ALL THE SMALL THINGS

Itís been our hatchback benchmark for more than a decade, but is a significant mid-life update really enough to keep the Volkswagen Golf ahead of its all-new rivals?

WORDS ANDY ENRIGHT PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

O COMPREHENSIVE was the Golf Mk7ís victory in the 2013 edition of Wheels Car of the Year, that there were many mutterers in the office who believed that were it eligible for entry the following year, it would have wiped the floor with the best of 2014ís crop.

While this would have denied thousands of online commentators the chance to congratulate us on our choice of the BMW i3 for COTY 2014, the extravagantly talented Golf 7 has remained the benchmark car in its class, before being mildly refreshed this year in 7.5 guise.

Weíre used to there being barely a chink in the Golfís armour, but examine the refreshed range and youíll wonder why thereís such a gaping hole between the 110kW 1.4-litre TSI and the forthcoming 169kW 2.0-litre GTI. So in order to take the box-fresh Golf out of its comfort zone, weíre pitching the 1.4-litre TSI against a trio of talented rivals that ask much the same price that Volkswagen charges but pack significantly more herbs.

Holdenís Astra, a Wheels Car of the Year 2017 contender, needs little in the way of introduction.

Weíre unashamed advocates of the Opel-bred hatchís dynamics and the 147kW 1.6-litre turbo RS-V rangetopper is, by a margin, the cheapest car here.

Blue-tinged of collar it may be, but waging asymmetric warfare against the occasionally haughty Volkswagen could well prove Holdenís masterstroke.

On paper, the Hyundai i30 SR Premium appears an instant front-runner. With a huge equipment list, a peppy 150kW from its 1.6-litre turbo four, an independent rear end at last, and a newfound confidence in third-gen guise, the i30 has nothing of the underdog about it. Back that up with a five-year warranty and the Korean comes in swinging.

Hondaís Civic hatch has divided opinion with its styling, but there arenít too many dissenting voices on the quality of its chassis or the sheer amount of car on offer, the Civic looking almost half a class bigger than the norm. With 127kW under the bonnet from its 1.5-litre turbo four, driving through a CVT gearbox, is the Honda a little too big for its own good?

Running numbers on the cars was instructive, but first a mea culpa. In the bleary-eyed pre-dawn, we fuelled the Golf with the minimum-recommended 95 rather than 98 RON as was used in the others, in the process exacerbating its already hefty power deficit.

So it was perhaps no great surprise that it logged the slowest times at the strip, recording 8.3 seconds to 100km/h and a 0-400m time of 16.2 seconds. Still, thatís a mere tenth down on Volkswagenís claimed numbers which, given the car was loaded to the gunwales with options and was asked to perform on a cold and damp track, was a hugely creditable showing. Exciting, no, the dual-clutch transmission registering not one chirrup of wheelspin, but impressive in its own way.

The skin Iím in

One of the neatest things about the Civicís infotainment system is that thereís a hidden ĎEaster eggí that allows you to change the skin. Should you want to update the look and feel go to Settings, then System, scroll up when it looks as if youíre at the top of the screen already and, lo, another menu appears. Choose the ĎChange Skiní option and you can customise the screen, even uploading your own wallpapers if you really want to get creative.

The Civic and Hyundai were predictably quicker, but the champ in a straight line was the Astra, the Vbox churning out 7.2 seconds to 100km/h and 15.2 seconds to 400m. Round one to Holden, then, despite the fact the Astraís familiar silhouette and slight dearth of charisma meant that it was always the last set of keys left in the hat. Even in RS-V specification, the carís fussy wheels and equally over-elaborate three-quarter detailing undersell whatís on offer.

At just $31,740 for this automatic model, the RS-V delivers serious value for money, offering almost $2000 worth of headroom to the next most expensive car in this test, the $33,590 Honda Civic VTi-LX. The Astraís hardly in stripper spec either, with LED front and rear lights, heated seats and steering wheel, and a whole suite of electronic safety functions like AEB, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise, and blind-spot alert.

