The idea of a hot hatch is very appealing to not only me, but also to a percentage of the market. You get all the fun of a performance car with none of the usual drawbacks.
I purchased my VW Golf GTI brand new back in 2008. I wanted something bigger and more usable than my previous Peugeot 205. I didn’t have any intention of buying the Volkswagen, as despite many accolades it had received at the time, I thought they were too common. The day I test drove the VW I was actually going out to test drive a Ford Focus XR5, however I wanted to test drive the benchmark hot hatch at the time as a reference point. After that drive, I found that the GTI was one of the best cars I had ever driven. It had everything I wanted in a car; performance and practicality. I later test drove the Focus and came away a little underwhelmed (with the Ford). Don’t get me wrong, the XR5 was a very good car, but the only thing “I” thought it did better than the GTI, was the noise it made. The Golf makes a good noise, but the XR5’s offbeat 5-cylinder engine is hard to beat.
My first and only other car I have ever owned was a Peugeot 205 GTi. I searched for over two years to find “the one”. Watching Juha Kankkunen and the 205GTi commercials from the 80's had cemented the little Pug as my dream car (realistically as a young adult). Seriously, watch the TV ad on YouTube of it being bombed by military aircraft… you will not be disappointed. Peugeot even recreated the TV ad with the launch of the 208 GTi 30th Anniversary Edition. Sadly I had to make the decision to buy a new car, as French cars from the 80's didn’t have build quality as a high pre-requisite, and keeping both would have been a financial and parking nightmare. To this day I still regret selling it. The 205 was a car that brought a smile to my face every time I drove it, and annoyed me anytime it would leak, which happened a lot more than it probably should have. I also would not want to be in a serious accident in the Peugeot, as they had a tendency to snap and swap ends - thank you lift-off oversteer. And yet, if I get the chance to own one again…
Anyway, back to the Golf. To sit in the GTI feels special. The tartan body-hugging seats, the 3D style gauges, the flat-bottomed steering wheel, the blue and red back-dials, these all give it a distinct aura. The 300km/h speedo is wishful thinking, but looks super cool. There are a few plastics in the cabin that are questionable, but they are on surfaces that do not get used or touched. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake, and combined with a seat which drops right to the floor, you would be hard to find a person that could not set it up to their liking. The ratchet wheel to adjust the backrest angle is fiddly to use, but I am nit-picking - once it is in the right place, it becomes irrelevant. There is ample storage space around the cabin, and the glove box can be chilled if you need to chill your logbooks. There is plenty of headroom in the rear seat for 6-footers, even with a sunroof, but I wouldn’t be going 5-up for anything longer than short trips. The boot is fairly sizable and will fit luggage for a small family or all your Esky needs, and the 60/40 rear seats fold relatively flat to allow a mountain bike or two. Outside, the car is subtly aggressive. A bit of black and red trim, including the red brake calipers, the honeycomb grill, a mild body kit and the larger rear wing differentiate it from the cookie-cutter Golfs. The standard 17-inch rotary telephone rims looked great in their day, and are super easy to clean (and super easy to kerb), but are looking dated compared to today’s intricate designs.
On any road, the GTI is sublime. Is will easily handle the grocery run, a blast up your favourite road (Royal National Park, Macquarie Pass… without any traffic) as well as the Aussie staple, the road trip. The car has a very neutral/clinical balance to it, falling into understeer rather than lift-off oversteer unless severely provoked. It can be incredibly fuel efficient on the open road or thirstily drink 98 unleaded when you are feeling… enthusiastic. The steering has a weighty feel to it, which is something that I love, but to others (who might be coming from non-performance cars) it could be seen as too heavy. There is a feeling you can always tell what the front wheels are doing, especially if you have applied any lock. The gearshift action is slick and precise and it’s rare to miss a gear, even when rushing it. The pedal placement is spot on and pretty good for heel-toeing, however the clutch has a bit of a dead spot at the top and bottom of its travel (coming from the 205 however, everything feels like that). The brakes are reassuring. They can be a bit grabby if you are not used to them (something a lot of my friends comment on when they drive my car for the first time) but they work extremely well - time after time - at road speeds. Suspension is on the firm side, but is a good compromise between performance and everyday liveability. Inconsistencies in the road are felt but do not come crashing through the cabin. So what about the engine? The 2-litre turbo is sweet! There is a slight amount of turbo lag down low, but once on boost, the GTI shifts, and shifts quickly. One must keep one eye on the road, and one eye on the speedo, as before you know it, you have reached “minus demerit points speed”. In-gear acceleration and torque are the GTI’s forté. You can use the torque to putt around the suburbs in third, or overtake on the highway in sixth gear; such is its flexibility. There are little to no pops and cracks from the exhaust, think JCW Mini or i30N, even on overrun. The manual doesn’t have the burp noise that DSG VW group cars make when changing gears. But then it also doesn’t have that era's DSGs problems either.
As far as standard features to keep occupants happy, by today’s standards, the GTI is lacking. The 10-speaker 6-stacker CD with AM/FM radio (retro!) does a pretty good job, with some functions linked to the steering wheel controls. Parking sensors and sat-nav were all extras, as was Bluetooth, which was a $900 option! So… Apple CarPlay and Android Auto… Nope! Cruise control, auto lights, auto wipers and climate control were all standard - hardly a must-have, but nice in their presence. However the auto wipers can’t make up their mind half the time when splashed with a bit of water. A simple intermittent setting would probably have been better decision. The controls are all ergonomically placed and logically where they should be, with a nice tactility to them. The gauges are easy to read once you get used to the numbers wrapping around the dials rather than being upright, and the Volkswagen Information display between the speedo and tacho, while extremely simple, is incredibly intuitive to use, giving the driver necessary information on the fly.
Would I recommend this car to people? If you can find one with low kilometres and has been well looked after, I say go for it. Yes there are faster and harder hitting cars out there, but in terms of practicality, performance and style, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the consummate hot hatch all-rounder. It hasn’t really needed to make the leap in performance other car manufactures have done - that is what the Golf R is for. Would I buy a newer GTI given the opportunity? Probably not. I have held on to this one since new, so I think I will hang onto it as long as I can. The MkV saw the return to form for not only Volkswagen, but the hot hatch segment. If any car in the last 10 years could fall into the “future classic” category, the little Golf definitely has its hand up.