It’s rare that a higher-specification variant of a popular mainstream car would be the best-seller in the range, but that tells you much about the enduring status and appeal of the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
With one in four Golfs driving out of VW showrooms wearing the revered three-letter badge, the GTI is almost ubiquitous on Australian streets. We wouldn’t expect that impressive sales statistic to change much even if the new Golf GTI isn’t quite as accessible as before.
The combination of the axing of the three-door – which accounted for just five per cent of GTI sales – and a price increase for the five-door means entry has risen $2500 to $41,490. That pushes the GTI further away from one of its close rivals, and closer to another.
The Ford Focus ST is priced from $38,290 while our reigning hot-hatch champ, the Renault Sport Megane 265, costs from $42,640.
Volkswagen has aimed to retain the GTI’s value, however. Features that were previously optional – and still are in most OS markets – are now inclusive: 18-inch alloy wheels (rather than 17s), sat nav, and adaptive dampers.
In the equipment count, that allows the GTI to match the stock wheels of both the Focus ST and the RS265 that we have here in base (Cup) form.
Other standard gear shared by the trio include dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, steering wheels that adjust for height and reach, daytime running lights (LED except GTI), auto headlights, electric heated side mirrors, and rear parking sensors (also front for GTI).
Bluetooth connectivity is common, too, though only the Ford offers voice-activated commands.
The Renault singularly features front Brembo brakes but otherwise starts to lose pace on features. Ford and Volkswagen share satellite navigation, rear-view camera and auto-dimming rear vision mirror as additions.
The Golf GTI is alone in including a changeable suspension, as well as offering a dual-clutch auto gearbox (though that’s not necessarily an equipment advantage, depending on your driving perspective).
The Focus ST exclusively offers bi-xenon headlights, a system that can automatically use your mobile to call emergency services in the event of a crash, and sports seats by renowned brand Recaro.
It also features the most speakers (nine) with its Sony audio, with the GTI’s own-brand audio serving up eight and the RS265 setting out four speakers and four tweeters.
For the Renault Sport Megane – our preference for the car’s name because it’s built by the company’s dedicated RS performance division in France – you need to buy the $51,640 Trophy+ to essentially match the kit of the ST.
The RS265, however, has one particular item that helps make the Renault go better around corners than either the ST or GTI: a mechanical limited-slip differential.
Both the ST and GTI employ an electronic interpretation of an LSD, via their stability control systems, but neither can match the cornering traction of the mega-Megane.
Bury the throttle mid-corner to propel yourself onto a straight, and the GTI and Focus ST – as terrifically as they handle – both scrabble a bit to get their power to the ground through the front wheels.
In the RS, as we’ve experienced in previous tests, it’s difficult to detect the barest of wheel slippage, and certainly not a whiff of understeer, as the Renault follows an arc with ridiculous speed and a remarkable lack of fuss.
The three-door, lower-roofed body of the Renault also leans the least through corners, with the Focus ST exhibiting the most body roll – though not to the detriment of balance, it should be added.
Ford’s fastest Focus (for now; we continue to pray for another RS) embraces quick directional changes, allied with direct steering (though with a paradoxically atrocious turning circle).
Back to back with the Golf GTI and Megane RS, the Focus ST feels more like a miniature muscle car than a fleet-footed five-door.
Part of that is a 1415kg kerb weight that is 41kg heftier than the Renault and nearly 100 kilos higher than the now-even-lighter VW (1324kg). You also have to manhandle the Ford more.
The Focus ST torque steers far more noticeably than its rivals, with the steering wheel momentarily freezing with some lock applied as the driver tells the engine via the throttle pedal to force more power through the same wheels trying to turn out of the corner.
The driver’s hands are further kept busy by pronounced tramlining on patchy country roads, as the wheels try to follow grooves in the bitumen rather than where you’re actually trying to point them.
It never feels unnerving, however, and the torque steer is tame compared with some other hot-hatches we could mention – such as the Mazda 3 MPS. There’s also a satisfyingly meaty feel to all the ST’s key controls: pedals, wheel and gearlever.