Spring for the Civic and you do get a lot of styling.

All of it in fact. In a swage-line-per-dollar comparison, the Honda registers a solid six stars out of five. Beyond that, the lane keep/adaptive cruise combination is the best calibrated of the lot here, giving the car a taste of the old-school meticulous Honda engineering many thought had gone for good. The mapping graphics, on the other hand, look as if the designers had run riot with a jumbo pack of fluoro markers.

The i30 would seem to wear its $33,950 sticker price a little self-consciously, but the range-topping SR Premium with the auto íbox packs a lot in. Strip it back to the SR with a manual box (with the added bonus of a manual handbrake too), and that would run you a mere $25,950. Would you really miss the LED headlights, a panoramic glass sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, chrome body finishes, one-touch windows, and a power outlet in the luggage area? Itís still absolutely rammed with kit including the phone charging induction pad (iPhone users need to buy a special case to power up their handsets). That said, the auto model also bundles in AEB, adaptive cruise, and lane-keep assist, which goes some way to justifying the price.

The Golf should retail at $34,490 in Highline trim, but somebody got a bit keen when specifying this test car and added the driver assistance package, infotainment package, R-Line package, and some wholly outre Turmeric Yellow metallic paint to bump its price up to within $50 of an outgoing GTI. Try to ignore the tinsel; the car doesnít need it.

The added 18kW over the old 92TSI doesnít make as much difference as expected. Thereís an extra 50Nm of torque on tap when the turbocharger gets its trousers on from 1500rpm, but the Golf 7ís character and its winning combo of pliant ride and perky handling carry over much as before. Volkswagen claims to have digitised the Golf with this midlife makeover, and with the 12.3-inch Active Info Display in the cowl, you can render yourself digitally surprised and delighted, though the standard Highline doesnít get this, so itís as you were.

Tailing the Golf through a set of hairpins in the i30 is instructive. Thereís a benign malleability to the way

Thereís a benign malleability to the way the i30 tackles a road

the Hyundai tackles a road. Itís soft-edged, with long strokes to the pedal arcs and a one-pause-two as the body settles into a corner, but itís certainly quick across country. The steering and gearbox are bang on the money for a warm hatch, responsive but never neurotic.

Driven up to about eight-tenths, the i30 is a heck of a package, with only an initial lack of brake pedal response counting against it.

Turn the wick up further and itís clear where Volkswagen spent all that budget on the Golf 7. The Hyundaiís composure deteriorates, the steering rack rattling, the ESP system chopping in unnecessarily, and the Hankook Ventus tyres lacking the smooth transition into understeer of the Volkswagenís Bridgestone Potenza rubber. Rev hang is also evident, the engine having a notably lazy spool-down.

The Civic also struggles when given a stern examination, but the problem here isnít the chassis.

Itís the CVT, which, even in Sport mode, never puts enough torque on the table as you engage the front of the car into a corner. It feels akin to entering in neutral and taking up the clutch in a manual car, the 1.5-litre turbo lump delivering enough Newton metres to drag the car into some semblance of composure two-thirds of the way through a bend after a clumsy pass at the apex. Marshal the íbox yourself via the wheel-mounted paddles and the engine sounds thrashy as you try to make the most of the meagre 220Nm. Itís all a bit of a shame, as the Civic clearly features a talented chassis, but itís been comprehensively hobbled by the unhappy engine and gearbox combination.

