Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance Review

James Whitbourn jumps down from Golf R to Golf GTI Performance, yet it actually proves to be a step up...

If, before, it was a tough choice between the Golf GTI and the all-wheel-drive R, the arrival of the intermediate Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance will simplify your decision … or make it even more difficult.

It all depends on your priorities – and your reasons for buying one variant over the other.

If you’ve an eye on cost and are mindful of the law of diminishing returns, the ‘base’ GTI is an easy winner. The evergreen $41,990 hot hatch easily justifies its $9500 premium compared with the $31,990 103 TSI Highline – aesthetic appeal, handling performance, straight-line speed and equipment increase significantly. Spend a further $10K on the R and clearly it doesn’t bring an increase of the same magnitude (read Volkswagen Golf R Review here).

Meanwhile, if you’re a gearhead who must have the highest featured, most expensive product available – in the case of the Volkswagen Golf, that’s the R – then the fact that in most road driving it doesn’t necessarily do anything the GTI can’t do, and offers little extra involvement at the limit doesn’t enter the equation. It’s got more kilowatts, more equipment, and anyone who spies the discreet ‘R’ badge will know you’ve bought the flagship.

All of which might leave the $48,490 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance as the thinking man’s GTI. If you’re eyeing the R for the extra backroad/track talent it might provide, rather than its positioning as the range-topper, but you’ve read the reviews and know that aside from looking tougher, being a bit quicker, and making more noise, it’s not necessarily a league away from the GTI, then the $48,490 Performance might seem like a happy middle ground.

Think about what it is you might wish for a bit more of from the GTI. Chassis adjustability? Witness the headlining feature in the Performance, Volkswagen’s new, electronic differential lock, which amounts to a world-first front-drive torque-vectoring system. Greater front-end traction and reduced limit understeer? Ditto the diff. Track-day braking fortitude? Sorted, with bigger disc rotors. Kerb cred? Bolstered, on five-spoke 19-inch alloys, which reveal GTI-logoed calipers. How ’bout speed? Sure, we’ve never met an extra kilowatt we didn’t like – the Performance gets a bonus seven.

The only potential fly in the ointment, then, is the fact that the Performance is a six-speed dual-clutch-only proposition – there’s no manual, not even by special order. Why? Volkswagen Oz had to choose one transmission, and the overwhelming majority of buyers want a DSG rather than a DIY ’box. So, if a manual is a must-have, you’re back to the GTI versus R call…

Then there’s the stuff the Performance brings that you mightn’t necessarily have desired but wouldn’t say no to, such as standard bi-xenon headlights, dark-tinted LED taillights, unique instrument graphics, tinted glass and Alcantara-trimmed seat bolsters and headrests. A bonus considering that the mechanicals already seem well worth the extra $4K.

That’s the Performance in a nutshell. Let’s recap the Volkswagen Golf GTI highlights.

The heart of the hot-hatch is Volkswagen’s award-winning EA888 2.0-litre engine. It’s a high-tech mill with highlights that include variable timing on the inlet and exhaust camshafts, variable exhaust valve lift, an electronic turbo wastegate, and a turbo manifold integrated into the head (read: the turbo bolts directly to the engine). From a 162kW base, peak power increases to 169kW at a slightly higher 4700rpm, levelling off until it the same 6200rpm.

The MkVII is built on VW’s MQB component set. The strut front, multi-link rear suspended arrangement brings a longer wheelbase and improved weight distribution than that of the previous PQ35 platform.

Volkswagen’s progressive steering is a GTI highlight. Thanks to a variable rack tooth spacing the more lock you dial on, the quicker the steering, with the steering effort increase countered by a progressive ramping up of the electro-mechanical assistance. All the driver feels is a linear steering system that sharpens up its response as the bends tighten.

The Performance-specific electronic diff lock differs from the GTI’s XDL system in that it’s a hardware-based system rather than merely an electronic stability control function, and it’s far more effective as a result.

A multi-plate clutch between the right side driveshaft and the differential case apportions torque between the front wheels. If sensors detect slip at one of the tyres, torque is sent across to the other wheel up to a maximum of 100 percent!

The ESC works in concert with the diff. If, say, oversteer is detected, a stabilising ‘yaw moment’ is generated by the diff, which can help negate ESC intervention.

The on-road effect of the trick diff is almost as profound as that of a torque-vectoring AWD such as an Audi RS5 or Nissan GT-R. The onset of understeer, counter-intuitively, can be delayed by squeezing the accelerator. It brings a nose-pointing effect far in excess of that delivered by the GTI’s XDL without the negative side-effects often exhibited by a mechanical LSD, such as turn-in understeer. Yet, when you get back on the gas it offers all the benefits and more.

Elsewhere, if the 7kW output increase seems mild, it is, though it’s enough that you can feel it by way of a rorty mid-range that always has that bit more to give.

The underfoot feel of the upgraded brakes reassures, as does the knowledge of a substantial 28mm up-size to 340mm up front and 10mm diameter increase to 310mm (now ventilated) at the rear. We didn’t test the fade resistance of the brakes. There was no need – or way – to work the stoppers that hard on the road, though we’re confident they’d offer on-track fade resistance to match the performance, because they’re the same specification as those of the 71kg-heavier Golf R.

While we’re on weight, the 40kg weight increase from GTI (DSG) to Performance is worth noting, though it’s not so significant it cancels out the extra power.

But you can forget the extra pace. The diff’s the most significant difference between a GTI and the Performance. It’s the upgrade you’ll notice most on a country road, and love on the track, where the worth of the big brakes and 19-inch rubber will be felt, too.

Tough choice, then? Not really. The arrival of the GTI Performance just made picking the best hot Volkswagen Golf easy.