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  • Strong engine without a fuel penalty, Refinement, Multiple 'personalities' thanks to adaptive chassis
  • Lack of standard features for the price, Naff 'flat bottom' steering wheel, Can't hide humble hatchback origins

by Adam Ludeke

Depending on who you ask, the Golf GTI is either a performance hot hatch bargain or a slow, overpriced, front-drive lemon.

It’s fair to say that the truth lies somewhere in between – but spending copious amounts of time reading car websites assures me that is a car that polarises opinion.

I’ve now had this car for almost two years and clocked up 20,000km in the process. I’m fortunate to catch public transport to work, so this is a car primarily used on weekends and country road trips. This is a Mk VII DSG version which retails for just over $44k.

Before you hop in, and especially if you’re approaching from the rear, it can be easy to mistake the GTI for one of the cheaper Golf variants. Visually, there’s not a lot of differentiation, as LED tail lamps are reserved for GTI Performance and R models only. Things improve from side on however, with handsome 18” alloys helping to give it a purposeful stance. Disappointingly, the front is also a little bland, with a halogen headlights that looks like they came straight from 1999. Not many people will notice, but the absence of Bi-Xenon or LED headlights in a car this price is something of a let down.

The interior is better though. The first thing you notice is the classic ‘Jacky’ tartan upholstery which lifts an otherwise dark cabin. The seats are nothing special to look at and don’t feel overly premium to the touch, but are comfortable to sit in and have excellent side bolstering support. Controls are well laid out and have an upmarket feel with soft, premium plastics all around. The 5.8” screen in the centre console is decent but fairly low resolution and quite small compared to other offerings around (reminds me of an iPhone 3GS vs iPhone 6). The smaller screen in front of the driver between the speedo and tacho is excellent though, and features the usual trip computer elements.

I’m only 178cm but do enjoy a ‘stretched out’ driving position, so the Golf’s front pews that slide back a fair way are useful. Combine this with good steering wheel height and reach adjustment and it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position. Speaking of the steering wheel, it looks great and has all the necessary audio/cruise switches – but why do car makers persist with flat-bottomed steering wheels in the name of ‘sportiness’? For mine, the sensation when turning the wheel is unnatural and can make turning fiddly. A proper circular wheel (pardon the tautology) is my preference.

The steering itself is light and accurate, but void of any real feedback. I’d read a lot of reviews about cars in the VW group having numb steering and didn’t quite know what that meant until driving one. The best way I can explain it is that the wheel doesn’t feel ‘alive’ in your hands. It just goes where you point it and lacks a sense of elasticity. To me, a good steering system should be quick to self-centre and really snap back into place after you’ve turned. But in the Golf, you have to drag it back to where it came from, which can be irritating, especially when you re-connect with that flat bottom.

Aside from driving a Golf, I also enjoy playing golf, so avid golfers should be wary that a set of clubs won’t fit easily into the 380 litre boot, due to the shape. The cabin itself is quite roomy though, and if you fold down one of the 60:40 rear seats this first world problem is solved.

You’ll need to start the engine by turning your hand (perish the thought) as push-button start is also left out of the standard features list. Once you do, this engine can’t hide the fact that it only has four cylinders. The sound is okay, but not glorious like a V8. Once you’re up and moving though, you’ll notice a booming, bassy noise generated under acceleration. This comes from what VW call a ‘Soundaktor’, which is essentially a small speaker in the engine bay that amplifies engine noise up through the windscreen. It’s not to my personal tastes so I turned mine off, but some people will love it (hoons).

Acceleration is strong (0-100 in 6.4 seconds) and this is a car that pulls like a train, even up hills. Driven enthusiastically off the line it even sounds pretty good, just make sure you turn the traction control off to avoid the ESC aids kicking in. Even so, you might get some axle tramp occurring, as 350nm is a lot for a front-driver to handle. But as far as front-drive performance cars go, this is a good one and the chassis is well sorted with no noticeable torque steer.

The best driving feature is the adaptive suspension, with a Comfort mode softens the dampers and is great for long freeway hauls, or a Sport mode that really hunkers down and reduces body roll around corners. Normal mode is a nice compromise if you want a bit of both. Given that the car runs on 40 series rubber, the ride is excellent and absorbs road imperfections well, which is a bonus on Sydney roads.

Fuel economy is impressive too, averaging around 8 litres/100km long term. VW recommend 98 octane but it will happily run on 95 if you’re penny pinching. A highway run will return figures under 6, as the engine ticks along at around 1,800rpm at 100km/h.

As I’ve already touched on, potential buyers might be a bit let down by the lack of standard equipment compared to rivals. For example, you can spend around $12k less on a Mazda 3 SP25 GT which has features like leather seats, push button start, HUD, Bose audio, xenons and a bigger screen which are nowhere to be seen in the GTI. Of course though, it can’t match the Golf for overall performance and refinement.

Overall, I would describe the GTI as a great drivers car but with room for improvement, especially when it comes to standard kit and price. At just over $44k, it offers good bang for buck, but some extra niceties and the clever diff from the GTI performance would make it an even better value proposition.

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