Does Volkswagen\'s iconic hot-hatch lose its shine when it loses its roof?
It's a risk to mess with the undisputed icon, but it’s one possibly being taken with the first Volkswagen Golf GTI Cabriolet since the MkI model sold into the 1980s.
Yet does lopping the roof off one of the world's finest hot-hatches make a mean cabrio or instead soften the GTI's edge?
'Soft' is not what you'd call the Volkswagen Golf GTI Cabriolet by looking at it. It seems an easy solution: take the new Golf Cabriolet, launched here in 2011, and simply bolt on the GTI bits and drop in its go-fast suspension and driveline. That is, to be somewhat naive, effectively what's been done here, with two lauded VW products coming together. Yet it's a cost effective way to tackle the Mazda MX-5 and Mini Cooper S Cabrio.
Arguably, it looks the most masculine, with less cute and more 'proper' GTI bits, from the lower ride height, polished alloys, GTI bumpers and classic red-striped honeycomb grille for serious street cred.
On top of the traditional GTI cues, there's the black cloth soft-top with its class-leading 9.0-second opening time. It can be operated at up to 30km/h, so there's no getting caught in the rain, where it drops seamlessly into the GTI's waistline to sit behind the rear seats. Cleverly, this design means that it doesn't need a meddlesome roof separator in the 250-litre boot, making this one of the most practical cabrios on sale.
Operating the roof is a switch added to the centre console, with the cabin barley changed from the hatch otherwise. The dash is well bolted together with quality switchgear, classical white-on-black dials, and a neat centre screen for the audio, settings and optional satnav all surrounded by high-end surfaces.
There's the hatch's leather-wrap, three-spoke steering wheel and handbrake cover, with paddle-shifts for the DSG or sports knob for the manual shifter. The rear seats are hardly adult-sized, and of course, you can't have a GTI without those supportive sports seats trimmed in classic 'Jacky' tartan.
What's it like with the roof up? Well, refinement is so impressive that you'd never know you're in the Cabriolet. There's a tad more wind noise, but it's better than some hard top vehicles – it's that good. Dropping the roof doesn't reveal a Jekyll and Hyde contrast though, as it remains very quiet. We'd love to hear more of that burbley exhaust note and those wonderful (artificial) blips between changes on the DSG. The wind is well contained too, while there's a wind deflector if you've just left the salon.
This is not a hairdresser's car though, as this is the most powerful VW Cabriolet ever. Under the bonnet there's the same 155kW turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that powers the hatch. It's loaded with tech, such as direct fuel injection, and delivers its peak 280Nm at a low 1700rpm through to 5200rpm, giving the GTI Cabriolet a wide sweet spot under throttle.
The driving position is excellent, with rake and reach steering adjustment, allowing you to mash the super responsive throttle. Snatching gaps in traffic is a breeze, but the manual is more effective than the DSG, which can occasionally hesitate while picking the next gear. The slower 0-100km/h time of 7.3 seconds is 0.4 seconds down on the hatch, but it matches the Mini Cooper S Cabrio and is almost two seconds better than the Mazda MX-5.
It's largely down to the additional 148kg that the Cabriolet carries, but even with the extra heft it still boasts the hatch's sharp turn-in, well-weighted steering and high grip levels. The XDS electronic sports diff, a function of the ESP, is standard on all Euro-spec GTI Cabriolets, and helps the GTI Cab deliver predictable handling. It's easy to place it into corners, with the power usable on the way out. It's a cinch to drive and remains composed over mid-corner bumps with a compliant ride.
There is a minor amount of body flex, but you're more likely to notice it over a freeway bump than when you're on a back road. It won't ruin your day, but the GTI's stiffer chassis and more rigid body mean little wobbles are more apparent than in regular versions of the Golf Cabriolet.
Like the hatch, the ESP can't be completely switched off, but it's not at all intrusive when you're pushing the cab out of corners. Its brakes are strong, making this a package that inspires confidence and satisfaction. The GTI has always been about balance not outright power or 0-100km/h stats and the cab carries this legacy on.
Australian specifications will only be finalised if Volkswagen Australia decides whether to add it to the local line-up (though it would be a shock if it didn't). Some European markets run our test car's 18-inch alloys as standard, though, while Adaptive Chassis Control - electrically adjustable dampers - would be expected to be offered as an option as they are on the VW Golf GTI hatch.
There's a raft of safety gear though, including ESP, ABS, head and thorax airbags, as well as a clever active roll-over protection system. The regular Golf Cab has a five-star ANCAP rating, so the GTI Cab will too.
The Golf GTI Cabriolet sets a new benchmark for sporting cabriolets, but let's tread carefully here. It's not as enjoyable as the rear-wheel drive Mazda MX-5, nor is it as potent as the Mini Cooper S. Y
et it beats both for practicality, with a smarter roof, more luggage space and – with prices expected to be around $45,000 if it does go on sale here – it's better value, too.
VW has delivered a GTI Cabriolet that follows the hatch's skill-set: a talented, practical, liveable and well-made all-rounder. It's slightly softer, but the GTI Cabriolet has a distinct edge over its rivals.