I know what you’re thinking.
And you’re right. You have seen this before. There are thousands of Mk7 Golf GTIs on the road – most of them white like this one – and almost as many reviews online. So I’ll do my best to provide a couple of unique insights. But first, an overview.
This is a 2014 model, the first of the factory-ordered batches after the Mk7 GTI was released in October 2013. It is a manual with no options other than bi-xenon headlights, chosen because the standard halogens of the time were hopeless and made the car look like Milhouse without glasses. It’s got the 2.0-litre, 162kW/350Nm turbo four that you can still find in the Tiguan Highline today, and there is no mechanical front differential that featured in higher model grades. It’s pretty vanilla as far as the specification goes.
The six-speed manual is easy to live with and makes the driving experience much more engaging than the DSG. There is also plenty of usable power in the real world. Maximum torque is on hand early in the rev range, and the result is a car that feels quicker in-gear than the numbers suggest. It isn’t far off a Golf R in this respect, and feels more muscular than my old man’s Passat 206TSI – the additional weight of the Passat not being masked by slightly more power and 4Motion.
The ride is comfortable without being plush, which is fair enough for a hot hatch. The adaptive chassis allows you to vary the suspension stiffness, as well as other characteristics like throttle response and steering weight. I, probably like most people, played around with the settings for a month or two and settled on something I liked that has barely changed since.
The standard Bridgestones are nothing special. The car can struggle for traction off the line or when accelerating in the wet and axle tramp can creep into the equation. A better tyre will hopefully address some of this when I’ve finally worn the factory-fitted rubber out.
Once on the move, mechanical grip is pretty good and the handling is predictable. I was desperate for a manual with the front differential, but Volkswagen Australia didn’t offer that combination at launch (they knew I’d buy one anyway). Four years on, I don’t think you need the diff, and if you want a manual you barely have a choice. The diff would be helpful if you were constantly flooring it out of roundabouts, but otherwise it’s just another component that needs servicing.
The brakes have some initial bite that is reassuring but takes some getting used to, and the progressive steering is excellent, if lacking a little feel. There are 2.1 turns lock-to-lock with more assistance at lower speeds, and now that I’m familiar with it, I don’t enjoy going back to a car with a normal rack. They feel less direct and less efficient.
Practicality is very good. Visibility, rear leg room and boot space (380L) are all more than adequate and class-competitive. You obviously can’t go on holiday with five adults and all their sporting gear, but there’s enough space for life, even if this country’s obsession with SUVs might indicate otherwise.
The tartan trim can be polarising but I like it, and given the alternative was VW’s lesser-grade ‘Vienna’ leather for a whopping $3K more, the decision was made for me. At least the cloth has been hard-wearing and continues to look fresh.
So, what’s not gone exactly to plan?
1. Bloody rattles. If you’re obsessive enough, you’ll find a rattle in almost any car, and I accept that I’m part of the issue here. I had a couple of rattles that took a few attempts with the dealership to remedy under warranty. One came from under the knee airbag and the other came from the sound actuator or ‘soundaktor’.
This is a small device at the base of the windscreen that feeds engine vibrations through it, generating an artificial engine noise in the cabin that is meant to sound sporty. Occasionally it can go wrong and make the dash buzz at certain engine loads. It’s stupid, but the good news is you can either remove it or use software to change the settings if it bothers you.
2. The infotainment system. This car has satellite navigation that does the job, though loading a route takes too long, meaning it’s still very tempting to reach for the phone. What is more frustrating, however, is the size and resolution of the screen. At 5.6 inches and 640x480 pixels, it’s blocky and somewhat jerky.
Infotainment is probably now always going to be the area where cars date fastest, and Volkswagen has moved on considerably, with the latest 9.2-inch screen being excellent. Unfortunately, even at the time of release, this screen was crap and we weren’t offered the 8.0-inch option that existed in Europe. A glossy dust-magnet frame sits around the screen mocking me, reminding me that there is room for something much better.
3. Rev hang. I haven’t see any reviews mention this, and I originally put it down to a lack of experience on my part, but internet forums suggest it’s not just me. When the engine and gearbox are warm, and particularly if the air-conditioning is not working hard, the engine revs can hang momentarily or fall only very slowly when the clutch is depressed during a gear change.
This appears to be a deliberate software setting that aims to reduce emissions by allowing the engine to cleanly burn more of the unused fuel. The result, unfortunately, is you are left with a choice: a smooth but slow gear change or a quicker, jerkier one. It’s not the end of the world, and I still like the manual gearbox, but I would love to try something like a Porsche 911 GT3 Touring just to see how it’s meant to be done these days.
Despite the odd drawback, the rationale for a car like this is simple. You can spend $30K on a regular Golf and it blends into the background of your life, hardly to be thought of again. Or you can make the stretch and really enjoy it every time you drive it. As a used proposition it’s even easier to justify. This was my first brand-new car and followed a 1991 Toyota Camry and a 1983 Mazda 323 (they’re almost the same, right?).
It’s a car that excels when driven up to 8/10ths, as wringing its neck only exposes the fact that it’s softer and less powerful than it could be. Otherwise, it elicits a feeling of solidity and familiarity and doesn’t feel compromised day-to-day. This all-round charm has long been a feature of GTIs and it lives on in the Mk7.
The reason they’re so popular is this: build quality is excellent, as is reliability. When it comes to reaching into one’s pocket, most buyers know they’ll never take the car to a track, and so the tenth of a second here or the 20kW there fades into insignificance. Dieselgate and DSG woes are not relevant and overblown respectively. It’s just a car after all, not some kind of Das Auto religion, so I can easily look past unrelated VW issues if I am comfortable with the product I have.
So there it is. This car has been a special one for me, being the first new car I ever intensely researched, saved up for and waited for. I hope to keep it for many years as a second car as the family grows.