You have to pity the poor VW Golf. So zestful and efficient, yet so out of step with the times. Assaulted by SUVs on the one side and pure EVs on the other, it is a car that has evolved constantly through nearly half a century of manufacture. Right now, the eighth generation Golf represents the acme of the internal combustion engine, a true all-rounder that combines basic transportation with brilliant packaging and driving enjoyment. Over that time, the Golf has also become all things to all people; it’s an electric Zipcar, a family hatchback, a small-engined city car, a performance hybrid, a track-honed pocket supercar.

We’re comparing two very different models from the range, the Golf Life and the Golf GTE. The former is the aforementioned city car, as basic as the VW gets in an increasingly demanding and sophisticated age. With a 1.0-litre petrol engine and manual gearbox, the Life is one of the lowliest models in the Golf line-up. Yet nothing about it feels remotely budget, for the Golf has spent the past few decades pushing itself relentlessly upmarket, becoming one of the first truly classless cars, the smart choice for the well-heeled buyer who doesn’t want to skimp on quality but also cares little for ostentation or display. 

Volkswagen Golf GTE
The Volkswagen Golf GTE blends performance car with EV power

Compare and contrast it with the Golf GTE, a plug-in hybrid model that takes a bit of the magic dust generated by the legendary Golf GTI and splices it with the no-nonsense EV practicality of the e-Golf (which is tellingly no longer available). Mixing and matching often leads to unhappy compromises, but in many respects the GTE really is the best of both worlds, leaving cost aside. It is as fast as you conceivably need a car to be, but it can also be switched to a pure electric mode for short hops. The interior includes VW’s iconic tartan cloth trim, and the levels of equipment and ergonomics are probably best in class.

The Life and the GTE are not exactly chalk and cheese. Instead, they’re more like the difference between mass-market cheese and cave-aged Somerset cheddar. They both do the same job, but one demands to be savoured.

However, progress and change are nibbling away at the Golf’s enduring low-key ubiquity. The new Volkswagen ID.3 is Golf-shaped, Golf-sized and engineered from the ground up to do away with all the unnecessary plumbing required by the internal combustion engine. With a rumoured speedy GTX version in the works and the inevitable end of ICE sales on the near horizon, the Golf’s do-it-all image could soon be usurped. There’s also a brand-new Volkswagen Polo to contend with. Traditionally perceived as the Golf’s smaller sibling, both cars have grown up together, quite literally, closely tracking the evolving sophistication of the fossil fuel-powered automobile. As that era draws to a close, VW has to decide whether the Golf name can still play a role in the next half century. §

Volkswagen Golf GTE interior
The Volkswagen Golf GTE’s interior is both classless and classy, one of the best-designed small car interiors you can sit in