The Volkswagen Golf GTI remains the hot-hatch all rivals want to beat, and not necessarily in performance terms.
There are competitors for similar money that are quicker, such as the RenaultSport Megane. But none yet offers the all-rounder blend of thrills, driveability and practicality as well as the German.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI has been doing so for more than 30 years, even if the middle generations – Mk3 and Mk4 – lost touch with the excitement factor.
A seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI will emerge in 2013, based on the regular hatch that will be unveiled in September this year at the 2012 Paris motor show, but we’ve got ourselves into the Edition 35 that came out last year to mark the years since the hot-hatch became reality in 1976.
You can understand VW’s slightly self-congratulatory approach. The GTI was originally a secret project that even after reluctant board approval was intended to be sold in numbers of no more than 5000 units. Today the GTI is close to passing two million sales.
With one in four Golfs sold in Australia wearing the triple letter combination, the Edition 35’s visual enhancements should be noted by plenty of people.
Perhaps most obvious are the 18-inch, Y-spoke alloy wheels that replace the telephone dial wheels of the standard GTI.
There are revisions to the front bumper design, headlights that are bi-xenon and swivel around corners when the car turns, LED daytime running lights, black-gloss side mirrors, and, at the rear, the smoked-LED tail-lights borrowed from the more expensive Golf R.
And of course there’s the obligatory limited edition badges: ‘35’ on the front quarter panels, and ‘35’ logos on the door sill plates, headrests and seatbacks (presumably so your rear passengers know they’re not in any old GTI).
The cabin isn’t finished there, with a half-golf-ball gearlever that pays homage to the stickshift of the original GTI.
The seatbelts gain red borders and other, so-called ‘Flash red’ trim touches are added to the red-stitched steering wheel, gearlever and handbrake that are classic GTI cues.
Another well-known GTI feature – the tartan-design seats – aren’t touched. (Note: interior picture below is of European, left-hand-drive version featuring optional leather/microfibre seats.)
Many limited editions are just models that are spruced up here and there, but there’s more substance to this GTI Edition 35 – which costs $3000 more ($43,490) but is now sold out (so start searching the classifieds if you want one).
There’s still a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder under the bonnet, but this one produces another 18kW and 20Nm for a total of 173kW and 300Nm.
Turn the GTI 35’s key and immediately there’s a slightly naughtier, more purposeful sound at idle – and the first clue this isn’t just an uprated version of the regular GTI’s engine.
The GTI 35 instead employs a detuned version of the 2.0-litre turbo found in the all-wheel-drive Golf R (where it produces 188kW).
The GTI remains front-drive, of course – as it has been since day one - but it comfortably deals with the boost in power.
There’s only the mildest of tugs on the steering wheel in lower gears as the GTI remains pleasantly resistant to the torque steer effect that can trouble powerful front-wheel-drive cars.
Traction out of tight corners also continues to be impressive courtesy of the ‘XDL’ electronic differential lock that is an extended function of the stability control system and curbs the spinning enthusiasm of the inside front wheel during cornering.
While a Subaru Impreza WRX and RenaultSport Megane would still be quicker than this hotter GTI point to point, the iconic Volkswagen still has a deft balance that allows the car to be thrown from corner to corner, and allows the driver to derive plenty of satisfaction.
As does steering that, while like all VW helms could be more informative, excels for weighting consistency and accuracy.
The GTI is at its best in terms of dynamics and ride comfort when fitted with VW’s $1500 optional adaptive dampers, though even the standard suspension of our test car overcomes the general firmness of the set-up to protect occupants from bumpy, potholed road surfaces.
And the engine that is a halfway house between the regular GTI and R units also contributes significantly.
Its sound doesn’t lift the hairs on the back of your neck, but the note is certainly purposeful and backs robust performance.
The regular GTI is already respectably quick, and the GTI 35 makes the most of its extra power to cut the 0-100km/h run by two-tenths of a second to 6.6 seconds.
That VW time comes whether your GTI 35 is a standard six-speed manual (as we tested) or optional six-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch auto that costs an extra $2500.
The GTI’s engine loves to be revved, but it also remains marvellously flexible for effortless driving regardless of scenario.
With its peak torque of 300Nm available from 2400rpm to 5200rpm, the GTI’s six-speed manual can be moved quickly up the gears.
Sixth gear, for example, is capable of pulling, if not urgently, the hot Golf from as little as 1100rpm.
The linearity of the 2.0-litre’s power delivery is also noteworthy; turbo lag is negligible, and there’s no sudden, ‘coming on boost’ sensation that can be common with turbocharged engines.
If there is a weakness, it’s fuel efficiency. The Golf GTI 35 is officially rated at 8.3 litres of fuel per 100km (8.2L/100km with DSG), but our average consumption jumped well into the teens whenever driving in town or (inevitably) testing on winding roads.
The GTI also has a preference for more expensive premium unleaded.
Otherwise, with performance and driveability largely ticked, that leaves practicality – which is no different for the Edition 35 than the regular GTI, and therefore another strong point.
The boot is a decent size, three adults can squeeze into the rear seat, and there are plenty of good storage options throughout the cabin.
The sports seats continue to tread a perfect line between comfort and support (though bigger-hipped drivers and front passengers should be warned the seats are of the body-hugging nature).
And the GTI’s trademark red stitching and other subtle embellishments only add to a Golf cabin that, even in regular form, is the benchmark interior for small cars.
Even as the countdown begins for VW Golf GTI Mk7, the current GTI remains a pretty special car. And just a little bit extra special in Edition 35 form.