First drive: 2014 Volkswagen Golf

The new Volkswagen Golf is just one of hundreds of redesigned cars and trucks that will be unveiled this year. And although the practical hatchback won’t be the prettiest, fastest nor the most expensive new car unveiled this year, it just may end up being the most important.

Needless to say, Volkswagen has a lot riding on any new Golf. More than 29 million examples have been built since the first-generation compact hatchback in 1974. The sixth-generation Golf is the best-selling car in Europe and the third-best- selling car on the planet, right behind the first-place Toyota Corolla and Ford’s Focus. The success of the new, seventh-generation 2014 two- and four-door Golf hatchbacks is also key to parent Volkswagen Group’s plans to become the biggest automaker in the world.

The new Golf is also a technical pioneer. Along with the recently launched Audi A3, the VW compact is one of the first vehicles hatched from a new global platform. Dubbed Modular Transverse Matrix (MTM), the flexible architecture can be tailored to fit every one of the German automaker’s 60-odd transversely mounted engine cars, from the micro Up! to the macro Passat.

Besides saving Volkswagen a load of development cash, the new platform also saves weight. The 2014 Golf is longer and wider than the outgoing model. There are more luxury features and extra room for passengers and cargo. But, on average, it weighs roughly 100 kilograms lighter — this is an important quality given ever-tightening government fuel economy standards.

With so much at stake, admittedly, Volkswagen didn’t get radical with its best-seller’s exterior design. From its kinkier C-pillar to its pointier front end (that falls in line with the looks of today’s Jetta and Passat), all of the new Golf’s lines are crisper, tighter. It’s still unmistakably a Golf. But, like the new A3, the 2014 Golf doesn’t scream, “I’m new!”

Volkswagen’s head designer, Klaus Bischoff, also credits the chameleon-like MTM platform for freeing up a few design tricks. “Visually, the passenger compartment has been shifted toward the rear,” says Bischoff, for what he calls the “proportions of premium-class vehicles.”

“The front wheels, for example, were moved 43 millimetres further forward. This makes the front overhang shorter, and at the same time the bonnet looks longer,” Bisch- off adds.

Where Volkswagen didn’t hold back is with the 2014 Golf’s interior. The centre dash is now angled toward the driver, with a new iPad- quality touchscreen infotainment screen. And while I thought the outgoing version set the class standard for fit and finish, the new model takes it up a notch further. If only the mid-sized Passat felt this luxurious.

While the new Golf goes on sale in Europe this year (where the sportier Golf GTI arrives next May and the all-wheel-drive Golf R later in 2013), Canadian-market Golfs won’t arrive until the first half of 2014. So, there’s no word yet on what engines we’ll get. Foreign customers, though, will get to choose from a four-cylinder family of two diesels and a pair of turbocharged gasoline-fired engines with fuel-saving stop/start technology across the board.

The gas side starts with a wee 1.2-litre making all of 85 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. The larger 1.4L makes 138 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. A 1.6L diesel with 103 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque is complemented by a redesigned 2.0L (with 148 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque) that is expected to replace the Canadian Golf’s current diesel motor. Five- and six-speed manuals are available, as are six- and seven-speed dual-clutch automatics.

Volkswagen claims an improvement in overall fuel economy of up to 23% on some models. With active cylinder management (that shuts down two cylinders when appropriate), the 1.4L turbo-gas unit scores an impressive fuel economy rating of 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres.

I drove the larger of the diesel and gasoline mills, each mated to a six- or seven-speed autobox, respectively. While the diesel version scores a hybrid-busting fuel economy rating of 4.1 L/100 km, the turbo-gas unit was much more engaging to drive. It’s a willful little mill that would make a delightful replacement for the aging 2.5L five-banger in today’s Golf.

Like in upscale Audis, the Golf’s driving characteristics can be customized. Five modes — Eco, Sport, Normal, Individual and Comfort — can be selected. But even with Sport selected, the new Golf is one of the most refined small cars I’ve driven. Enthusiasts, though, will want to wait for the sportier GTI.

In Germany, VW is boasting that, despite all the upgrades, the seventh-generation Golf is priced the same as the exiting model. In Canada, 2013 Golfs start at $19,975 for the two-door and $21,475 for the four-door.

More seat time in Canadian-bound 2014 Golfs has already been promised. But, so far, VW seems to have launched its new compact hatchback on a path to sales success.

Photograph by: VW