Some would consider it a little unusual to be behind the wheel of one of the world's fastest supercars debating the merits of the latest Volkswagen Golf.
Volkswagen Golf TSI
Some would consider it a little unusual to be behind the wheel of one of the world's fastest supercars debating the merits of the latest Volkswagen Golf. But while recently driving the newly launched Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, conversation turned to the sixth generation of the multimillion-selling small car, which is now available in the UAE. "It's totally brilliant," I gushed to my co-pilot, while surging towards 240 kph. "There's immaculate control and really impressive performance." And that was about the new Golf TSI, not the Lamborghini.
Before taking the trip to Tenerife to test out the Lambo, I had in my possession the smaller car and had been having a whale of a time with it. It provided an excellent warm-up for its Italian stablemate in that the turbocharged engine, refined suspension and excellent finish were well up to scratch, a bit like a lithe Lamborghini. For me, this Golf is the surprise of the year so far. Very little has been done to the exterior over its previous incarnation to suggest that the Golf is anything more than an evolution, but the way it looks, feels and drives are head and shoulders above.
In economic terms, Volkswagen is in a hurry to release the car because it is now considerably cheaper to build and assemble in comparison to the Mark V. The brief for the new Mark VI was based around refinement: refining the looks, the power plant and the ride so that it has now become the most accomplished version of the popular mainstay. At first sight - as is usually the case when surveying a Golf that is lacking of the letters G, T, I or R and the numbers 3 and 2 on the hatch - it was difficult to be too enthusiastic about the miles ahead, particularly with a supercar sortie imminent. But already, after driving just a few hundred metres away from Volkswagen's headquarters in Dubai, it was clear that this was going to be great fun.
The turbocharger is as smooth as a chorister's chin as it powers you away and, on accumulating some decent revs, the engine starts to sing sweetly. While tradition has so far dictated that hot hatches make a racket, the TSI does nothing of the sort. And while it may fall well short of a full-blown GTI edition in terms of performance, the 160 hp coming from just a 1.4L engine puts it off the scale when it comes to fun and behaviour.
The tight suspension does everything you want it to while maintaining excellent poise on iffy road surfaces. Somehow, it has the ability to let you know about every crack, pebble and undulation on the surface below without forcing you to live them, and that is the mark of a good set-up. So too is the sense of rigidity the Golf provides as you corner through pacey contraflows with sharp cambers at speed. These features really add to the enjoyment of driving around town.
The Volkswagen turbocharger is going from strength to strength, and the significant lag I've experienced with it on other models seems to have disappeared, even if there's a suspicion of missing torque low down. But this doesn't last for long as you reach a wide sweet spot and the power takes over. Then, you become master of the delicious surges available as you kick down through the mid- and high-speed ranges.
These rises come into their own when, aligned to precise, informative steering, you power through a speedy apex or take your chance into a faster lane of traffic. This is where the real fun comes in because the TSI is more about motoring than just plain driving. This Golf's cabin, meanwhile, is a good place to be, not least because of the advances in quality from a car maker already noted for its workmanship. Everything, from door to stalk to knob to rocker, has a convincing thunk or click, with decidedly no chinks.
Volkswagen is famous for testing out its switchgear. At motor shows, the car maker usually wheels out a "false finger" machine, a mechanical digit that demonstrates how every button is repeatedly pushed millions of times as the car is being tested. If the component can't take it, it's back to the drawing board. Sometimes, even, they show off their "bogus bottom", but that's only on special occasions.
All this testing has paid off, because not only are the materials used in the interior extremely attractive - not least the new line-in stereo interface, which occupies a shiny, beautifully styled centre-console screen that would double for the optional sat nav - they are highly practical. In the test car, the saddle leather-coloured seats were wonderful in terms of comfort and support, and very easy to adjust, even though they weren't electric. Their colour sat beautifully with the medley of high-quality plastics, which are a world away from Golfs of yore. There's also plenty of space both fore and aft, with room for five well-fed chaps.
The test TSI also had a rearview camera. Often, such gadgets are fiddly to interpret and not a match for the old-fashioned mirror approach, but this one performed intuitively and included a grid to add perspective. It was also equipped with a self-parking gizmo: you select it, operate the pedals and the car takes care of the manoeuvring. Since I hadn't been trained to use this, I was loath to bear the responsibility for a first use. Still, it seems like a good idea.
If comparisons are to be made, I wouldn't dream of putting the Golf TSI up against the Gallardo; you just don't do that. But with the TSI bringing the fun back to Golf motoring, I suspect we are in for a real treat when the new GTI arrives in the UAE this autumn.