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While there are truckloads of topics where you mightn’t utter Volkswagen Golf and Porsche 911 in the same breath, they’re kindred compatriots in an important area: both struck successful formulas long ago and have benefited from evolution at the hands of many since. In either case, the term ‘iconic’ is richly deserved and hard won, if by measures sometimes felt rather than seen.
A byproduct of success that breeds range proliferation and variation, is an Olympic-sized gene pool of spec and componentry – a ‘parts bin’ product planners can have a proper party with to create limited editions that compel petrolhead customers’ whims, rather than merely tarting up product to shift more volume (though surely there’s a German phrase for “handy commercial upshot”).
The new 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance Edition 1 is all of these things. It is evolved, if relatively surprise free. It part-bins the familiar while adding a smattering of the new. It sits as a logical midpoint between the ‘regular’ GTI variants and the flagship performance Golf R versions within the newly launched Golf 7.5 mid-life update. And it’s a likeable and desirable go-fast Golf mash-up seemingly aimed at particular petrol-hedonistic buyers' tastes.
It’s this last bit that determines, with some subjectivity, whether the GTI-P, as Volkswagen calls it, is merely good or somewhere up in the Bloody Excellent ratings.
At $47,990 list, the GTI-P is four grand pricier than the regular GTI with DSG ($43,990) and five grand more affordable than tipping into a manual Golf R ($52,990). The five-strong range is topped and tailed by the base manual GTI five-door ($41,490) and the R hatch with DSG ($55,490), which will remain the range-topper until the wagon and Wolfsburg specials lob some time after the August ‘7.5’ GTI and R launch.
Of course, it’s the four-grand step-up where the extras loaded into the GTI-P are best measured. For a good many shoppers, the lift in power from the regular GTI’s 169kW/350Nm to 180kW/370Nm kicks things off nicely.
The addition of a so-called Front Differential Lock – an electronically controlled variable unit capable of zero to 100 percent slip mitigation between the axles – and larger brakes amply certify the Performance namesake and justify the price premium.
And that’s before you factor in that the GTI-P gets a seven-speed DSG, whereas lower-spec GTIs get the time-honoured six forward cogs in either transmission choice.
So far so good, though lifting the value pitch is that everything loaded into GTI’s $1600 optional Driver Assistance Package is fitted standard on the GTI-P, including radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and dynamic light/lane/park assist systems.
Inside the cabin, the GTI-P adopts a unique “honeycomb microfleece” and suede-like leatherette trim design and fits digital instrumentation that’s optional in the regular GTI (as part of a $2300 Infotainment package).
Meanwhile, the exterior scores Brescia-style 19-inch wheels instead of GTI-issue 18s, high-spec premium taillights with dynamic indicators and a choice of Dark Iron Blue Metallic or, as fitted to our test car, a tasty eggshell-like finish called White Silver Metallic. For a complete rundown of GTI and GTI-P specs and options, see here.
More dangling carrots? How about exclusivity? For one thing, Volkswagen Australia is only bringing in 150 examples. For another, and for the first time in a generation, the GTI-P is the only Golf available as a three-door.
If you’re in the opinion camp that the three-door body style is sexier, sportier and cooler, you’re not alone, though it obviously comes with a compromise of practicality. It takes deft Gumby-like contortion skills for adults to climb into or out of the second row, so if you’ve got kids or need regular four-up capability as a priority, best go looking at any other Golf of the ‘seven’ generation…
The trim and tech upgrade lift the perceived quality of the cabin nicely over the more familiar, more basic tartan-clothed GTI treatment, though it might seem a bit disjointed for some buyer tastes.
The slick upmarket facade of digital instrumentation and smartphone like infotainment interface of the eight-inch Discover media system seems slightly at odds with the mechanical seat adjustment and lack of start/stop button – yep, it’s the good old key-in-barrel arrangement.
The driver’s Active Info Display, as Volkswagen calls it, is clear and easy to digest and, while user configurable in the submenus, lacks the degree of one-touch reconfiguration and the flashy eye candy you’ll find in, say, Audis or BMWs: less fancy, but everything you need.
Ditto the Discover system, which is quick in response, patently upmarket and has one of the best 360-degree guided parking sensor systems around as well as an excellent rear-view camera design. Clunky, though, is the distracting process of switching drive modes, requiring accessing the menu via a console button then selecting whichever mode on the media screen.
Those bespoke seats, too, are up for subjective debate. Personally, I’m a big fan of the textures and materials at play – sporty and purposeful, much like the shapely contours – but if you’re of the opinion that leathery, heated, electrically-adjustable seating goodness should come bundled into a $48k small hatchback you’re plumb out of luck with GTI-P. You can, however, have it optioned ($3900) into lesser GTIs and still safely come in at under $50k.
