Volkswagen Golf GTI First Drive
The Volkswagen Golf GTI sets the standard for all other hot hatches and is probably more usable than any of them. Paul Murrell tries the latest version to see if it’s still leader of the pack.
My good mate Warren is one of those chaps who’s always on the lookout for his next car; nobody spends as much time trawling the online classifieds as Warren.
His last couple have been VW Golf GTIs. Every few years, he decides it’s time to upgrade and I get the inevitable phone call, “What should I replace it with?” I throw him a couple of suggestions and send him off to pester the dealers and take cars out for test drives.
The last time it happened, he was keen on an eclectic range of cars. He went to the Opel dealer to see if he could wangle a great deal on an Astra, then phoned me excitedly to tell me he could get into an Insignia for an unbelievably good price. That didn’t last long once we discussed how much an Opel would be worth when he came to sell it. Next he was keen on a Lexus but decided it simply wasn’t sporty enough for his needs, so he swung all the way in the other direction.
A mate of his was selling a Golf R and that was a tempting deal, but I talked him out of it because it wouldn’t have suited him on a day-today basis. A succession of other hot hatches and even some not-so-hot hatches came and went at the top of his shopping list. And then he called me to say he’d just bought himself another GTI, as usual not quite new, but at a bargain price.
It’s a dilemma faced by many people. The Golf GTI is simply such a competent, capable all-rounder, it’s hard to go past. It’s practical, well-made, a hoot to drive and has a solid resale value.
The latest GTI continues the tradition and picks up the styling and features of the recently-released Golf 7 range. Unless you stood a Golf 7 next to a Golf 6, you’d be hard pushed to see much difference. The lines are a little sharper, the waistline crease extends to the rear tail lights, and there are a number of detail changes. The snappy wheels are now 18-inch as standard and the previous four model range has been culled to two.
If you’re hankering for the well-proportioned three-door GTI, you’re out of luck. Volkswagen has decided to only import the five-door, reasoning that three-door buyers are suitably catered for by the Scirocco.
The new GTI, like the other Golfs in the range, is built on what’s called the MQB platform. It’s lighter, stiffer and modular, so we’ll be seeing it in every brand under the VW Group banner, including Skoda and Audi.
The new GTI is an even more capable road holder and handler than before, having a wider track and longer wheelbase. And that also translates into better interior space. Weight is down, too, by 44kg. It all adds up to another improvement in fuel economy, from an official combined figure of 7.6L/100km in the GTI 6 to 6.6L/100km in the GTI 7 DSG automatic and an even more impressive 6.2 for the manual.
Some of the familiar GTI signatures are still in place, including the red highlights on the grille (they now continue through the headlights), flat-bottom steering wheel and the tartan interior trim (nowhere near as garish as it sounds, and probably preferable to the leather option). The instruments continue the classic white on black theme and the use of gloss black on the stalks is a lot classier than the old grey plastic in the previous version. A bit of theatre is red ambience lighting in the trim strips of the doors – you can only really see it at night or in low light conditions.
Standard fitting is a 5.8-inch screen, with an optional 8-inch full colour display that predicts what you are about to ask it to do when your finger approaches the screen. Clever. Next to the gear shift is a mode button that allows you to select Comfort, Normal, Sport, Eco or individual, each of which changes the suspension settings and throttle response. Then you can play with the 162kW on tap (an additional seven kW over the GTI 6) and much-improved torque (a lusty 350Nm that comes on song from a low 1500rpm to 4400rpm). Press on with some enthusiasm and the engine emits a growl that you’ll never tire of provoking.
We all know the problems VW has had to admit with the DSG transmission and everyone (most of all VW!) hope these are behind them. Gear changes with the DSG are sharp and instantaneous and the previous trait of slight hesitation, particularly when moving off, seems to have been tuned out. Flick down a cog as you approach a corner and the pops and crackles will bring a smile to your face every time. Zero to 100km/h is now taken care of in just 6.5 seconds, 0.4 seconds faster than before.
The front differential lock is now standard and although it adds 32kg to the weight, you won’t resent it. This little piece of magic makes it almost possible to forget which wheels are being driven as you power through corners with more aplomb than any front-driver should manage, and power out earlier than you’d think advisable without it.
PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS
The Golf GTI gen 7 is still going to face down competitors like the Ford Focus ST and Renault Megane RS, if for no other reason than it is more flexible, happy to perform when you ask it to, and just as happy to potter around when you don’t feel so sporty.
Australians were quick to adopt the VW Golf GTI and we still buy a higher percentage (compared to regular Golfs) than any other market in the world. As the old expression goes, when you’re on a good thing…