Volkswagen’s GTI is less dramatic – and that will have more or less appeal depending on the buyer. Its steering seems incorruptible and its suspension unflappable.
The Golf GTI is the only member of our titillating triumvirate to feature adjustable suspension.
Changing the firmness of the dampers is done by pressing a Driving Select Mode button on the console (slightly annoyingly hidden by the gearlever) then choosing a setting that also adjusts other vehicle settings such as steering weighting, gearbox response and throttle sharpness.
Sport, of course, is the most aggressive, though the suspension becomes a touch too fidgety on typical Aussie roads and the steering weighting just becomes heavy without bringing any extra surface-to-hand communication. Normal, though, still benefits from the GTI’s ‘progressive steering’ that brings a more direct rack with fewer turns lock to lock than regular Golfs – 2.1 v 2.75. Comfort’s extra suppleness is perfect for drive around town or down freeway stretches, but Normal is a fine balance between absorbency and control.
Regardless of mode, the GTI hasn’t lost the impressive compliance of the regular Golfs and is better at filtering out low-speed bumps than the firmer-riding ST and RS.
Handily, VW also pinches an ‘Individual’ mode from Audi that allows the driver to mix up settings: so you can, for example, have the suspension in Comfort, the steering in Normal and the drivetrain in Sport.
Crucially in a hot-hatch context, the engine has more firepower to better enable the GTI to mix it more effectively with its capable competitors. (And you can have more next year with a Performance Pack that brings 169kW and a proper limited-slip diff.)
A major upgrade to the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder brings a 7kW increase in power, though more notable is a 25 per cent jump in torque – from 280 to 350Nm.
That still leaves it 10Nm shy of the ST (with overboost) and RS, though the Golf GTI produces its maximum torque from just 1500rpm – 500rpm earlier than the Focus and 1500rpm ahead of the Renault.
The result is a GTI engine that continues the brilliant flexibility of the Mark 5 and 6 2.0Ls but now has the mid-range acceleration to be less humbled by the Focus ST and Megane RS. The turbo boost is more noticeable, though, than with the previous GTI engine that felt remarkably linear.
You can feel that in-gear improvement physically without noting VW’s official figures that say the new GTI cuts the 80 to 120km/h acceleration from 7.5 to 5 seconds.
The 0-100km/h sprint is cut from 6.9 to 6.5 seconds to match the Focus ST, though the rapid Renault remains the Usain Bolt of the pack with a six-second dead.
The Renault Sport Megane’s engine sounds the best when reaching for the respective redlines, with that thrilling pace accompanied by a turbo-whooshing crescendo above 6000rpm.
You need to press the Sport button, however, to liberate the RS’s full armoury of kilowatts (and raise the ESC threshold), which are otherwise pegged at the old 184kW before the Gendarmerie requested a faster crim-catching model. (So European; difficult to imagine Australian police being so open-minded.)
You don’t need too many revs on board before you notice an angrier, throatier tune from the GTI, which contrasts with the light and zingy note of the previous version.
The Focus ST is our pick for vocals, though, with a bassy growl that resonates through the cabin thanks to the Sound Symposer that pipes noise from engine bay to cabin via the firewall.
The Focus ST’s 2.0-litre also feels the most muscular down low, though the Ford and Renault cabins are also filled with more tyre noise than the refined GTI.
The GTI is the only hot-hatch here that gives you the option of letting the car perform gearchanges. And with three out of four GTI buyers opting for the dual-clutch auto, we wanted the most relevant transmission even though the VW is available with a standard six-speed manual to match those in the Focus and Megane.
We still prefer the sweet-shifting GTI manual, which also saves you $2500 and is as satisfying to work as the stick-shifts in the RS and ST, but there’s also no denying the ultra-quick shifts of the DSG. And, importantly, its operation has also been smoothed around town.
And in daily use, the Renault Sport Megane isn’t quite as user-friendly with that sloping roofline and small back window that create poor rear vision.
Rear passengers don’t get their own doors with the French hatch, of course, and they’ll then find less head and legroom than in its German-built rivals.
