The days of regretting your parsimony as soon as you drive your poverty-spec hatchback off the forecourt are long gone. One glance at the spec tally tells you that, but it doesn’t tell you how grown-up and refined even the cheapest Golf is on the road.
Again, let’s quickly wind the clock back 10 years, when the base Golf was lumbered with a naturally aspirated 1.4-litre unit with a pitiful 78bhp and 97lb ft – fine in a small supermini, but pretty asthmatic for a family car, particularly once loaded with kids and the typical gubbins family life dictates you carry.
There’s no such issue here. Peak power is best described as just about adequate in the context of today’s market, yet you’ll rarely find yourself in a situation where you feel hopelessly under-endowed unless the traffic light grand prix is your favoured pastime. The secret here is the healthy torque delivery typical of a small-capacity turbo motor, with peak twist coming in 2000rpm to ensure that mid-range pace is, while pretty far from ‘meaty’, entirely sufficient for normal cut-and-thrust driving.
Engine refinement also plays a part here: engineers have beavered away successfully improving the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels of three-pots, and the Golf’s unit might be the most unobtrusive yet. There’s little of the characteristic shudder at idle, it’ll roll along with the revs barely above idle with no fuss, and it settles down so much at a cruise that I occasionally found myself sat in third when I thought I was in fifth.
That gearbox itself is reasonably slick and tactile, mated to ratios not too languidly spaced for economy – refreshing at this end of the class. That’s not to say it’s thirsty, though: MPG in the high 40s or low 50s is within easy reach beyond city limits.
Although we had some bones to pick with the unsettled ride of the new GTI on UK roads, there’s no such issue here. Granted, only Golfs with 148bhp or more benefit from the more capable multi-link rear axle set-up, but even with the torsion beam here, it’s notably more absorbent at lower speeds than the equivalent Leon.
We suspect the 16in wheels and chunky tyre sidewalls play a core role here, and the all-speeds suppleness does mean a less direct feel to the steering and more initial body lean. The Leon has the legs in terms of it feeling sharper and more connected to the road surface, though, and a Ford Focus offers a slightly broader dynamic spread between comfort and driver appeal.
Inside, the infotainment functions and assist tech are broadly similar to the rest of the range’s. That means a dashboard design that, while glossy and attractively minimalist, has traded in a good deal of ergonomic simplicity from the old model. However, you get accustomed to working with it and there’s no denying that the splashes of metal-effect plastic and strips of ambient lighting on the dash and doors make the innards look and feel classier than pretty much any new car at this price point. It’s roomy and versatile, too, but the Octavia excels more in that respect.