It seems, then, that the GTI-P’s is somewhat at odds with itself. In a great many areas, it plays the high-performance stripper card. In others, such as techno wizardry and active safety, it comes across as downright opulent. And yet it’s a strangely compelling blend – again, not to everyone’s tastes – where there’s a certain rawness and simplicity that doesn’t feel R-like overblown, though it doesn’t feel as outright basic as, well, a basic GTI.
Personally, it’s got a lot of good stuff in plenty of the right places…
“I don’t like it,” says the better half, moments after I tell her that, no, you can’t buy a GTI-P in conventional manual form. For the woman who owns a mint Mark V three-door manual GTI after her lesser half spent months tracking one down, the lack of old-school stick shifting option is “a deal breaker”. No doubt many prospective buyers will feel the same.
Asked whether the prospect of base three-door GTI, manual or not, might ever surface any time soon in Oz, Volkswagen Australia communications boss Paul Pottinger says that response from the three-door Performance version has overwhelming enough that “we’re looking at every and any hot Golf variant we can secure (from Germany).”
The rawness creeps into the GTI-P experience on the move, partly with the tempered gruffness from the exhaust note, partly due to the slightly fidgety ride quality at low speed. It’s less an annoyance, more of a bit character dialled in, you sense, by design.
The powertrain itself is quite the opposite, if in positive ways. Dig in and that extra 20Nm not only adds a few shades of extra purpose during hard launches, the extra herbs translate into a more effortless and progressive drive around town using part throttle.
Punch? There’s plenty, enough to trigger traction control without much provocation though that so-called ‘diff lock’ does a commendable, and noticeable, job of helping those 225mm Pirellis bite into the hotmix.
That said, as useable and satisfying as they are, isn’t 180kW and 370Nm short-changing GTI’s potential? I know I know, the old Performance special only produced 169kW, but last year’s unfortunately named GTI 40 Years produced 195kW all day long from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four and a whopping 213kW – and 380Nm – on overboost which kicked in on third gear and above. GTI-P is good, then, if not quite as great as it might otherwise be.
Regardless, the tricky diff really is excellent, virtually eliminating torque steer and allowing the front end of the car to track its line through corners under heavier throttle application than you imagine possible. And that’s not on smooth and grippy racetrack surfaces, but across tricky, eminently lumpy and at times wickedly twisty sections of Aussie back road we used to put the GTI-P through its impressively spirited paces.
I’m not quite as impressed with the seven-speed DSG as I’d hoped. Part of the reason is I’d presumed it was a more tightly-packed ratio spread than the regular GTI’s six-cog DSG. Instead, there’s significant engine rpm change shifting up or down and, around town, it rarely climbs out of sixth. Seventh, then, is really for fuel-sipping highway cruising – no bad thing – where on a good run it’ll return low sevens along a 100-kilometre jaunt. Call it 10s around town.
It turns out that, with more than 350Nm on tap, the seven-speeder is a fitted option because of its tougher build and higher torque rating and the same unit is used behind a variety of other VAG engines, says VW Oz. On the march, when self-shifting in Sport drive mode, it’s a fairly handy ally, but in full manual mode while you're using the paddle-shifters, it can be a bit inaccurate chasing the redline during upshifts and unresponsive tapping downshifts.
Let off its leash, the dynamics impress. The assertive front end is complemented by accurate, nicely-weighted steering brimming with feedback. And the fidgety around town ride transforms into taut, planted handling that’s keenly neutral in balance. Get the suspension stroke working for its keep and the payback is a satisfyingly playful and adjustable character that’s unflustered by mid-corner bumps or in the habit of throwing up any spooky or unpredictable traits.
It certainly feels more agile and match-fit than our long-term Golf 7 GTI. Its limits are higher, maintains its composure better, and its abilities bloom with more driver satisfaction when pushed.
And you really do notice just how polite and well-rounded the GTI formula – even one as fiddled with – is once you cool its heels and revert back to its more comfortable drive settings.
Given the chance to run amok in Wolfsburg’s product planning department and given unfettered access to the GTI parts bin, is this the version my wildest dream would build? Initially I would’ve thought not.
But in shuffling through positives and negatives, in the gains and losses of the bundled-in Performance addenda, I’d want to wind the engine up to a full-monty 213kW/380Nm for my $48k investment. Everything else, though – even the active safety gear that was impressively transparent and unobtrusive throughout test – is pretty much right on the money.
That said, I can't help wondering if a base three-door manual, possibly priced below a $40k threshold, might find its way across the big pond some time later, if not perhaps sooner.
As enticing as that prospect might be, as what's currently the only three-door Golf (richer) money can buy remains mightily impressive, difficult to fault and easy to recommend.
Click on the Images tab for more photos by Sam Venn.
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