With so many go-fast Golfs available right now, it's fair to presume the new cut-priced GTI Original appeals to nobody... Except some hardcore traditionalists, that is. We pit the latest Mk7.5 three-door, manual, tartan-trimmed Volkswagen hot hatch against arguably the best: the much-loved Mark V.
Despite the recent avalanche of go-fast Volkswagen Golfs off the back of 2017’s Mark 7.5 update, there's evidence about that you can’t please everyone all of the time. Not that VW Australia hasn't been trying. The evergreen ‘staple’ five-door front-drive GTI returned, of course, as did the R in both hatch and wagon forms as the initial dumping. These were followed almost immediately by a deluge of all-you-can-eat versions such as the three-door GTI Performance Edition 1 and R Wolfsburg Editions.
By the very brief time it took Volkswagen Australia to concoct and release cut-priced hatch and wagon versions of the R with the new Grid nameplate, you’d figure that, yes, all bases might be covered for all tastes, but no, there was still one important niche left to fill in Hot Golf-dom…
The GTI Original fills an important gap in Golf’s otherwise utterly fulfilling pantheon. Perhaps more important than, at a $37,490 list price kick-off, simply forming the most affordable go-fast Golf currently on sale. Instead, against its contemporary stablemates, this rather pure and uncomplicated variant bottles the essence of what first made the Golf GTI the figurehead in fast, fun-filled, heroic, premium hot hatches. It’s one for the traditionalists, and this new Aussie-exclusive version taps the mighty Mark V GTI the hardest and closest.
Volkswagen Australia argues otherwise, explaining literal homage to the original Mark I, though that never sold in Oz. The first official local GTI release was the Mark IV, which is a decent machine if a somewhat lukewarm execution, and certainly isn’t considered anything like the game-changer its successor would become.
When it lobbed back in 2005, the Mark V GTI set the mould for hot hatch goodness. It could be had with five doors, a new-fangled dual-clutch transmission and leather trim, but it was the simplest, most stripped back three-door manual variant, complete with tartan cloth trim, that would become the enthusiast favourite during its on-sale era and any time since.
The cheapest of its time would go on to command the most handsome second-hand pricing, spurred on not simply by its uncomplicated charms, but because once the Mark VI arrived, in 2008, the appealing three-door body style would soon disappear from the local Golf menu.
...And not return for almost a decade.
One GTI die-hard not easily pleased is one close to home, my infinitely better (and perhaps fussier) half, Sonia. She happens to own possibly the nicest ‘base’ Mark V GTI in Sydney.
'Ours' is of 2007 vintage and in Everyone's-Got-One Tornado Red, if a specimen a little closer to concours condition than the dozen or so other three-door/six-speed-manual/tartan-trimmed examples we tyre-kicked a few years back in what, at the time, seemed like an almost fruitless mission to unearth a good’un.
Once the Mark 7.5 hot hatch avalanche began, one by one, I'd bring different variants home.
Her thoughts on the regular GTI 7.5: “Too much fancy shit. Where’s the three-door?”
Surely she’d love the Performance Edition 1, then: “Where's the manual gearstick?”
Okay, she’d probably sell her lesser half's body parts – at a discount price, possibly – to trade up into a Mk7.5 R manual of any designation and lived with the five-door format, but at a $47,490 tip-in point for the cheapest Grid R we're talking a five-figure premium over the bare-boned GTI Original manual.
A deal-breaker, then. And the same goes for any GTI without three doors, three pedals and Ode To A Kilt seat trim in the eyes of one particularly discerning Vee-Dub fangirl.
As we'd discover once Sydney’s Most Babied Mark V met an oven-fresh Original, similarities run deeper and wider than commonality in aperture count, transmission type and fabric design. The familiarity might start with design and equipment, yet there’s a real kinship in feel and spirit in GTI providence that, you sense, is almost in spite of a dozen years of motoring evolution.
Both have passive suspension – quite the exception/omission for the newer GTI – and are bereft of much in the way of advanced active driver assistance. Each features regular cruise control, fairly rudimentary infotainment lacking in proprietary sat-nav, mechanical seat adjustment and classic analogue instrumentation.
Both feature proper dual-zone climate control – even the dials are dead ringers across three generations – and leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheels, but stop short of fanciness such as seat heating/cooling, and neither car is riddled with much in the way of excess, which extends to the appealing, unfussy simplicity of their cabin designs.
Some of the smart little details filter through generations: the aluminium pedals; the same sunglasses holders in the ceiling; the similar flocked door bins so oddments don’t rattle around and removable rubber matting in the console cubbies.
The new Original is a little flashier in the switchgear and favours gloss-black trim inserts (which aren't great for sun glare) yet the family resemblance is conspicuous and undeniable.
