Call the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance boring. Call it bland. Call it the populist choice that will ensure you’re forever anonymous, running around in a sea of other Volkswagen Golfs. You can call the GTI Performance all those things but there’s one other title you should also bestow upon it - the most complete, all-round hot-hatch benchmark.
There’s no doubting the Volkswagen Golf’s credentials when it comes to hot-hatch legend - it was the first and there can only ever be one original. Recently though, there have been more pretenders to the Golf’s throne than ever before, and those pretenders are more competent than they’ve ever been. It’s ironic then that the Golf GTI Performance might not be the best pure hot-hatch on the market, but it remains the best all-purpose precision hot-hatch tool.
The Performance Pack drags the base GTI ever closer to the range-topping Golf R, which raises another interesting point. The GTI’s most vocal critics have, since the launch of the R, hammered the GTI by bleating, "It isn’t even the best Golf in the range!" When that’s the main line of criticism from your opponents, I reckon you can rest easy as a Golf GTI owner. Despite the dissidents, there remains an unquestionably loyal following for the Golf - I know two people who are both driving their fourth in a row without the hint of an issue with any they've owned.
Both inside and out, the Golf looks like, well, every other Golf, which is part of the critics’ problem. Therefore, we won't spend too much time discussing styling of either the sheetmetal or the cabin, although the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto brings genuine smartphone usability to the infotainment system, and the tartan/Alcantara trimmed seats are a classy, understated feature. Red exterior highlights add an, albeit subtle, point of difference too. Similar to the situation that faces Porsche with its legendary 911, Volkswagen will almost certainly get pilloried if it tries to mess with the Golf GTI too much, so some of the conservatism is completely understandable.
As ever, the GTI’s seating position is excellent, controls beautifully laid out, and there’s also useful second-row seating and storage space in the boot. The ride around town in ‘Comfort’ mode is also excellent - especially taking into account the 19-inch rims and low profile tyres on which the GTI Performance rolls. During the course of our testing, passengers, both up front and in the second row, reported a ride that was more than acceptable even over poor road surfaces. While the GTI’s ride height looks purposeful, it’s not stupidly low either. You’ll never find speed humps and parking markers to be an issue, which makes negotiating urban areas less of a headache.
Cabin insulation and comfort is excellent no matter what you’re doing speed-wise and there’s the usual solid thunk when you close the doors as well as a sound, quality feel to all the controls and switches. The Golf GTI certainly feels like a premium product from the driver’s seat - even if that privilege doesn’t actually come cheap at this end of the model breakdown.
The GTI Performance starts from $46,490 (before on-road costs). Power is up from the base GTI by 7kW to 169kW, with torque remaining unchanged at 350Nm. 0-100km comes up in 6.4 seconds, and the claimed ADR fuel figure is 6.6 litres per 100km. The GTI Performance returned 10.8L/100km after a long day of working hard over a few hundred kilometres, so you’ll likely get closer to its claim around town at more sedate speeds.
Other exterior equipment highlights for the Performance grade include bi-xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights, and LED tail-lights.
The Performance Pack also adds some serious hardware to the Golf’s arsenal to better equip it for said hard driving. There’s bigger brakes front and rear - 340mm and 310mm respectively - a mechanical limited-slip front differential and 19-inch rims. The 7kW power gain isn’t much, but you’ll be able to better use a lot more of the total 169kW thanks to that LSD, which transforms an already exceptional front end into an even more formidable element.
We found high-speed sweepers to be the GTI’s forte, but the addition of the LSD is most noticeable out of tight, low-speed corners, where it endows the front tyres with extraordinary grip for a front-wheel-drive hatchback. It’s a challenge to even illicit a single yelp from either side of the front end, no matter the road surface, such is the surety of the grip. Front-wheel-drives get better at masking their front-drive traits all the time, but this Golf is surely among the very best of them.
We’ve thrashed the subject out at length in the CarAdvice office (not to mention the various coffee shops within walking distance) and we’ve come to the conclusion that the GTI’s inherent composure has removed some of the fun from the driving experience, but the result is a much better all-round vehicle - of that there is no doubt.
At any speed, you feel like you can drive the GTI with your fingertips, such is the precision and feedback of every input. Turn-in is incredibly sharp, there’s no torque-steer or tramp from the front end under load, and when you nail the accelerator coming out of a corner, nothing but speed is relentlessly piled on. The Golf’s best attribute is it’s ability to play both games - congested city commuter, and B-road attack dog - so effortlessly.
There’s no doubt that with the progressive tuning of Golf models, this new 2016 model is softer than those that preceded it, which in part goes back to the fun factor mentioned earlier. It’s not quite as raucous or hard-edged but it is absolutely more potent overall. What the added maturity does do though, is make the GTI a better daily driver and that’s something that will benefit even the most fervent track day proponent, given the ratio of time spent on-road to time spent on-track.
The turbocharged 2.0-litre engine is a marvel, and you need to remember that opting for the Performance model means no manual option - it’s dual-clutch DSG only. There’s the usual low-speed gripes we’ve experienced with nearly every DSG we’ve ever tested, but the precision and speed of the shifts once on the move, makes the manual look like the tardier option anyway. Around town, the shifts are largely imperceptible once you’re above crawling speed, while shifting into ‘Sport’ mode sharpens everything up including the shifts between gears either up or down the ratios. The engine crackles and pops on deceleration when in ‘Sport’ mode and there’s a crack as it changes up through the gear at redline as well.
The brakes refuse to lessen in their effectiveness no matter how much your torture them, and in concert with the steering, leave the driver with such confidence, you’ll be wanting to head to the nearest track day just to explore the outer limits of the GTI’s performance ability.
As you’ll see in the video, we are painfully aware that a declaration of the Golf’s ability as being great is nothing new, nothing earth shattering and, well, a little boring. Regardless though, it's the truth. The new 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance is indeed an exceptional hot-hatch. It’s not the hottest and it might no longer be the most fun, but it is the most competent all-rounder.
We’d say that’s exactly what Volkswagen was trying to accomplish too. There are more exciting options out there, but there won’t be one you’ll be wanting to live with five years down the track. The Golf GTI has that honour all on its own - if you haven’t already switched to the new model by then of course.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance images by Glen Sullivan.