The Volkswagen Golf GTI is arguably the byword for ‘hot hatch’ in Australia, regularly topping the sales charts and comparison tests against rivals alike.
There are rivals a little sharper, some cheaper, and others with more edge and charm, but there are none at its price point that blend the GTI’s compromise between dynamism and comfort quite so well. It is the ‘liveable’ sporty car.
Now the German brand is preparing to roll out an updated version for 2017, the so-called Golf ‘Mk7.5’, which brings a range of upgrades as the current car enters its fifth year on sale. More power, improved in-car tech and subtle styling changes head the bill.
The revised GTI – which, alongside the even hotter AWD Golf R makes up about 20 per cent of all Golf sales in Australia – arrives in local showrooms from the start of August. We ventured to the world premiere this week in Europe to get an early taste.
We have already reviewed the ‘regular’ 2017 Golf range, and found the range of updates mild, but enough to keep the car ahead of most small-car rivals. Will the same be true of the Golf GTI, which must contend with Ford Focus ST, Peugeot 308 GTi, Subaru WRX and imminent Hyundai i30 N?
The revised MY17 Golf GTI brings to the table styling tweaks, led by a new bumper design and slick new full LED headlights flanking the familiar radiator grille with signature red stripe. There are also new LED tail-lights and number plate illumination.
But it’s not the skin that’s the interesting change, it’s what’s underneath. The MQB chassis is as before, with the springs and adjustable dampers carried over, but the 2.0-litre turbocharged ‘EA888’ engine gets a power bump to 169kW between 4700 and 6200rpm.
This figure matches the old GTI Performance derivative, which in turn leaps to 180kW and retains the unique electro-mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD) to tame any hint of front-wheel-drive understeer. We’d hoped the ‘regular’ GTI would pick this up, but alas.
Torque is unchanged at at 350Nm between 1500 and 4600rpm, and torque continues to drive the front wheels via either six-speed manual or six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearboxes. The XDL system that reduces inner-front wheel spin in corners remains.
The Euro 6 engine helps the GTI consume a claimed 6.4L/100km of 95 RON fuel on the combined cycle, while the 0-100km/h sprint time is a (symmetrical) 6.4 seconds, down one-tenth over the old car.
The engine is as sweet as ever, with the full torque load on tap from what feels like idle and over a broad rev band, while the muscularity and linearity is matched by a deep and sonorous exhaust note enhanced by the car’s Sport mode.
This familiar button-operated mode also adds steering resistance, changes the DSG’s shift points, alters the throttle mapping and firms up the dampers. The corresponding Comfort mode is the secret to the GTI’s success, because it improves ride comfort at the expense of body control, lightens the steering and dilutes the engine for daily urban commuting.
The GTI’s signature qualities remain. The noise suppression is absolutely class-topping, with very low levels of roar from the 225 tyres (on new-design 17-inch 'Brooklyn' wheels at base level), while the cabin remains almost perfectly isolated from sharp hits. It’s extremely comfortable.
At the same time, the electric-assisted steering is quick to respond from centre and communicates what the front wheels are doing well, while the stiff chassis, firmed-up dampers and well-sorted springs ensure quick turn-in, nimble changes of direction and good body control against lateral loads.
Push-understeer is hard to coax, you have to barrel into a bend way too hot for comfort. In this instance, the GTI Performance’s LSD makes a noticeable difference, but the GTI in basic form remains a hoot. Particularly as a manual, though DSG with paddles is the buyer preference.
Genuinely, the GTI morphs from comfy and quiet city hatchback to angry corner-carver at the press of a button, never losing its cool. It lacks the Focus ST’s edge as ever, but you’d be much happier living with the Volkswagen. It’s way more comfortable and premium.
So far, so familiar. Inside the cabin are some more substantial tweaks. The major point of difference to the MY17 Golf are the new screens, part of its Discover Pro system. The full-whack system sports a 9.2-inch glossy and flush-glass central display, while in front of the driver its the 12.3-inch digital Active Info Display (Audi's Virtual Cockpit).
