Volkswagen wants to go on a rampage, to conquer every corner of the Cat A market. Its chosen weapon? Why, its trusty range of Golf ‘clubs’ of course…
Photos: Volkswagen Singapore (the Instagram-worthy ones), Jon Lim (the rest)
With a slight stretch of the imagination, you could think of the business of car sales as an ongoing war, where carmakers battle each other in their quest for that all-important resource: customer sales. And just like in an actual war, success or failure depends very much on tactics and strategy.
In Singapore, the most hotly-contested battlefield is that for small-to-medium Certificate of Entitlement (COE) Category A cars, known to all as the ‘mainstream’ category (the Land Transport Authority’s somewhat misguided terminology mind you, not ours, since if you can find BMWs and Audis in this category).
Here, Volkswagen’s tactic is to strike hard and repeatedly in the same spot. What I mean is, VW’s weapon for this particular battle serves as a triple whammy to rival brands.
I’m referring of course, to the Golf, VW’s Cat A (and also worldwide) bestseller. Except this time, it’s become a family instead of just a single model – available not just as a traditional hatchback, but also as a wagon (the Variant) and small Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV, the Sportsvan).
So three distinct bodystyles for three distinct usage patterns. But exactly how worried should the competition be?
To find out, we joined Volkswagen Group Singapore for a road trip up and down Malaysia, with all three Golfs as traveling companions. We figured, what better way than hundreds of kilometres of hard driving to really get under their skins and evaluate what they’re like to live with outside of the city…
And so it was that we found ourselves gathered at Volkswagen Centre Singapore on a sodden Tuesday morning, with our passports prepped and the sat-navs pointed North. But before we get into that, let’s meet all the members of the Golf family:
Hear the words “VW” and “Golf” together and this is almost certainly what comes to mind first, a solidly-built, cleanly-styled family hatchback that looks and feels a lot posher than the company’s populist origins would suggest.
In fact, in the range-topping Highline trim we have here, things are almost downright luxurious., with many big-car features that are a surprise in the Cat A segment. In particular, the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster (shared with the Variant), 9.2-inch touchscreen with smartphone connectivity and panoramic sunroof are impressive, although other niceties like cruise control, dual-zone aircon and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert were certainly useful on the trip too.
For reasons unfathomable to us, here in Asia wagons seem to have a bad rap – or at the very least, simply haven’t been embraced by the car buying public like sedans and hatches have. Yet having increased functionality in any form is A-Okay in our book, especially when the final result looks this good.
In fact to our eyes, the Variant was probably the most handsome Golf on the trip. That’s primarily due to the sporty-looking R-Line bodykit and grey 18-inch wheels, but the elongated silhouette of many wagons does give them a greater air of elegance and purpose than their hatchback counterparts anyway. A purpose that is clearly evident the moment you open the boot – the Variant adds just over 30cm of real estate to the rear of the Golf, allowing for up to 605 or 1,620-litres of boot space, yet avoids a bustle-backed look thanks to an 11mm reduction in height compared to the hatch.
While the Golf Highline might give off an air of sensible, day-to-day normalcy, and the Variant might hint at an adventurous lifestyle, for the Sportsvan (SV), it’s firmly about family first.
That’s because the SV is a mini-MPV, and as such has been optimised for domestic life. The flexibility of the Volkswagen MQB platform has allowed for a 50mm-longer wheelbase compared to the regular Golf, as well as a 121mm taller roofline, which means masses of space all around. A taller seating position is great not just for the driver (better visibility), but also the elderly (easier ingress/egress), as well as kids (hopefully less “are we there yet?” kind of questions). Finally, a plethora of touches around the cabin simply make daily life easier – massive door pockets, sliding rear seats, flip-up tray tables for rear passengers, and a storage cubby atop the dashboard.
The itinerary for this trip was a doozy: a fast blast up to the little-visited (by Singaporeans anyway) east coast state of Terengganu, followed by a mad dash down to Malacca, then a relaxed cruise back to Singapore; a 1,200km round trip in 2½ days.
As far as road trips go, this wasn’t one for the faint of heart. Unlike the majority of ventures Up North, our destinations for this trip meant that the fastest routes tended to be along the old Federal Highway routes – mostly two-lane single carriageways – instead of the more familiar North-South Highway; not to mention longer stints behind the wheel.
As you’d expect for a company that’s used to making Autobahn-capable cars, each of the Golfs made for excellent road trip companions. Under the skin, all three cars share the same hardware, the MQB platform, a 1.4-litre turbocharged inline-four engine with 125hp and 200Nm of torque mated to the familiar seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox. The upshot of this is that they all feel near-identical to drive.
Despite the unremarkable power figure, the 1.4’s turbocharged nature means it’s a damn sight punchier than the powerplants in many Cat A rivals, especially the naturally-aspirated units from the Korean and Japanese brands; even the slowest car of this group, the SV, will do 0-100km/h in under ten seconds.
More useful than sprinting ability though, is the broad spread of torque available: all 200Nm is available from as low down as 1400rpm, which means you don’t need to wring the engine to redline every time you need to get an overtake done – which, on this trip, was a frequent occurrence.
But perhaps most impressive is the long-legged cruising ability afforded by the gearbox. In top gear at 110km/h, the engine is sitting quite comfortably at just 2,000rpm. Of course, being a large group of motoring journalists driving at “make-up-time” pace, most of our time was spent going much faster than that, but even so the cars managed an average fuel consumption of just 7.7 to 9.0L/100km.
It goes without saying that high-speed stability was also rock-solid in all three cars – with perhaps only the slab-sided SV getting buffeted around a bit more in crosswinds – but nevertheless there was no evidence of the nose wandering about or the steering going light near their top speeds.
All cars had sports suspension fitted, and while around town in Malacca they did transmit many of the bumps in the road up into the cabin, on this trip at least the trade off was well worth it, maintaining a fantastic level of body control at speed, especially on the gnarled-up Federal Routes. Where a car on standard suspension (or indeed, from a different brand) may have continuously been thumping into its bump stops, the Golfs here soaked everything up admirably.
But it’s not just dynamic behaviour that makes the Golfs such brilliant road trip vehicles; the multitude of features and interior touches are what takes things from good to great.
Cruise control, for example, takes the pain out of monotonous highway driving; there’s plenty of easy-reach storage for large water bottles, toll cards, tissues and sweets; panoramic sunroofs brighten the cabin up through even the gloomiest weather, and the 9.2-inch Discover Pro infotainment system made navigation easy, in addition to belting out our tunes with great clarity – blasting “Highway to the Danger Zone” while on a fast drive has never felt more appropriate.
While we enjoyed our time with the various Golfs when we drove them for their local CarBuyer reviews, experiencing them in more extreme scenarios has only given us a deeper appreciation of their myriad abilities.
If there is a drawback, it’s the fact that yes, you are paying a little more for a German car, but even that sort of talk has diminished with the appearance of sister brand Skoda. You surely would get a Japanese or Korean car for less, but the 10-15 percent difference is likely noticeable to normal folk in terms of design, connectivity and high-speed drivability.
What’s abundantly clear from this trip is that no matter how your Golf is shaped, it’ll have the chops to put a smile on your face, whether from the driving experience or simply how convenient life with it is. With a Golf it seems, experiences like these are pretty much par for the course.