The Volkswagen Golf 8 is the latest in a long line of quality small hatches from the German brand. Is it still a class benchmark?

It seems like an age ago that Greg Kable drove the 2021 Volkswagen Golf – or Golf 8 as it’s colloquially known – for us at the international launch in Germany. Now, finally, the time has come to get behind the wheel in Australia, first with the Life specification grade, and then next week, the Golf GTI.

It’s easy to forget that the brand that created the concept of the people’s car set the task for the original Golf to effectively take hold of that mantle and carry it forward. The Beetle was pretty successful globally, too, don’t forget. And I do write that with tongue in cheek knowing full well that you’re aware of the Beetle’s enduring success. More than 45 years later, you’d have to agree the now legendary Volkswagen Golf has done exactly what was required. And how.

It’s for that reason, and we’ve written this many times before of course, Volkswagen takes an ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’ approach with each new iteration of the Golf. There’s a serious amount of engineering skill and thought that goes into updating a modern classic, improving the formula, tweaking the elements that need to improve, without detracting from the inherent qualities of the outgoing model.

Under the skin, then, there’s Volkswagen’s now familiar MQB platform, common with the previous Golf of course, but tweaked and updated to deliver increased structural rigidity to a platform that wasn’t seemingly lacking it in the first place. There are no sweeping changes to the platform that sits beneath the Golf 8 beyond that, and the geometry of key components like suspension and steering remain the same. In theory that means the driving experience should be as close to identical as is possible.

That’s why there’s always a sense of anticipation ahead of the launch of every new Golf. What’s true for us as road testers and scribes is also true for existing Golf owners. We speak to plenty who upgrade from whatever Golf they currently have to the new one, whenever the time comes to trade up. Such is the reality that the Golf ticks the boxes buyers want it to tick.

At launch, we’re testing the Golf Life auto, which is one step up from the entry-level model grade (simply called ‘Golf’). Our pricing and specification guide breaks it all down, with the cost of this model starting from $34,250 before on-road costs and with the automatic transmission factored in. Pricing is still sharp, then, despite the climb in entry to the model.

2021 Volkswagen Golf 8 Life
Engine 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power and torque 110kW at 5000rpm, 250Nm at 1500–4000rpm
Transmission Eight-speed automatic
Drive type Front-wheel drive
Weight (tare) 1304kg
Fuel claim, combined 5.8L/100km
Fuel use on test 6.4L/100km
Boot volume 374L
Turning circle 10.9m
ANCAP safety rating Five stars (tested 2019)
Warranty Five years, unlimited kilometres
Main competitors Toyota Corolla, Hyundai i30, Mazda 3
Price (MSRP) $34,250 before on-road costs

Highlights for the new Golf include a traditional automatic for the three-model range, more standard technology and the IQ.Drive safety suite now standard across the range. You do, of course, still get all the intangibles that make the Golf as popular as it has always been. In theory, anyway, and that’s what we’re about to find out.

Standard equipment is extensive, in line with the upwardly revised pricing, but it’s hard to argue that the value isn’t there. For instance, the Life we’re testing features a 10.0-inch infotainment screen, wireless smartphone mirroring, satellite navigation, 17-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded digital instrument cluster with customisable displays, emergency assist (which can bring the car to a safe stop if the driver is incapacitated), exit assist, comfort cloth trim, keyless entry and start, 10-colour ambient lighting, power folding exterior mirrors and wireless smartphone charging.

Golf Life is powered by a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, which generates 110kW at 5000rpm and 250Nm between 1500rpm and 4000rpm, backed by an Aisin-sourced, torque converter, eight-speed automatic transmission. That’s a notable change from the 7.5’s seven-speed dual-clutch auto. Given one of the only bugbears we had with previous Golf was some low-speed DCT hesitancy, the new Golf 8 should benefit from the switch.

The combined ADR fuel claim for the auto is an impressive 5.8L/100km. Interestingly, we saw very low fives on a prolonged highway run, and mid sixes around town in traffic, so the 1.4-litre is efficient in the real world. The engine does, however, require 95RON as a minimum.

The exterior styling is best described as enhanced, without being unnecessarily messed with. It would be easy to go too far with a wild styling change and take away from the Golf’s strong points, despite the fact that it’s often criticised for being a little too conservative. Designers by their very nature are hardly conservative people, so the temptation to change just for the sake of it must be strong.

I’d argue, though, that Golf buyers know exactly what they want, and that Volkswagen gives them exactly what they expect in a styling sense. That said, the sharp, edgy front end revisions, LED DRLs, and lower nose profile mean everyone will know this is the new Golf when they see it. The bonnet and side profile style lines also sharpen up the overall look, without going too far. The rear lights are also LED, modernising the view from the back to match the sharpened-up nose.

Inside the cabin, there’s a heavy emphasis on tech via large, clear screens, and revised switchgear and controls, that really do change the way the Golf looks and feels from the driver’s seat. Those inclusions are very much in line with the changing expectations of the buyer too. Traditional gauge clusters don’t seem to cut it anymore. The comfort seats are also excellent. We knocked over two easy two-hour stints behind the wheel on our first day with the Golf, and the cabin is an easy and enjoyable place to be whether you’re a driver or passenger.

Visibility is excellent, as is the seat adjustment and positioning of all the major controls. The screens are also a genuine improvement to the cabin that make a real difference to the way you interact with the car as a driver. Whether you’re using the smartphone interface through the centre screen, or customising the driver’s display to suit your preferences, the Golf’s screen array is as good as anything in this segment or pricepoint, if not better.

The cabin is a known quantity in terms of space, storage and the way it’s laid out, with useful second-row accommodation and a boot that works well for the average buyer also. Weighing in at 1304kg, the Golf feels solid from behind the wheel too. The doors, light when you swing them open, thud closed reassuringly, and the Golf 8 rides beautifully on the road, feeling like a much heavier, more substantial car than it really is.

The luggage space is useful, too, at 374L with the second row in use, moving out to 1230L with the second row folded to accommodate larger items. From front to rear, practicality is the word that most frequently comes to mind when you assess the Golf 8.

On the road, the 1.4-litre engine is efficient and smooth with more than enough power to undertake daily driving duties easily. The move to a conventional automatic has brought a level of refinement – especially at low speed – the DCT could never match. While DCTs have their place at the racetrack or underneath performance cars, we’re yet to be convinced that they deal with the cut and thrust of the daily grind with the same level of competence as a regular automatic. As such, the Golf 8’s low-speed drive is markedly smoother.

The ride quality is also a feature. That solid, insulated sensation you get when you close the door continues to the way the Golf responds to road surfaces. No matter how nasty they might be, the chassis and suspension deal with it with ease. The Golf is firm over really sharp speed humps, for example, but when you’re on the move, it’s unruffled and comfortable.

The trademark connected way in which a Golf feels behind the wheel continues with this new variant. The steering and brakes, and sharp response to every input, make it the perfect lane-carving city car. It’s rewarding and efficient in equal measure.

The Golf is covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with a Care Plan servicing package also available. The recommended retail price for the two available options is $1100 for three years or $1900 for five years.

Golf 8 is an exceptional vehicle, which, in so many ways, is exactly what we expected. It feels high quality, solid, well put together, and comfortable. It’s also easy to interact with, practical, and engaging to use for longer, regional drives. There’s little doubt that the Golf has always punched above its weight out in the cut and thrust of the real world. The new Golf 8 carries on that tradition with class despite the understated nature of its execution. We can’t wait to test the new GTI.