We can think of few more rounded, gratifying and superbly executed everyday performance cars. Classless, understated and utterly wonderful
The seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI is now in its twilight years, serving its sixth year on sale. Rivals have also caught up and overtaken in terms of power, with mainstream alternatives below such as the new Hyundai i30 N impressing, and those from above such as the A35 AMG offering massive leaps in tech and interior design. But these factors mean little for the GTI, as it continues to be one of the most desirable and complete ‘normal’ cars on sale.
Volkswagen recently dropped the ‘entry’ 169kW version, only offering the higher-output GTI Performance model with a more potent 180kW, with the range now topped by a limited edition Golf TCR with 213kW.
Overall though, the Mk7.5 Golf is a rounded, honed and exceptionally talented hatchback boasting exemplary levels of comfort, refinement, efficiency and technology. It also boasts excellent real world pace. More performance can be had elsewhere for less, but to the detriment of build quality. Where the Golf GTI does fall behind rivals is when it comes to outright excitement, but very few, if any, can match it for all-round excellence. As modern hot hatches go, the Golf GTI is the ultimate safe pair of hands.
Performance and 0-100 time
The Golf GTI’s 180kW figure might sound a little bit conservative in 2019, especially as rivals punch significantly harder, with lower price tags. So does the Golf GTI feel in any way slow? When it’s mated to 258lb ft, not in the slightest. It feels genuinely quick, with a delivery that’s really useable and meaty yet still much keener to rev out than expected.
The engine starts to pull hard from just 1500rpm and actually does its best work between 2500 and 4000rpm. But far from becoming breathless after that, it revs out sweetly to the red line, exhibiting extended powerband characteristics that suit the six-speed manual and double-clutch DSG semi-auto transmissions available equally well.
Naturally, with the Volkswagen Golf R as the alpha predator in VW’s hot hatch line-up, the GTI can only be allowed to excite and thrill up to a point. It can sometimes feel like a car that’s operating well within itself. It’s certainly possible to buy more bang for your buck, but a 0-100km/h time of 6.4sec and 250km/h top speed are respectable enough by class standards.
Engine and Transmission
The 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, familiar in other VW products, has been tweaked to comply with Euro 6 emissions regulations, thanks mostly to a redesign of the cylinder head. Exhaust gases are now cooled within the head before they depart to the turbocharger, and a dual-injection system has been introduced that combines multi-point injection with direct injection. Two-mode lift on the exhaust valves, stop-start, reduced internal friction and intelligent control of the cooling system (which can close off all circulation on warm-up) complete the picture. Torque is thickly spread throughout the rev range and rarely feels caught off guard or hampered by turbo lag.
The transmissions are also pure VW, which is no bad thing. The six-speed manual’s shift is light and unfussy, but is gratifyingly easy to use in the right way. Work the ’box fast and hard and it’s never in the way, and feels so well calibrated to the engine and chassis it’s almost like VW has been building hot hatchbacks for 40 years. The DSG is a little difficult, lacking the ultimate precision of the DSG, but it’s so nearly there we’d only lightly judge you for making the leap. But the manual is so good that we’d definitely suggest you stick to it, while it’s still around.
Ride and Handling
If you’ve not driven a Golf GTI from the last five years, we’d suggest you do, as in its seventh generation the Golf’s ride and handling is its most impressive achievement. The MQB platform on which it is based is always a good start, but there is something transient in the Golf’s chassis specifically that makes it a more entertaining car to drive than other VW Group MQB-based models.
Compared to the standard hatch the GTI’s suspension is 15mm lower, and now features a standard electronically controlled front locking differential. The set-up is nothing like as stiff as some rivals, being firm, but incredibly well controlled, with impeccable wheel control and a fluid primary and secondary ride, even on the larger 19-inch wheel option.
The suspension itself is by MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear. Sometimes British B-roads can be the undoing of a car, and sometimes they can be the making of it. With the GTI it’s the latter. The bumps, humps and general rough and tumble of broken tarmac reveal just how talented the chassis is, as it tracks the road in a display of beautifully controlled damping.
The natural instinct is to put the car into its Sport setting and it certainly feels well resolved and not too harsh, which is impressive. However, if you go into the Driver Profile Selection screen and tap on the Individual setting then you can retain the Sport settings for steering, engine, ESP etc but knock the suspension back to Normal. Now you get a little more roll and a tiny bit of float over the bumps, which then lets you get the car moving around a touch more into and through corners, which is lovely. The balance remains neutral, but it’s so easy to place thanks to that stiff MQB platform that you can really throw it around.
It’s not as perversely oversteery as the previous-generation Focus ST, nor as front-led as the Peugeot 308 GTi, but finds a wonderful fluidity somewhere between them. Push really hard and the chassis responds. Want to adjust your line mid-corner? No problem. What about a touch of oversteer? Easy. It’s as compellingly pliable as the very best, even if it lacks the outright capability of the Honda Civic Type R or agility of the Renault Mégane RS.
We reckon it’s worth going for the optional Adaptive Chassis Control which, in Sport, means stiffer damping, heavier steering, better throttle response and looser ESP. It might just be the ideal setting for track days. The chassis tenses noticeably and through, say, a fast chicane, the GTI remains flat and agile. JORDAN KATSIANIS