Being French, there are some ergonomic issues, naturally – strange positioning of some buttons, and others (such as audio buttons) that could be more logical and less fiddly. The Renault’s narrow, monochromatic display is also too small by today’s standards.
However, the driving position is pretty much perfection (as it is in the GTI and ST), and there’s a discernible quality to the way the Megane’s cabin is put together.
Red stitching on the seats, gearshift lever and steering wheel, plus a carbonfibre dash inlay with red stripe add the sporty touch.
That colour of stitching is a signature of the Golf GTI’s interior, as is the tartan-style pattern of the standard cloth seats (though our test car had leather) that dates back to the original, Mark 1 GTI, while a more modern GTI cabin cue is the flat-bottomed steering wheel.
GTI Mark 7’s interior feels instantly familiar to the cabins of the previous two models, though interior quality – both tangibly and perceptively – has been lifted yet again.
With its beautifully designed and tactile steering wheel buttons, smart mix of chrome and gloss black plastic, and a large colour touchscreen (in not perfect resolution), the Golf GTI’s cabin has a slickness and sophistication its rivals can’t match – especially the Focus.
There’s more of a plasticky, built-to-a-budget look and feel to the ST in comparison. There’s plenty of digital information available to the driver via the instrument cluster trip computer display and high-level infotainment display, though colours are limited and the latter is tiny compared with the VW’s screen.
The array of buttons on the main centre stack section is also daunting visually, while the buttons are small and fiddly.
A trio of gauges – including one for turbo boost – adds a sporty element to the chunky dash over normal Focuses, and the standard Recaros are the best seats in this group.
The Best Back Seat Award goes to the GTI, though, with all testers finding the VW’s bench offered the most comfort and support.
The Golf also offered the most headroom, while bringing a fraction more legroom than the Focus.
Boot space is also a win for the GTI (above), with 380 litres versus 344L for the Megane (below) that, surprisingly given the body style, has an extra 28L over the Focus’s (below, bottom) cargo section. (All three fit space-saver spares under their boot floors.)
Running costs vary for these hot-hatches.
The Golf GTI uses the least fuel at 6.6L/100km (6.2L/100km for the manual) but requires the most expensive petrol (98 octane), where the RS and ST work with 95.
The Focus can even run on 91 unleaded if owners are happy to trade off some performance.
Warranties are nothing special, all at three years (unlimited except for Ford at 100,000km) despite Renault offering five years for its regular model range.
All three offer capped price servicing programs, though Volkswagen and Ford go to six years where the Renault’s lasts only for three.
Over 15,000km annual intervals for six years, the Focus ST will cost almost half as much to service as the GTI – $1980 v $3768. Renault Sport annual service mileage is shorter than other Renaults (10,000km), but costs the same $299 per service. Over six years (or up to 60,000km), the RS265 will cost approximately $2737.
In the key resale stakes, the VW Golf GTI is unbeatable. According to market forecasters Glass Guide, the GTI will retain 60 per cent of its value after three years. The Megane RS265 is respectable with 54 per cent, but the Focus ST’s value is predicted to be halved exactly.
That somewhat offsets some of the Ford’s price advantage, though the Focus ST remains a worthy prospect through its generous equipment and muscular looks and performance. In the world of fast Fords, though, the newer and smaller Fiesta ST – featured in its own comparison test elsewhere in this issue – feels an even more complete and focused hot-hatch.
Almost one in two Meganes sold in Australia are RS variants, which makes the RS265 more exclusive (and is perhaps indicative of the underwhelming regular Megane) while it also looks the most stylish hatch.
The RS Megane remains the most hardcore hot-hatch here in terms of outright pace and cornering thrills, but after conquering the previous GTI we’ve moved into a transition period where the Renault is starting to age and the Volkswagen has stepped up.
The Golf GTI has beefed up – it grips harder and goes faster – yet it’s also become even more refined and classy.
And it’s this mix of effortless liveability and terrific driveability that make the Volkswagen Golf GTI the best all-round hot-hatch you can buy.