The main screen offers crisp resolution, a configurable home screen and the ability to swipe, or pinch-and-zoom like your smartphone. It also has a gimmicky infra-red gesture control system that allows you to shuffle through tracks with a swiping hand movement.
The theory is that it’ll keep smudges off the screen and allow you to keep your eyes on the road, once you’re used to it. In reality its uses are limited, but naturally Volkswagen will build on its functions until it matches the BMW 7 Series.
The key will be whether you can update extant systems with new software progressively, which VW says it technically possible but has not committed to doing. If it wants to be ultra-modern, it had better do so.
Beyond this, the dials are replaced by five capacitive buttons, though we still like the tactility of a proper volume knob. This was an aesthetic choice only, the company admits. The screen offers Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, WiFi, photorealistic sat-nav views (like Audi’s data SIM-powered unit) and even stores and displays high-res photos.
The Active Info Display digitised instrument cluster has 1440x540 pixel resolution, can display 2D and 3D mapping, various dial sizes, trip data and more, with mode changed by buttons on the steering wheel. It’s tech that belongs on a $100,000 car.
The downside is that, understandably, this tech will almost certainly be an optional extra on all bar the Volkswagen Golf R in Australia, bundled into a package for a few grand. The base Golf GTI will get a fettled 8.0-inch screen, which wasn’t available to test.
Other features that differentiate it from lesser Golf models are red ambient cabin lighting and — purists will be happy to know — the continuation of the famous tartan cloth buckets seats, though fancy leather can be optioned. Why would you? The general quality of the touch-points remains as good as ever.
It’s unclear which of the new active safety features will come to Australia, though we know autonomous low-speed braking (AEB) with new pedestrian detection software will be standard, as will the auto post-collision braking function. This goes for all Golfs.
Functions such as radar-guided cruise control, trailer assist, automated parking assist, rear cross-traffic assist, and blind-spot monitoring will be offered as part of an extra cost Driver Assistance package for a few grand. Though some may be standard.
The Traffic Jam Assist system that handles steering, braking and accelerating itself under 60km/h in gridlock, is being evaluated for our market. Should it become available, Volkswagen would be able to offer among the best partial-autonomy in the market.
Rear seat space remains moderate, though the big windows help visibility, while boot space is 380L/1270L. Fine for four adults, and their gear, though those who want maximum space with performance ought to think about the Skoda Octavia RS.
Expect pricing for the GTI to be more or less in line with the current car. The regular Golf range will get price hikes (due to the standardisation of the 110TSI engine and additional equipment), but the GTI will likely still kick off at around $41,500, with the DSG another $2500.
Oddly, it seems the 180kW GTI Performance – presently on hiatus as VW focused on the Golf GTI 40 Years – won’t come until 2018, though performance fiends will be able to get the tweaked 213kW/380Nm Golf R AWD with standard Discover Pro and Active Info Display at the same time as the updated GTI. That’s shaping up as a steal.
Interestingly, Volkswagen Australia says it is interested in returning the GTI three-door for the first time since 2012, in lieu of the axed Scirocco. This model is a little lighter, has sufficient rear legroom for two adults, and big side windows. A white, manual three-door ‘stripper’ for $38k would be a steal, right? We’re lobbying…
All told, the Golf GTI updates for MY17 are somewhat tempered, unless you’re going to fork out for the in-car infotainment. Which you probably should. Should it instead be standard? Perhaps, but new technology doesn’t come cheap. If the option is $2000 or less, we’d refrain from being too critical. Australian pricing remains unclear for now.
The power bump isn’t particularly noticeable, either, but the basic GTI formula and execution was, and still is, the best in-market. Yes it’s ubiquitous, but it deserves to be. The changes aren’t seismic, but as a sporty all-rounder with genuine luxury, it’s still peerless.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI review below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.