The Astra RS-V has no such issue. Itíll drive clean away from the Golf on any road you care to choose, courtesy of handling thatís at least on par and a manifestly superior powerplant. The Golfís 1.4-litre TSI unit sounds hollow and somewhat two-dimensional when absolutely wrung out in pursuit of the Holden, feeling all of its 37kW and 50Nm deficit. In fact, the Astra just gets better the more abuse you fling at it, signalling the edge of adhesion by a rapid-fire drumming harmonic from the outside front suspension assembly. One suspects youíd find its shortcomings on track, but for a fast road setup, the dynamics represent a sweet set of compromises. Even the Sport mode does a decent job, weighting up the steering by a few degrees without introducing a synthetic stickiness. Hats off to the chassis teams at Russelsheim and Lang Lang.

Itís a heck of an achievement.

The Astra will drive clean away from the Golf on any road you care to choose

Circuit judge

We didnít have the chance to put our four contenders around a race track, but sister title Motor included the manual versions of the i30 SR and the Astra RS in their annual Bang For Your Bucks comparison. The results? Pretty much as weíd predict. The Astra ran a lap of Winton in 1:43.9 with the Hyundai trailing in 1:44.6. The Holden held a higher corner speed in the fast turns but the Hyundai was able to claw some back under brakes.

The joy of specs

The Golf 7.5 is offered in base, Trendline, Comfortline, and Highline trim levels with an optional R-Line optic pack available solely for the Highline.

The DSG-only Comfortline looks to be the go, adding $1000 to the price of the equivalent Trendline and netting you 17-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, the upgraded Discover Media system, a storage drawer under the front passenger seat, a 12V outlet in the boot, better front seats, and a splash more chrome indoors and out.

Itís well packaged too, with what feels like the most passenger space in the back, although beyond that itís a bit mean. Thereís no centre armrest, no door grab handles, no rear cup holders, no rear air vents, and a door armrest that seems to have been designed to cater better for baby T. rexes than Homo sapiens.

Aside from the glitzy piano black and chrome detailing, there are some notable downsides to the fascia design. The phone holderís a waste of space, itís the only car here with no shift paddles, and the door mirrors are set too far back, requiring a turn of the head rather than a flick of the eyeballs. The massive AEB intervention light atop the dash reflects in the windscreen and the starter button is hidden around the back of the wheel where the driverís watch clasp will inevitably rake the leather rim. And the warning chimes are enough to send you postal.

Itís these sorts of errors that Volkswagen tends not to make. The Golfís cabin feels smart and cohesive, and about the only minor ergonomic complaints are a poorly sited idle-stop kill switch, a fiddly USB input, and a central screen that has a slight look of the aftermarket about it when it powers down. Other than that itís all expensive touch points, considered sight lines out of the car and silicone-damped feel-good slickness. Accommodation in the rear is good, although passengers wonít be able to get their feet under the electrically adjustable front seats if theyíre set low.

The i30ís cabin looks clean and fresh, with red anodised-look detailing on the wheel, vent bezels, and air con controls that could have looked really cheesy but instead is just about subtle enough. The rear is the tightest of the bunch with a firm seat cushion, but that aside, itís a class act. The ride quality is the best here too, the damping being initially soft in its travel and then firming up rapidly. Visibility out of the car is extremely good and the mirror placement is excellent, but the electric seat ought to drop a bit lower for a car with sporting aspirations.

No such issues for the Civic. It feels as if your rear end is skimming a few millimetres above the bitumen.

Itís wide inside, with at least as much rear legroom as the Astra and a little more than the Golf. The chunky camera that sits on the passenger door mirror is a good idea in concept, but itís often distracting when its image flicks up on the central display. Yet itís probably a good thing as the rear three-quarter visibility on the Civic is scandalous. There are, however, some

The Golfís cabin is all expensive touch points and silicone-damped slickness

thoughtful design touches evident in the execution of the Civicís packaging. The fabric parcel shelf roller blind is one, and the way the global closure on the key also shuts the sunroof is another. The HDMI port located in the nether regions of the fascia will be a head scratcher for some, but itís used for smartphone mirroring via HondaLink apps.