As each penny-pinches to similar degrees within their respective ranges, the 7.5 benefits from progress in expectations of minimum content. So the new car gets LED headlights/tail-lights/DLRs, an electronic handbrake, mechanical lumber adjustment, and features such as a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors and (city) autonomous emergency braking generally considered somewhat essential nowadays but were luxurious extras a decade ago, at least in small-car material from Wolfsburg.
The most startling improvement has been in infotainment. The Apple and Android smartphone mirroring of the new car’s 8.0-inch touchscreen system would’ve been pure science fiction when the fifth-gen Golf first hit Europe back in 2003. So while cost-cutting has removed proprietary sat-nav from the Original's equipment list, you still get guidance via your device.
But it's miles flashier than the Mark V's OEM double-DIN CD head unit, with its archaic LCD display, which got the flick ages ago in favour of an aftermarket unit featuring Bluetooth and DAB+ that's hooked up to the multifunction wheel controls. Sure, it doesn’t look ‘factory’, but we’ve still got the original unit to retrofit when it’s time to move on to fresher metal…
One area where new creams old is in driver instrumentation. For some unknown reason, the electronic driver’s screen between the dials is in red script on red background, making it nigh on illegible, while the gauges themselves are dull, poorly lit and difficult to read. Digital speedo? Forget it.
The current analogue instrumentation is vastly improved, though does include some silly ‘eco tip’ advising when to downshift to save fuel and other nonsense, which thankfully can be switched off in an infotainment submenu.
What hasn't survived the time warp across generations is the cup-holder divider in the old car that's removable and doubles as a handy bottle opener. Take that 2018!
Value-wise, the, ahem, ‘new Original’ looks an absolute smash. Sure, natural evolution returns a handy dividend, but the most affordable the old Mark V ever listed at was $38,490, a thousand bucks pricier than today’s replacement, and the price fluctuated to $39,990 and up above the $40K mark in its Noughties era.
That all of this doesn’t factor in inflation shows you just how much hot hatch you’re getting for very reasonable money in this latest iteration of a fine old concept.
For the record, opting for the Original and losing out on a smattering of niceties saves a whopping $4000 against the regular five-door GTI manual...
The same concept, perhaps, if some differences in execution. The new three-door GTI form is longer (by 52mm), wider (by 40mm) and has a lower overall height (by 24mm) than the V with the same door count.
And the 7.5-generation's patently sharper accent lines and body creases are anchored by larger (18-inch against 17s) rolling stock, but in the flesh and side by side, the pair isn’t much different in size at all.
Traditionalists might lament the loss of circular motif in the design of the old Denver wheels, but the Original's fresh-faced Sevilla rims – with red accents that extend through highlights in the overall exterior design – are very handsome substitutes with a thoroughly modern twist.
In terms of how this translates to cabin spaciousness, the latest Golf imparts a sense of increased width, but it’s really not that much as an adult sat outboard in either row of seating, though the rear occupancy does offer fractionally more roominess in all directions.
While there's little difference in the shapeliness and support of the rear pews – the Original's are slightly more shapely – there's a notable disparity in the feel of the buckets up front. The old V seats are quite narrow between the bolsters, which is good for lateral support but not great for long-haul comfort. They're not really sculpted to suit more portly drivers and front passengers.
The Original’s pews, though, are a more relaxed in shape, a bit better suited to the broad-shouldered among us, yet still manage to hold your torso upright with aplomb.
What’s really interesting, though, is weight: despite a growth in size, in bundled-in technologies and features, the new manual three-door GTI (1304kg) is more lightweight than the two-gen-old version (1340kg).
Undoubtedly, the weight saving of the 7.5 has to do with many factors. One is advancement of material weight saving and construction. Another is the change from the older-generation PQ35 platform underpinning Golf V and VI to the current MQB architecture.
Another still is differences in the powertrain components, such as the switch from the older ‘EA113’ 2.0-litre Turbo FSI four in older generation GTIs to the more advanced ‘EA888’ unit used today across a huge array of VAG machinery.
On a good day, the old Mark V produced 147kW (5100–6000rpm) and 280Nm (1700–5000rpm), and it demands 98RON in return.
By mid-Noughties measures, its 7.2sec 0–100km/h sprint was certifiably heady, though given the EA113 made around 200kW in Euro in Golf R or Audi TTS spec, it was (and is) an unstressed state of engine tune.
Good for reliability, ripe for aftermarket tuning, then.
The new GTI’s 169kW (4700–6200rpm) and 350Nm (1400–4600rpm) punches harder and only requires 95RON fuel, though similarly it’s well shy of its ultimate potential: today’s EA888-powered Audi TTS cranks out a formidable 228kW!
