golf’s MQB architecture, so it still has 380l of luggage capacity, which is boosted to 1,270l with the seats down.

Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI
Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI

There is a significant cubby hole in the console and two more in the doors.

Externally, the Golf Mk7.5 gets new LED headlights as options (or standard in the top-spec package) and LED tail lights and some slightly revised styling tweaks. As ever, the externals of the Golf are steady as she goes — and why not?

This car has been successful in all of its generations, and VW still sells one every 40 seconds, so it’s not a formula to mess with. But in the wake of Dieselgate, having a 1.5l, refined, classy, economical petrol engine doing the hard work in the thick end of the sales fight might be just what it needed, and just what its many, many rivals feared.

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