Sorting these cars into some semblance of order is surprisingly easy. The Honda is the only car here with a glaring shortcoming. No, itís not the styling. The CVT gearbox does it no favours whatsoever and masks what is a dynamically capable car. Add a decent auto and a lick more power and the Civic would be on the money or thereabouts. Thereís work to be done here for the next refresh.

The Hyundai initially looked as if it would give the Golf a stern test and, in many regards, it fits the warm hatch brief best. Our money would go on a manual SR, a car that would have posed us a few more searching questions than this full-fruit auto SR Premium version, but the i30 has earned its spurs in some tough company.

The Astra came close. Initially unfancied in comparison to the more overt charms of the Golf and the i30, the RS-V inveigled its way into our affections the longer we drove it. It has a number of annoying detail glitches that ought to have been fixed early in the design process but the fundamentals are just so robust. The Holden feels bulletproof, Australia-proof even, in a way that none of the others, not even the imperious Volkswagen, can quite pull off. For that, it earns the runner-up spot.

It canít topple the Golf, though, and, truth be told, it wouldnít have bested Golf 7, let alone iteration 7.5. As a tester, youíre constantly asking whether youíre being gulled by Volkswagenís polish, seduced by a superficial sheen of glitz, but no. Thereís real substance to the Golf, showing the more powerful Hyundai and Honda a clean pair of heels on a challenging road and offering the cleanest ergonomics, the most mature design ethos, the sweetest consistency of control weights and, in almost every area, a greater depth of engineering. If Porsche built a hatch, it would probably feel a lot like the Golf 7.5.

Thatís the result of years of continuity in the carís development; Volkswagenís nuanced understanding of what works and what doesnít. Maybe Hyundai will develop that. Holden and Honda certainly havenít, successive generations of Astra and Civic succumbing to a sort of developmental amnesia where the best aspects of predecessor models are inexplicably jettisoned in favour of a different look and feel.

Volkswagen doesnít attempt to reinvent the wheel with each generation of Golf. It just makes it incrementally better. And thatís why it wins.

If Porsche built a hatch, it would probably feel a lot like the Golf 7.5

HOLDEN ASTRA RS-V HONDA CIVIC VTi-LX HYUNDAI i30 SR PREMIUM VW GOLF 110TSI HIGHLINE

Power-to-weight: 93kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6200rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 95 Speed in gears 220km/h @ 3500rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.1sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 3.7sec 0-80km/h: 5.3sec 0-100km/h: 7.6sec 0-120km/h: 10.5sec 0-140km/h: 14.1sec 0-400m: 15.6sec @ 146.4km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 5.1sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 38.2m

Power-to-weight: 84kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6000rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 97 Speed in gears 43km/h @ 6000rpm 72km/h @ 6000rpm 111km/h @ 6000rpm 160km/h @ 6000rpm* 215km/h @ 6000rpm* 215km/h @ 4800rpm* 215km/h @ 4000rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.4sec 0-40km/h: 2.6sec 0-60km/h: 4.0sec 0-80km/h: 5.9sec 0-100km/h: 8.3sec 0-120km/h: 11.6sec 0-140km/h: 15.9sec 0-400m: 16.2sec @ 141.2km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 5.7sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 40.4m

Performance Power-to-weight: 108kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/5900rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 96 Speed in gears 44km/h @ 5900rpm 68km/h @ 5900rpm 105km/h @ 5900rpm 138km/h @ 5900rpm 201km/h @ 5900rpm* 225km/h @ 4950rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.1sec 0-40km/h: 2.2sec 0-60km/h: 3.4sec 0-80km/h: 4.9sec 0-100km/h: 7.2sec 0-120km/h: 9.6sec 0-140km/h: 13.0sec 0-400m: 15.2sec @ 151.4km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 4.5sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 40.3m

