The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the stuff of legend as the benchmark hot-hatch, but does the all-new Mark VII carry the torch and live up to its predecessor?
The Volkswagen Golf GTI has a reputation and popularity that stretches beyond car buffs to the buyer looking for a fun, practical and well-made hatch that’s great to drive and more focused on the experience than saving a few bucks here and there.
Looking at the new VW Golf GTI, the premium ethos Volkswagen has applied to its new, seventh-generation Golf continues with the slick styling and details. While you may argue that it’s not a whole lot different to look at than before, there are the sharper lines, with the pinched waistline that extends to the rear taillights.
And on its (optional) polished 18-inch alloys, you can’t find a car with better proportions than the five-door – there’s no three-door GTI coming to Oz.
It’s a design masterclass, with such finesse and attention to detail including the red stripe on the GTI’s grille that’s integrated into its headlamps.
The GTI’s underpinnings see the MQB platform – which is both lighter, stiffer and modular, meaning it’ll be used in everything from the Audi A3 to Skoda Octavia – as a brilliant starting point. This means that it has wider tracks, a longer wheelbase and hence more interior space as well as improved stability and roadholding.
This clever reduction in mass, which makes this car up to 44kg lighter than the Mark VI it replaces, also promises better dynamics and accounts in part for the improvement in fuel economy – down from 7.6L/100km to 6.4L/100km for this DSG version, with the six-speed manual claiming 6.0L/100km.
Climb into the exquisite cabin, and the focus on finessing an already great car becomes clear. There’s the traditional tartan cloth seat trim for the excellent, supportive seats, and the dash looks like the old model’s has been taken and massaged.
There’s the same classic white-on-black instrument cluster that’s so simple and effective, while the leather-wrap steering wheel now has a flat-bottom and the stalks have gloss black edges instead of the cheap, grey plastic of the old GTI.
Across to the console, our test car’s fitted with a larger eight-inch full-colour display with ‘haptic’ touch, which senses your finger’s over the button before you’ve pressed it. It’s optional, with a 5.8-inch screen as standard in European versions, but both offer clear, clean and simple graphics and are responsive to use. There’s also an array of standard gear, including dual-zone climate control, city safe emergency braking and cruise control.
The first thing you’ll want to try is pushing the ‘mode’ button next to the shifter. It selects the settings for Comfort, Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual. The changes affect the suspension, steering and throttle response of the turbo engine, which now has 162kW, up from 155kW – less than the Focus ST’s 184kW and the Megane’s 195kW – but with substantially more torque, now at 350Nm (more than the previous Golf R).
Our test car has the optional Performance Pack (costing an extra $1500 in Europe) that adds 7kW, larger front brake discs and a front-locking diff that allows 100 per cent of the torque to be sent through either front wheel. It’s also fitted with a six-speed DSG, and despite Volkswagen’s recent woes helps make the car a cracker to drive with its steering-wheel mounted shifters.
There’s also a start button, too: push that, and the 2.0-litre turbo burbles into life with a bassy timbre, but it’s not overly loud or intrusive. In fact, drive the Volkswagen Golf GTI in a calm, Sunday afternoon fashion and the refinement in impressive, with tyre noise the only noticeable byproduct.
The driving position is also natural and comfortable, the steering wheel great to hold and those paddles make shifting easy – or of course you can let the transmission change gears for you.
Mash the pedal and the serenity is overtaken by an energetic, rich burble that eggs you on without ever sounding coarse or overworked.
Throttle response, even in Comfort, is excellent, but in Sport you’ll have a sharp, near instant reaction when you go for it, and the DSG backs it up with swift, smooth changes punctuated by air pops and burbles as you carve up the winding road ahead. It’s an absolute joy to drive, with superb roadholding, mechanical grip and traction meaning you can head into a corner with an aggression and confidence of a supercar.
It’s that extra torque on tap from 1500rpm (instead of 1700rpm) that makes it an even stronger performance car than before, with its 0-100km/h dispatched in 6.5sec for either transmission, compared with the old car’s 7.6sec. It stops quickly, too. Use the strong, progressive brake pedal and turn in, and the GTI’s nose follows orders with the feelsome steering and excellent suspension.
A mid-corner bump won’t upset its composure, nor will a slight adjustment with the wheel. Part of the composure comes courtesy of the front differential lock, which was an optional on the previous model, too. It adds an extra 32kg of heft, but the smart diff is not an absolute necessity: buy a GTI without it, and it will understeer a little sooner into corners, and you can’t power out quite as early, making it marginally slower point-to-point.
Yet the basis of a great hatch is undeniable even without the Performance Pack: we punted the Golf hard and fast down a winding road with a massive grin – then realised it had been left in Comfort… Flick it to Sport (we wish there were buttons, instead of the two-step dash-to-screen process to change modes), and the ride is noticeably firmer, and it settles down over dips and crests much quicker, while the steering has a noticeable heavier weight to it, even if there’s still some play in the wheel before it responds.
The GTI isn’t the last word when it comes to driver engagement, but it delivers fun so effortlessly and instantly, transforming from practical to performance hatch at will. So is the GTI better? You bet.
Like the Porsche 911, the new-gen Golf GTI gives a compelling argument to upgrade without a massive change to the recipe, deepening the gulf between its rivals and its class-leading predecessor. But is it perfect? Of course not – no car is – and the new GTI’s weakness is that as it drives even better, feels more upmarket and has more features, it’s starting to lose its edge as a ‘bang for your bucks’ hatch.
In Europe, it’s pushing prices further above its rivals and costs more than the brilliant BMW M135i. Volkswagen Australia hasn’t announced prices for the new model, but the circa $40K price of the old version must remain if this car is to keep its mantle and prevent the Focus ST and Megane RS eating into its territory; both cars that can’t match its combination of liveability, practicality, refinement, driving enjoyment and fun.
As an all-rounder, the VW Golf GTI is still the one.