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It remains the consummate all-round hot-hatch, despite the all-new Volkswagen Golf GTI now being less affordable and packed with some new technology that isn’t explicitly for the better.
But the new Golf GTI could have been cheaper, had Volkswagen Australia decided not to add the adaptive dampers, 18-inch alloy wheels and satellite navigation that all remain optional overseas.
While the latter feature is handy, one of the hallmarks of the four-year-old previous-generation Golf GTI was its ability to deliver a near-perfect blend of ride and handling on standard suspension and 17-inch wheels; so much so that the previously-optional adaptive dampers and 18s were never worthy options.
Yet those options are now standard, and they need to prove their worth in the Mk7 Golf GTI.
Inarguable is the power and torque increase with the new car.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine has been completely overhauled. The engine itself is 7.8kg lighter than before, contributing to a total 40kg kerb weight reduction over the old model, and a 1314-1322kg kerb weight overall.
The numbers read 162kW at 4500-6200rpm, and 350Nm produced between 1500-4400rpm – 7kW and 70Nm more than before.
Standstill to 100km/h comes up in a claimed 6.5 seconds whether the six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic is selected, while combined consumption is 6.2L/100km for the former transmission, 6.5L/100km for the latter.
As before, there’s lots of low-down tractability with this engine, and a sweet, rev-happy disposition.
What’s new is the seriously quick in-gear shove that obviously comes from having either power or torque delivered constantly between 1500rpm and 6200rpm but for a 100rpm window.
Where the old car panted a bit when pressed to keep up with its more well-endowed Renault Sport Megane 265 and Ford Focus ST rivals, the new Golf GTI really shifts, moving more like the outgoing Golf R.
Perhaps more surprising is the engine note.
Where the old Golf GTI had a light and zingy note, the new engine has clearly hit puberty, emanating a deeper, throatier, louder sound than before. It doesn’t necessarily sound any nicer than the old car, though, and is perhaps even a bit characterless.
Maybe the greater engine intrusion better reflects the increased performance; maybe it’s just seemingly noisier because the Golf GTI is otherwise now so much quieter.
Those 18-inch tyres – 225mm-wide, 40-aspect Dunlop SportMaxx, Bridgestone Potenza or Continental ContiSport, it’s a lucky dip which brand each car gets – do throw up noticeably more roar on coarse-chip roads than lesser Mk7 Golfs do, but the new GTI is still incredibly refined to the point of making the already-lagging Megane and Focus seem a generation older.
Volkswagen predicts 75 per cent of buyers will choose the dual-clutch automatic over the manual, and while the latest iteration of the ‘Direct Shift Gearbox’ breed is excellent, the DIY-shifter is flawless.
The DSG still doesn’t have a proper sports function beyond the conservatively-tuned ‘S’ mode available on all other Golfs. It’s now intuitive in ‘S’, flicking back gears quickly when on the brakes or travelling downhill, but it’s nowhere near aggressive enough for properly hard driving.
But Volkswagen admits it could have made a racier mode, but doesn’t believe Golf GTI buyers want it; nor do Golf R or Scirocco R buyers, apparently.
For that reason, using the steering wheel mounted paddles is almost the default choice during enthusiastic driving, and it’s certainly no bad one.
But from the golfball-shaped manual transmission lever to its beautifully lubricated shift action between slots, the manual is simply the better choice, in addition to being the cheaper one (the DSG adds $2500).
Little debate is required over whether the new electro-mechanical steering is better than the old model’s – it unquestionably is.
Now with a variable-ratio as standard, which means the steering sharpens as it turns, the Golf GTI gets from full left lock to full right lock in just 2.1 turns, making it the quickest system in the hot-hatch class.
Even better is the wonderful feel and progression on the centre position that neatly segues into sharp and direct response. During hairpin and tight parking manoeuvres alike, the driver’s arms never get crossed up.
The steering wheel is thinner-rimmed than before, too, and is as sporty to look at as it is to hold.
It complements the grippy sports seats – still tartan-trimmed – the carbonfibre-look dash inserts, soft-touch plastics, high-resolution colour displays and white/red instrumentation – we still miss the blue lighting from the Mk5, though – that make up the rest of the high-quality cabin.
The weighting of the steering itself is perfectly light, too, at least in any mode except Sport.
Those adaptive dampers, or Driver Chassis Control in VW-speak, bring five driver-selectable drive modes – Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport, Individual.
Each can be accessed first by pressing a button beside the transmission lever then selecting the mode via the 5.8-inch touchscreen.
Eco and Comfort ease the dampers to their softest setting; normal works through the entire range of available damping rate; Sport is firmer; and Individual allows the specific selection of steering (Comfort, Normal or Sport), Engine/throttle (Comfort, Normal, Sport), and suspension (Comfort, Normal, Sport).
Individual is the only mode to use, as it turns out, because the gluggy, needlessly heavy weighting of the Sport steering must be avoided. Yet the engine/throttle response needs to be set to Sport to feel lively, instead of doughy as it is in the Eco, Comfort and Normal settings.
Thankfully, the adaptive damping selection doesn’t wildly swing between too soft in Comfort (often manufacturers fail to realise that too-soft damping delivers a sea-sicky rocking effect that’s anything but comfortable) and too hard in Sport.
There are, however, clear differences.
Sport suspension is ultimately too hard for the average surfacing of the winding Tasmanian country roads we drove the Golf GTI on. In Sport, as a passenger, there’s a bit too much jiggling going on, and as a driver, a few times the car thumped over rather than absorbed nasty mid-corner bumps.
The car ‘breathes’ with the road better in Comfort or Normal suspension mode, which also deliver excellent ride quality in all conditions. In Comfort, there’s no obvious lack of body control, either.
No doubt the flat cornering of Sport would work beautifully on a racetrack or any smooth twisting road, but the previous fixed suspension setting did everything brilliantly, so more choice isn’t in this case about delivering greater excellence.
The combination of a new Sport stability control setting and a revised extended differential lock (which brakes a spinning inside wheel) did prove worthy on soaked twisting tarmac, however. Powering out of corners, despite 70Nm more torque being underfoot, is now less dramatic than in the old Golf GTI.
The yellow slippery-road light still flashes on the instruments, signifying that the stability control and diff lock are working, but there’s barely any lost motion, the car simply hooking up and powering out. The Golf GTI is still a sharp and light-on-its-feet delight to drive hard.
Impressive as it is, though, there’s still the Golf GTI Performance Pack to come from quarter two next year (read more here), which features a proper limited-slip differential that should erase any trace of brake-blocking on cornering exit.
Particularly with the debut of that Performance Pack offering buyers more stuff for more cash, the local inclusion of adaptive dampers and 18s doesn’t seem necessary on the standard Golf GTI. A cheaper, sub-$40K model with fixed suspension and 17s would potentially not only be the more charming Golf GTI, but it would also truer to the car’s roots of being an affordable, accessible hot-hatch. It would also more closely match $38,290 Ford Focus ST while leaving the Performance Pack to fight the more focused $42,640 Renault Sport Megane 265.
For less than $45K on the road, however, the Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk7 we do get in Australia is still difficult to criticise.
With the more powerful new engine, sharper steering, increased refinement and technology and slick new interior – complete with a class-benchmark 1380 litres of boot space and a roomy back seat with air vents – it is a resolved and complete hot-hatch package.