Power-to-weight: 104kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 7000/6800rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 96 Speed in gears 50km/h @ 6800rpm 84km/h @ 6800rpm 124km/h @ 6800rpm 179km/h @ 6800rpm* 225km/h @ 6800rpm* 225km/h @ 5800rpm* 225km/h @ 4900rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.3sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 3.6sec 0-80km/h: 5.3sec 0-100km/h: 7.3sec 0-120km/h: 10.0sec 0-140km/h: 13.5sec 0-400m: 15.4sec @ 147.3km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 4.6sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 38.6m 1 2 3 4 5 6 $31,740/Tested $31,740 Drivetrain Engine in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo Layout front engine (east-west), front drive Capacity 1598cc Power 147kW @ 5500rpm Torque 300Nm @ 1650-3500rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Chassis Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats L/W/H/WĖB 4386/1809/1485/2662mm Front/rear track 1574/1581mm Weight 1363kg Boot capacity 360 litres Fuel/capacity 95 octane/48 litres Fuel consumption 7.8L/100km (test average) Suspension Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, Watts linkage, coil springs, anti-roll bar Steering electric rack-and-pinion Turning Circle 11.9m (2.7 turns lock-to-lock) Front brakes ventilated discs (276mm) Rear brakes solid discs (264mm) Tyres Bridgestone Turanza T001 Tyre size 225/40R18 82W Safety NCAP rating (Aus) $33,590/Tested $34,165** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1498cc 127kW @ 5500rpm 220Nm @ 1700-5500rpm CVT automatic (seven ratio steps) steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4515/1799/1421/2700mm 1547/1563mm 1365kg 410 litres 95 octane/47 litres 8.3L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.6m (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (282mm) solid discs (260mm) Yokohama Advan db 215/50R17 91V (Aus) $33,950/Tested $34,445** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1591cc 150kW @ 6000rpm 265Nm @ 1500-4500rpm 7-speed dual-clutch steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4340/1795/1455/2650mm 1553/1562mm 1436kg 395 litres 95 octane/50 litres 7.8L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.6m (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (305mm) solid discs (262mm) Hankook Ventus Prime2 225/40R18 88V (Aus) $34,490/Tested $41,290** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1395cc 110kW @ 5000-6000rpm 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm 7-speed dual-clutch steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4258/1799/1452/2620mm 1543/1514mm 1312kg 380 litres 95 octane/50 litres 8.5L/100km (test average)*** Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.9m (2.3 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (288mm) solid discs (272mm) Bridgestone Potenza S001 225/40R18 92Y (Aus)

Verdict 8.0/10 7.0/10 7.5/10 8.5/10

Great chassis; huge boot; equipment levels; smart driver-assist systems CVT; styling; materials quality; torque shortfall; rear blind spot Track: Heathcote dragstrip, damp. Temp: 10ļC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis. Warranty: 5yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/10,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 56%.

AAMI Insurance: $879 * Estimated. ** Includes metallic paint ($495).

Beautifully honed; sharp dynamics; clever ergonomics; clean styling Power deficit; options get pricey; DCT íbox not as rugged as an auto Track: Heathcote dragstrip, damp. Temp: 9.5ļC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis. Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 56%.

AAMI Insurance: $886 * Estimated. ** Includes Driver Assistance Package($1300), Infotainment Package ($2300), R-Line Package ($2500) and metallic paint ($500). *** Fuelled on the minimum recommended 95 RON rather than the 98 RON used in the other test cars.

Gutsy powerplant; composure at limit; great value; space; equipment Some clunky ergo issues; cabin materials; irritating warning chimes Track: Heathcote dragstrip, damp. Temp: 9.5ļC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis. Warranty: 3yr/100,000km. Service interval: 9 months/15,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 52%.

AAMI Insurance: $913 * Estimated.

Decent ride; eager engine; slick transmission; generous equipment i30 SR manual looks better value; soft edge to dynamics Track: Heathcote dragstrip, damp. Temp: 10ļC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis. Warranty: 5yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 56%. AAMI Insurance: $799 * Estimated. ** Includes metallic paint ($495).