Volkswagen’s hot-hatch icon steps up in performance and equipment as it plots a fightback against tough new opposition.
And then there was one. Volkswagen Golf GTI buyers have typically had various options over the years: three doors, five doors, manual gearbox, auto, and special editions.
Now, however, the GTI for MY19 is just a single specification, priced from $45,490.
Equally deliberate is the wider gap to the Golf R after the $47,490 Grid Edition was dropped to leave a new MY19 starting price of $56,490.
It’s a shame the Volkswagen Golf GTI has been pushed further away from smaller budgets, though for those with sufficient funds there’s increased specification to appreciate.
The ‘standard’ GTI is now essentially what was previously the limited-run Performance Edition 1. On the mechanical side that means a more powerful version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (up 11kW/20Nm to 180kW and 370Nm), an electro-mechanical front diff and the larger brake package from the Golf R.
Standard technology also expands – with adaptive cruise control, digital instrument cluster (Active Info Display), blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, self-steering parking (Park Assist), and lane-departure warning (Lane Assist).
We’re glad the Performance Edition’s microfleece/leatherette upholstery isn’t standard, though. While there’s nothing wrong with them per se, the trademark tartan (‘Clark’) seats are a key part of the GTI’s character. (Leather seats are available as part of the $3900 Luxury Pack, though, described below.)
Our introduction to the MY19 Golf GTI is at Sydney’s new Luddenham Raceway, a compact, undulating 1.2km circuit. And it’s raining cats and dogs.
We’re out in the Polo GTI first, though, as it’s a VW Performance Day also encompassing the new Golf R Special Edition. (We'll review the latter soon.)
While there are many aspects of the baby GTI to like, swapping into the Golf demonstrates why you would want the bigger hatch if within budget.
The Golf GTI doesn’t feel much heavier and it offers throttle adjustability missing from the Polo. With the point of understeer inevitably raised in the grip-limited conditions, the Golf responds nicely to a lift of the loud pedal to tuck the nose in tighter to apexes.
It offers an advantage out of corners, too, with 2018’s addition of the electro-mechanical front locking diff that is essentially a clutch-based computer-controlled torque vectoring system.
Calculating various variables – vehicle speed, wheel speed, yaw rate and lateral acceleration – to determine the amount of torque to send to the outside front wheel for optimum traction, it’s far more effective than the electronic brake-based ‘diffs’ used – largely unsuccessfully – by standard GTIs previously.
While you can’t get on the throttle mid-corner quite as early as you can with the all-paw Golf R, the MY19 GTI allows quicker and harder application than the previous model or Polo.
And, at least in the wet, there was no torque steer.
The Golf’s steering just remains unerringly smooth and accurate – and nicely weighted – giving the driver plenty to work with even if not particularly communicative (as per VW tradition).
While sustained heavy braking is minimal at Luddenham Raceway, the GTI’s enlarged brakes (from the R) felt good and provided confidence to hit the picks several metres past brake-marker points set up by instructors – for a dry track.
They also managed multiple laps without fade, where the Polo’s front discs were left smoking and in need of a couple of cool-down laps. Curiously, we also had to back off for a couple of laps while in the Golf R when the brakes started getting spongy.
That jump from the Polo GTI to the Golf GTI also demonstrated the leap in grunt from an older-spec EA888 engine (in the former) to the more powerful version (in the latter).
The 2.0-litre loves to rev, though its flexibility – aided by 370Nm delivered between 1600 and 4300rpm – is its stand-out feature (as it is in the Polo GTI).
Strangely, the Polo sounded a bit fruitier than the Golf, while our stint in the Golf R proved an aftermarket Akrapovic exhaust system might be appealing for the GTI.
We wish the Golf’s paddle levers were larger and more tactile, too. Greater tactility would certainly help compensate more for the absence of a stick-shift option.
Flick them inwards, though, and there’s good response from the seven-speed dual-clutch auto (another bonus over the former five-door GTI that used a six-speed DSG).
Out on the road, the Golf GTI’s throttle response feels insufficient in Comfort mode – fine for a regular Golf but not a hot-hatch. That’s easily fixable by selecting Sport mode, though this also switches the damping into a firmer setting. (The Drive mode button is also annoyingly obscured by the gearlever.)
That makes the Individual Mode welcome, as it allows you to select Comfort for the chassis but Sport for the drivetrain for what we think is the best combination for daily driving.
Even with the suspension in Comfort, however, the GTI has lost some of its ride serenity. While there’s still a degree of suppleness, there’s plenty of fidgeting even on relatively smooth freeways.
Our test car rolled on the larger 19-inch wheels, however, leaving room for the standard smaller stock to deliver a more comfortable ride.
For now, though, it seems the Volkswagen may just well have ceded ‘best-riding hot-hatch’ status to the new Renault Megane RS (on standard Sports suspension)… And we’ll find out very soon with a comparison test!
This GTI makes a much stronger pitch for ‘best cabin in class’ – its interior now further enhanced with extra standard features. The Active Info Display certainly can’t be missed, immediately ahead of the driver and presenting a high-tech display with plenty of configuration.
Driver aids include adaptive cruise control with adaptive lane guidance, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic warning, and autonomous emergency braking.
There’s also VW’s excellent touchscreen infotainment system, which includes navigation. It’s the standard 8.0-inch version unless you pay $2300 Sound & Style package that brings the larger, 9.2-inch display with swipe-command Gesture Control – along with 19-inch Brescia alloy wheels and Dynaudio Excite 400-watt audio.
Our test car also featured the $3900 Luxury package that swaps the tartan seats for Vienna leather upholstery (with front-seat heating), power driver’s seat, and panoramic electric glass sunroof.
Those 19-inch wheels were standard on the Performance Edition, along with metallic paint, yet the MY19 Golf GTI undercuts that former model by $2500 and is a five- rather than three-door. So, while a five-door GTI costs $1500 more than before, it still has to be considered good value beyond the disappointment of losing a sub-$40K GTI.
This isn’t quite the last hurrah for the seventh-generation Golf GTI, either, as a 213kW TCR model is set for the second half of 2019 – before an all-new Golf is released in 2020.
In the meantime, the GTI’s 2018 update keeps it relevant – in terms of both performance and equipment – against an ever-increasing number of determined rivals.