Is the Volkswagen Golf GTI manual the purist's tool of choice? Or should you go for the DSG? Matt Campbell reckons its stick-shift, or die.
If there’s one point of discussion that comes up often in the CarAdvice offices, it’s whether you’d choose the manual or the DSG when choosing a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The answer is simple for some of us – the manual Golf GTI is the purist’s choice, the only option, if you will. For others, those who prefer their left leg to rest lazily on the dead pedal while their left hand does nothing but twiddle with the volume knob on your Volkswagen's media screen, there’s the DSG.
But it’s a big decision. Do you want to commit to having to depress the clutch pedal, potentially hundreds of times per day, thousands of times per month, as you battle traffic? Or would you prefer the razor-sharp shifts of the dual-clutch automatic transmission, albeit with some low-speed hesitation?
Having made the decision, at $41,490 plus on-road costs, this five-door, six-speed manual Golf GTI hatchback is undoubtedly the best thing you can buy for this sort of money if you’re the type of person who loves to drive, but also appreciates a degree of sophistication.
I mention sophistication because I don’t think there’s another hot hatch out there that can do its thing quite like the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It can be tearing at the leg of your pants like a feisty Jack Russell one second, or like a lap dog, or one of those really well-behaved show dogs you know has the potential to turn into a rascal at any instant. And that all comes down to the press of a button.
The drive mode selector offers normal, comfort, sport, individual and eco modes – forget that last one, you’ll never use it. But you will use the others, with adjustments to the steering, engine, engine sound (the fakery piped into the cabin), suspension dampers, dynamic cornering lights, and – oddly – the air conditioning.
My personal preference in the individual mode shown in the Gallery. But what is most surprising is just how comfortable comfort mode is, and how sporty sport mode is.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine with 169kW of power (from 4700-6200rpm) and 350Nm of torque (from 1500-4600rpm). Those figures are now considered to be modest for hot hatches, but, as most of us know, it’s not all about how big it is – it’s how you use it.
Dubious metaphors aside (or not), the flexibility and performance the engine offers is phenomenal, and so is the refinement. If you want it to, it’ll spank your backside, with the sport mode offering a particularly menacing character and soundtrack, while in the softer settings, it does everything in its power to be inoffensive, but still brisk, with its response.
The front-wheel-driven formula doesn’t fail the Golf – it has tenacious grip and tremendous power delivery, with the extended electronic differential lock helping tug the front end around corners and working to dismiss understeer brilliantly. Find a set of corners and this car will make you smile from ear to ear.
Those drive mode selections are critical if you’re doing just that, because the steering in sport mode is hefty without offering the best feel to the driver’s hands, but with normal mode selected there’s a bit more involvement due to the fact the action is a little lighter.
The six-speed manual isn't the last word in slinkiness, but it is terrifically easy to operate. The clutch and shifter both have quite a long throw, but in day-to-day running the lightness of both helps out.
What is most impressive – my jaw genuinely dropped, in fact – was the adaptive damper system, which in comfort mode is supremely compliant and controlled over pockmarks, though sharp edges can still cause it to rebound a little abruptly. Sport mode stiffens the chassis up, but not to a bone-rattling level.
On the inside, the ‘Clark’ tartan-trimmed seats are glorious, no matter what any of the naysayers might have you believe. There are some people who suggest a manual with leather seats could be the ideal GTI, better even than a tartan-clad DSG model. I beg to differ, because I love the trim – that could be my Scottish heritage…?
There is a luxury package that makes a lot of sense, though. It includes Vienna leather trimmed seats, heated front seats (driver’s with electric adjustment, electric lumbar adjust and memory settings – including for the side mirrors), and a panoramic sunroof. That pack costs $3900.
As I said, the leather and those other things don’t really appeal to me, so I wouldn’t bother with that. But the driver assist pack ($1800) is too hard to look past. It adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic and lane departure warning, LED headlights with auto high beams, and semi-automated parking assist.
Our tester had neither such pack. It was, as they say, bog stock. But that doesn’t mean it's a 'stripper'.
And that standard spec isn’t bad at all. The sculpted, manually adjustable seats offer excellent support, and the backseat space is among the best in the class for leg- and headroom. There are air vents back there, and dual ISOFIX child-seat anchor points plus three top-tether points.
As we’ve come to know, the Golf puts practicality at the forefront, with great door storage on offer, a couple of cupholders between the front seats, a small covered armrest, and another storage bin in front of the shifter, which is where the USB port and auxiliary jack hide. Yep, only one USB – that’s a bit behind the times.
The 8.0-inch media screen isn’t, though, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, satellite navigation and performance gauges for when you’re giving it a lash. The eight-speaker sound system pumps pretty hard, too.
Volkswagen offers a capped-price service setup for the Golf, which spans five years/75,000km, and has maintenance requirements every 12 months/15,000km. The average cost per visit over that time is $504. And it comes with a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and the same cover for roadside assistance.
There is no denying that the Volkswagen Golf GTI is a terrific hot hatch, and for this writer, the manual is definitely, 100 per cent the model I’d choose. Not only would I avoid lazy left leg syndrome, but I’d be getting the most well-rounded, wallet-friendly walloper of a hatchback there is at this price point.