Volkswagen Golf 7 review – 1.4 TSI ACT edition

9 January 2013

VW Golf VII front view

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: Refined, clever, economical and well equipped
Bad: Not cheap, looks very similar to the old car
Price: From £22,305
I’ve been accused of not firing on all cylinders before, but today that insult has become a compliment. One of the revamped engines available with the new seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf can cease firing on two of its four cylinders to save fuel, which is very much a good thing in my book.

This capability, called Active Cylinder Technology (ACT), is a feature of the new Golf’s top-spec petrol engine, the 1.4 TSI ACT, available only in the warm-hatch GT edition of the car. So naturally that was the Golf I made a swift beeline for when offered the chance this week. The ability to switch off half an engine helps the car hit official scores as good as 60.1mpg and 109g/km despite a full 140PS (138bhp) of get-up-and-go.

My test vehicle – a five-door model with six-speed manual gearbox – is rated at 112g/km, which is not at all bad given that it can also sprint to 62mph in just 8.4 seconds. A seven-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission is an option, yielding identical economy to the manual.

2013 VW Golf 7 rear side view

Cylinder deactivation turns out to be a trick performed without any drama whatsoever. The transition been four- and two-pot running feels instantaneous and would be entirely undetectable if it weren’t for a discreet little “eco” symbol that pops up among the instruments. The result is an engine that feels smooth, predictable and responsive at all times.

Of course the two dormant cylinders can’t physically take a break – all four pistons keep pulsing up and down regardless – but their fuel supply is cut off and their valves are kept closed whenever demands on the engine are light. The remaining pair of active cylinders are able to work more efficiently as a result.

The real-world benefits brought about by ACT will depend largely on the driver’s right foot, so the dashboard symbol (supplemented by trip computer info) is helpful if you aim to drive with economy in mind – much like the gearshift reminders that have become common in recent years. I’m not entirely sure how well the two systems get along, however – obeying shift suggestions sometimes saw me swap from two-cylinder mode in a lower gear to four-cylinder operation in a higher gear. I assume that VW’s software has this conundrum covered and that the gearshift hint still offers the best bet.

The rest of the Golf version 7 feels as polished and unruffled as the new engine. The interior is extremely comfortable, artfully restrained in design and pleasant to touch, although sadly not entirely free of rattles. I must have been unlucky, though – two other new Golfs I tried on the same day proved entirely squeak free.

2013 Golf interior

The GT trim level brings 17-inch wheels and sports suspension as standard. The combination is surprisingly comfortable, managing to achieve flat cornering without sacrificing suppleness over bumps, a refinement no doubt furnished by fully independent rear suspension. Lower-powered editions of the new Golf, below 120PS, must manage with a semi-independent torsion-beam setup. The result is a slight but detectable increase in shimmies, hops and jitters over bumps, but the simpler suspension does at least bring a 15kg weight saving.

The new Golf has gained a selection of driving modes for the first time, but the button to control them unfortunately stayed behind when the steering wheel and pedals migrated over to right-hand drive. British drivers wishing to choose among Normal, Sport, Eco or their own personalised setup will need to do so by feel, because the button will usually be playing peek-a-boo behind the gearstick.

2013 right-hand-drive MkVII Golf dashboard

The modes affect steering weight, throttle response and the keenness of major ancillaries like the aircon. The changes are noticeable but subtle compared to some other cars I’ve tried, and I’m happy to report that Eco mode felt very natural and tolerable, while Sport produced pleasantly sharpened responses and increased eagerness. It’s also a welcome bonus to be able to mix and match settings to your liking with the Individual mode, adjusted via the car’s central touch-screen.

I noticed that the handbrake is another item that hasn’t moved left-to-right, but this poses no problem because it remains accessible and in any case is electronic with the option of fully automatic operation. Equally happily, the three foot pedals have arrived on the right side of the car without incident, leaving welcome space for a clutch-side rest.

My test car’s £22,960 list price pays for a remarkably long list of standard features – Volkswagen spokespeople were keen to point out that base equipment levels are much improved over the outgoing Golf. The GT thus enjoys the full Scrabble bag treatment, including six separate acronyms (ABS, HBA, ESP, EDL, ASR and XDS) all devoted to making the car accelerate, stop and go around corners without skidding, sliding or trimming the hedgerows.

A black cyclops eye provides radar-based cruise control (standard on SE and GT), which will brake and accelerate to keep pace with the car ahead, at a distance the driver can adjust via wheel-mounted buttons. I tried it, it works, but it can feel quite unnerving until you get used to it.

2013 VW Golf touchscreen

A central colour touch-screen is standard across the whole range, complete with an uncanny ability to sense your fingertip before it arrives. Swing a digit towards the uncluttered navigation screen, for example, and a selection of menu buttons will pop up as if by magic, ready for you to prod.

Lovely Alcantara sports seats complete the GT picture, and indeed the only actual options fitted to my test car were a £900 sunroof and £495-worth of metallic paint.

GT trim currently sits at the top of the Golf tree above S and SE, until the Mk VII range expands in the middle of the year. A hot-hatch GTI and miserly BlueMotion model will arrive then, the latter promising a remarkable 85g/km. A new estate will follow next year.

While we must wait for the full BlueMotion edition, many of its core fuel-saving technologies already appear across the whole of the new Golf range. Every model comes fitted with automatic stop-start, a trip computer with shift hints, and energy recuperation in the form of an alternator that charges the battery mostly when the car is slowing down.

The new car is also lighter than its predecessor due to a comprehensive weight-watching programme that has trimmed fat from almost every component. The car’s structure makes use of extra-strong hot-stamped alloys and variable thickness steel, putting strength (and weight) only where it’s needed. As a result, the standard 1.6-litre TDI diesel in SE trim – the Golf destined to sell in greatest numbers – enjoys a 99g/km rating.

2013 VW Golf side view

This seventh remix of the familiar Golf recipe looks very similar to the outgoing incarnation. However, it would be a mistake to think that the new Golf offers much the same as the old. Look closely and the styling is distinctly sharper, cleaner, and better. And happily the same can also be said about the rest of the car.

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