Replacing one of the world's most successful cars is a hard job but with the new seventh-generation Golf, Volkswagen has managed to get the balance between continuity and change just right.
It's a car in which owners of older Golfs will immediately feel at home, but also one that incorporates a number of important improvements.
At first glance the shape appears a little unadventurous. But look at little more closely and you can see that this Golf is subtly jazzier than its predecessor. The rear quarters, for example, with their sporty raked C-pillars, recall those of the Golf IV, one of the more handsome models in the series.
And under the skin it's all change, because the latest Golf uses Volkswagen's MQB architecture, a system of sub-assemblies shared between cars that is more flexible and scalable than the "platform" concept.
One achievement is a weight saving of about 100kg compared with the sixth-generation model, an example of a trend towards lighter cars that is now gathering pace.
That 100kg seems to be made up of lots of small savings made all over the car, rather than a single big breakthrough: the body is 23kg lighter, for example, the seats up to 7kg and the air-conditioning 2.7kg.
This Golf also incorporates important safety features, chief of which is an interesting multi-collision braking system fitted as standard across the range. Many accident casualties result from a secondary impact and the new system brakes the car to lessen the risks involved.
Optional safety features include adaptive cruise control, city emergency braking, a driver alert system and a lane-keeping assistance system.
The new car's interior is excellent, and promises to become the benchmark for affordable cars in this class. The materials used and the standard of fit and finish wouldn't look out of place in a car from any of the premium brands.
The overall feel of the interior is familiar from past Golfs, but a few subtle changes have been made - the controls are angled slightly more towards the driver and the in-dash equipment has had a revamp with DAB radios, Bluetooth and USB connections.
I drove two versions - the 2-litre 102kw diesel with a six-speed self-shifting DSG transmission, and the 1.4-litre TSI with a manual transmission and ACT cylinder deactivation technology - which were quite different in character.
The diesel was a pleasant, relaxed wafter that didn't really feel like it wanted to be hurried but the 1.4 TSI was something else. Eager, agile and economical (4.79l/100km in the combined cycle test) this petrol Golf edges towards the top of the class for driving enjoyment.
If I had a quibble, it was with the driver profile selection system that will be fitted to most British cars, which allows a driver to choose between eco, sport, normal and individual - each with a given combination of settings for engine mapping and other parameters.
On the basis of fairly brief acquaintance, "normal" seemed to be so well judged that there didn't appear to be much point in bothering with the other modes; "individual" allows the driver to tinker with each of the system's parameters individually but I can't imagine even the geekiest test engineer or the most fussy of test drivers making full and frequent use of it; . "eco" influences the engine settings, air-conditioning and other systems in the interests of fuel economy, so may prove worthwhile in the long run.
The new Golf seems sure to be another hit. The first cars will reach NZ customers midway through next year.
-IndependentBy David Wilkins