For 40 years the VW Golf GTI has been the hot hatch to beat. It’s practical, good value and fast – in that order. This enticing combination of qualities makes it a great choice for car enthusiasts that also need to haul a family and want a comfortable ride, i.e. most of us. My choice, the Performance (P) variant of the GTI turns this package up to 11, delivering even more pep for your buck.
I previously owned several VW hatches including a base Golf and Polo GTI, but after driving a friend’s Golf GTI, I was sold. Soon after, I decided to take the plunge on a second hand GTI-P in Carbon Steel. In this spec the car looks just right to me. Stand out stylistic choices are the two-tone 19 inch wheels, gorgeous array of rear LED lighting and signature GTI red strip that bleeds seamlessly into the headlights. Whilst obviously sporty, the styling isn’t outlandish or boy racer-esq like other hot hatches in the segment– think A45 AMG with its massive wing or Ford Focus RS with its flaring wheel arches – and I prefer that.
The Performance Pack variant that I opted for adds a myriad of equipment upgrades that incrementally improve on the regular GTI. What ticking this option box really gets you, however, is an extra 7kW, stickier Pirelli P Zero rubber and a mechanically locking front diff. These distinguishing features are why the Performance model has its own Carsales listing and still commands a several thousand dollar premium in the used market.
A spirited weekend drive up Brisbane’s Mt Nebo quickly reveals why. Relative to other FWD cars I’ve driven, the GTI-P feels more stable through corners at higher speeds, with improved steering feel, less torque steer and a greater ability to apply power mid-corner. A lot of this is likely down to these upgraded features. As you apply enough throttle mid-corner to push any conventional FWD car into understeer, you can actually feel the GTI-P’s diff redistribute the front end torque, inducing the Pirelli tyres to grip more and rotate the car even further into the corner. The upshot of this tech is a car that feels distinctly more rear driven on twisty roads than it ought to, giving the Golf R and other AWD hot hatches a run for their money.
When upping the pace on your favourite backroad, the normally refined and muted engine also happily sings to its 7000rpm redline, showing little sign of losing its breath despite being turbo charged. Some turbo-lag is present before 4000rpm but is manageable and not distracting from the driving experience. Accompanying the engine’s surge of power is a satisfying induction and exhaust sound that becomes ever more intoxicating the higher in the revs you go.
In the GTI-P’s dual-clutch only transmission spec the characteristic exhaust ‘pop’ is also lots of fun on upshifts. VW’s DSG transmission is a real highlight feature during spirited driving, providing the instantaneous shifts and responsiveness previously only seen in cars with more than 5 significant figures in their price tags.
Whilst very little separates the GTI-P from the Golf R on back roads, unfortunately even the $400 a piece sticky tyres and a German launch control system can’t do much to help the car’s off-the-line performance. The car still scrambles for traction when starting from a stop, but at least doesn’t suffer from torque steer like most other FWD hot hatches. While you’ll still achieve a respectable 6.4 second launch to 100km/hr, if you’re all about satisfying launches, consider shelling out the extra cash for the Golf R.
Continuing with the negatives, when carving up a canyon, the cabin and seats, despite being the sportiest VW offer, feel designed with larger people in mind. While the overall driving position of the car is great, as a slim 179cm male, the larger seats mean I sometimes feel the need to brace myself more than I’d like through hair pins. Combine this with a large and airy cabin and I don’t always get the sensation that the car is shrink wrapping around me at speed (the tell-tale of a great sports car). As soon as you slow down however, it becomes clear why VW has engineered it’s MQB based cabin to be spacious.
If the GTI-P is great on a backroad, then it’s sensational on the daily commute. Select comfort mode and the dampers soften to match the praise-worthy magic carpet ride of the standard golf, all while the engine and transmission resort to sipping from the fuel lines to achieve the 6.6L/100km fuel rating. Combined with the 8 speaker hi-fi, adaptive cruise control and soft leather seats the GTI-P has made gridlock traffic much more bearable for me. VW really nailed the day-to-day usability of the GTI. The only downside of the package is the transmission’s performance in slow speed traffic. The box can be jerky off the line and, more annoyingly, when alternating between the pedals in stop-start traffic. This is primarily a software failure whereby the car attempts to predict when to engage the clutch, based on your driving inputs. It’s easy for me to overlook this minor gripe however, because as soon as you get going the transmission programming is fantastic. I expect the software will be improved in newer versions of the Golf.
The interior also has a higher quality and finish compared to rivals. Most people mightn’t notice but VW really pays attention to the little details. Features like the carpet lining on all storage compartments, a full array of backlit switches (not just on the dash), red accented LED lighting and air conditioning vents in the rear really set the interior apart in 2013 when the car launched. In the present day however, where we’ve become accustomed to giant iPad sized screens (thanks Tesla), the relatively small, low resolution and dim infotainment display is a bit of a let-down. Similarly outdated is the VW GPS software, which is unintuitive and never shies from the opportunity to lead you up the garden path. Thankfully, both complaints have been addressed by Volkswagen in the Mk7.5 update, where the GTI now once again sports a class leading interior.
True to the stereotype that fast Golfs break, reliability has been a mixed bag for me. Over my year of ownership I’ve had to return to the service centre several times to remedy two separate engine bay rattles. Now as I write this review I have another service scheduled to investigate a cornering light failure. Purchasing the car with a year of warranty remaining on the bill definitely turned out to be a good move. To VW’s credit however, I’ve had no critical issues with the car (or any other VW I’ve owned) and customer service has always been good.
In summary then, I think the Golf GTI-Performance is fantastic. No reasonably priced car I’ve driven since has demonstrated the same breadth of ability. The car has a distinct dual character which you can change on a whim, testament to the engineering prowess of the company that builds it. If you’re looking for a great daily driver that also satiates your inner car enthusiast in an affordable way, then save up and get yourself one of these.