That said, the GTI Original will cover the march to triple figures in a markedly quicker 6.4sec clip, regardless of whether you’re in the buck-busting manual or you’ve ticked the ($2500) DSG gearbox option.
On the road, the Mark V is eager, punchy and flexible even by contemporary measures. The key is just how tractable and friendly the 2.0-litre unit is to throttle input – it genuinely feels satisfying, conspicuously a big engine shoehorned into a small package.
On balance, its energy delivery seems a touch flat in the top end, if more characteristic of its linear delivery than in the sense of the engine running short of top-end puff.
The Original’s pulling power depends largely on the drive mode chosen: in Eco or Normal calibration, it’s a little pliable and indirect to throttle input, but in Sport it’s a cracker.
Sure, 169kW/350Nm doesn’t impress when bench racing with mates down at the pub, but there’s patently more fire in the EA888’s top end when you bury the right foot and aim the Original towards the horizon.
Of the two six-speeders, the Mark V has a more positive feel, a little more assertive in its gates and has a more mechanical vibe.
More preferable, then, for some tastes. But with six figures ticking over the old girl’s tacho not so long ago, this cog-swapper could do with some rejuvenation to tighten up its action somewhat.
On theme, the clutch is a little meatier than the new car’s, and its bite point marginally vaguer, though there’s a real driver-centric vibe to how nicely the brake, clutch and throttle pedals are calibrated with their respective roles to play.
The Original’s gearbox, though slicker in engagement, feels a little lightweight in comparison, and can seem slightly inaccurate when cross-shifting into third or fifth.
But by today’s standards, where care in the calibration of manually equipped drivers' machines seems to be falling by the wayside, this off-the-rack GTI powertrain combination shared with the pricier five-door versions demonstrates a deftly executed blend of driver engagement and taskless everyday usability.
Similarly, the hydraulically assisted Mark V steering is markedly more weighty to twirl than the lighter electrically assisted 7.5 system, the old car a little more rounded lock to lock and less direct off-centre.
The Original gets Progressive steering as standard, which ramps up the electro-mechanical assistance and makes it a breeze to use during low-speed manoeuvring, though it’s comparatively somewhat inert in Normal and lacks some feedback in Sport.
The key on-road differences are noticeable, but in the grand schemes they’re in shades. Settle into the Mark V on longer trips and it soon becomes lithe, with a sense of lightness with inputs.
Acclimatise to the Original and it soon feels focused, well weighted and brimming with engagement. So while there are slight differences in personality, again, they’re undeniably close family.
Ride-wise, the new car errs towards firmness though its damping is impressively disciplined, always maintaining decent body control and dynamic poise while smoothing out the worst imperfections dodgy Aussie roads throw at it. The Mark V is stiffer, more one-dimensional, with a thinner margin between isolating road acne and crashing about as the surface worsens.
Sydney’s Third World byways haven’t exactly been kind to our family GTI, all but pulverised some of the key rubberised chassis and suspension joints, and some specialist expert TLC is sadly long overdue. Compared with the tersely set Vs – or, worse still, the brutally punishing VIs before adaptive damping landed on the local GTI menu – the Original rides like a dream.
No prizes for guessing that the Original will dispatch a twisty country road with more thrift than the old V: partly through the extra fire up its tailpipe; partly thanks to more sophistication in its traction-enhancing smarts (Anti-Slip Regulation, standard and ‘extended’ Electronic Diff Lock); partly because the dynamic package has the edge in accuracy and outright grip.
And, just perhaps, partly because one’s a press car and the other is my infinitely better half’s pride and joy, and so much as an errant bug splatter on its Tornado Red paintwork will surely elicit nightmarish ramifications.
After spending a week swapping between the all-too-familiar old and the much-anticiapted new, the experience cements some very strong and overwhelmingly positive impressions.
While the Mark V certainly wasn't the original GTI in linage, nor the first GTI in local showrooms, its particular blend of goodies and the combined goodness they weave minted a formula that is surprisingly unmolested in transition to today's latest version.
It's a true sign that Wolfsburg hit the right stride back in the mid-Noughties.
But here's the interesting bit. Does the fresher take on the frill-free, three-door, manual GTI suddenly turn us off Old Faithful, sending us screaming to the local Vee-Dub dealership in desperate need of an upgrade? No it doesn't. A taste of the new hasn't dampened the love for the old one iota.
And yet, it turns out that after all the ambivalence with new-generation GTIs to date, the Original is the only version thus far that the missus loves. Its place in the current burgeoning crop of go-fast Golfs, for one die-hard current owner of one example of providence, is absolutely valid.
So that's a win-win for Volkswagen, then. A shame, then, that closer to home we've only got a one-car garage...