Road test: Volkswagen Golf Estate
Is a compact MPV the only family car worth having? This Golf's racy styling and silky-smooth ride suggests the estate could be in for a revival, says John Simister
Specifications Model: Volkswagen Golf Estate 1.9 TDI SE
Price: £16,592 (range £14,347-£20,417)
Engine: 1,896cc, four cylinders, eight valves, turbodiesel, 105bhp at 4,000rpm, 184lb ft at 1,900rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 116mph, 0-62mph in 12.2sec, 54.3mpg official average, CO2: 137g/km
Size matters, it seems. A large estate car with a prestigious badge is deemed desirable by those with the means to indulge their desire. Bring the size and the perceived status of the badge down a couple of notches, though, and estate cars lose their cool. You're not going to flaunt an Astra estate or a Focus estate, after all, because you don't want people thinking you sell photocopiers.
But shouldn't the connotations of life-mode still be the same, albeit on a smaller scale? Not nowadays, because the compact MPV has stolen that show. Something like a Scenic or a Zafira suggests its user has a more open-minded approach to life and favours an unconventionally-configured vehicle with which to realise it. So not so many people buy a compact estate car any more. They're just not exciting enough.
Maybe, though, an MPV has become too obvious. Maybe a really good, modern estate car can do the family-holdall job if not better, then at least in an interestingly different way. And maybe, if the estate version of the compact hatchback has a kudos-laden badge, it can bring credibility back to the category. Does such a car exist?
There is one, and it's the Volkswagen Golf estate you see here. The badge suggests a class-transcending, thoroughly engineered, logical quality of design that transcends mere fashion: Volkswagens have long had an air of permanence about them. A Volkswagen can be seen where a Ford or Vauxhall would be snubbed, victims of a brand snobbery that has no logical basis but informs many a buyer's choice of car.
The Golf estate. Shouldn't it be a Jetta estate, wearing as it does the chrome-striped front grille of the Golf's booted-saloon derivative? After all, the estate is even made in the same Mexican factory as the Jetta. In some markets, it is sold as exactly that, but in the UK the Golf name is much stronger and more recognisable.
The first Golf estate, based on the Mark Three hatchback, was breathtakingly unsexy in its styling. The second was cleaner, sharper and more covetable, looking a bit like a compressed version of the high-cred Passat estate of the time. And this one is almost handsome, with a racy line to its rear side windows and a nicely rising waistline.
Inside, load bay excepted, it's like any other mainstream Golf: straight, horizontal lines on the dashboard, an air of understated quality, a surprising amount of hard plastic trim, which you don't mind too much because it goes with the Volkswagen-is-functional thing that goes right back to the original Beetle. This plastic is present in the current Golf because it helped make the cars cheaper, the previous model's plushness having eaten too far into profits. Today's Golf was meant to be the profitable one, but now Volkswagen says that it, too, costs too much to make and the next one must be cheaper.
Can a family hatchback be transformed into a useful estate car? The Golf estate's tail is longer than the hatchback's, and there's a properly useful load platform with a roller-blind luggage cover and, optionally, a foldable boot floor. The rear bumper is slightly higher than the boot floor, but the tailgate opening is still deep enough for most purposes. The rear seat cushions fold forward and the backrests flop down into the spaces thus revealed, making an extended load platform that is genuinely low and flat.
So this car works as an estate car. Does it work as a driving machine? If it does, it would be a welcome bonus, because an estate car like this is unlikely to have driving dynamics at the top of its buyers' priority lists. The test car I'm driving has the middle, potentially best-selling of the three available engines – an eight-valve, 1.9-litre TDI turbodiesel with a middling 105bhp (the others are a 1.6-litre petrol with 102bhp and a 2.0-litre, 16-valve turbodiesel with 140bhp.)
I start the engine and am appalled. I haven't driven a new car with a diesel engine this gruff for some time; what with this and the Golf's shallow windscreen, it all feels rather old-fashioned. But it moves off keenly and effortlessly enough, with five smoothly selectable gears to keep it at its optimum speed, and I'm reminded of the first Golf TDI that I drove back in 1993, when direct-injection diesels were a new idea.
Back then, the engine was amazing for its combination of economy and extraordinary pull from low speeds. It opened a new era in diesels, and was the first to be really competitive with a petrol engine on pace, as well as annihilating it for economy. Most good diesels are like that now, and are a lot more refined with it, but this Golf estate's engine is a nostalgic reminder of those pioneering days. It's pretty much the same engine, apart from having 105bhp and 184lb ft of torque instead of 90bhp and 148lb ft.
It has more weight to pull, inevitably, but the result is a car as lively as its predecessor was (and subjectively quicker than the figures suggest). The engine's thrum even becomes oddly endearing after a time. But that was going to happen only if the rest of the car proved an amenable companion, and it does. The Golf steers very smoothly, with just the right weighting to the steering's action, and the sophisticated suspension (a near-copy of the original Ford Focus's design) keeps the Golf estate tidy, responsive and fun to drive.
The really good bit, though, the part that has made me feel warm about this car is the way it rides over bumps. I've driven so many new cars recently that thud and bang and jitter over our disintegrating roads, it's a joy to try one that doesn't. The wheels of this mid-level-trim (SE) Golf are quite hefty at 16in diameter, and they are shod with sporty 205/55-section tyres, but the Golf soaks up all kinds of road neglect with barely a complaint. It seems the art of making a car ride well, of making it flow with the road rather than fight it, is still extant at Volkswagen. Such a combination of smoothness, precision and correct control weightings is a pleasure to experience.
So that's the load-carrying Golf. A particularly easy, pleasing drive that also happens to be rather useful and surprising value against its Ford and Vauxhall opposition. The problem with compact MPVs is that they either lean too much in bends because of their height, or they ride too lumpily because the suspension is stiffened to stop the leaning. Whatever, it's a compromise. There's no such compromise in the Golf. The compact, quality estate car. It could just catch on.
Ford Focus 1.6 TDCi 110 Zetec estate £17,212
The Focus range has just had a subtle restyle outside and in, which means there may be discounts on pre-facelift cars. Good to drive; expensive for what it is.
Skoda Octavia 1.9 TDI Ambiente estate £15,465
Mechanically, it is the same as the Golf, and, with much the same quality and visual understatement, the Octavia is arguably the smartest buy in the class.
Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTi 100 Design estate £17,430
It looks the flashiest, but also costs the most among the rivals here, which is hard to justify unless you can get a discount. Does everything adequately.