AFTER more than 40 years and seven-and-a-bit generations later, the Volkswagen Golf GTI has simply entrenched itself as the standard bearer when it comes to warmer hatchbacks. I’ve deliberately not used the much-misused expression “hot hatch” because I don’t think this descriptor properly describes a car that is so multi-talented. Performance is just one asset in an armoury that’s the envy of the industry.
Besides which, the Golf R is the one that puts performance at the top of its many virtues while the still-rapid GTI presents itself as the all-rounder in the pack.
Few cars in automotive history have generated as much copy as the GTI and let’s be honest, not all the copy has been wholly complimentary. The Mk 3 earned brickbats, at least in 8V guise, for being too bulky for its power output while the Mk4 was accused by some as being too soft – in terms of chassis dynamics – to carry a GTI moniker.
Whatever, the Mk5 restored order in a big way, offering performance, handling, comfort, space and practicality, attributes that were all carried over into the mildly tweaked Mk6 which disappointed some because it was to all intents and purposes, a Mk5.5.
Then came the Mk7 in around 2012 and once again, the superlatives flowed like the Rhine in flood. You see, that much-vaunted MQB platform now underpinned an altogether sharper-looking machine and endowed it with virtues, not least composure and refinement, that redefined the class.
Now we have a mid-life makeover to consider, a makeover that for the most part needs a fanatic to identify in all its facets. Most obvious are the re-profiled front bumper and new red highlighting together with subtly altered headlamps/front wings and the standard use of LED lighting front and rear with sweeping indicators.
I’m one who thinks the Golf 7 shape has stood the test of time very well, projecting a sharp yet mildly muscular image that’s elevated by the presence of incredibly glossy paintwork that really shows off its depth in Tornado Red form. Add in amazingly tight and even panel gaps and first class detailing in hidden areas and you have the undisputed front runner when it comes to quality of construction.
Inside, the story repeats itself. All SA-bound GTis are decked out in leather but now that leather features fine perforations which are pinpointed in red and in combination with red stitching that’s subtly deployed here and there, the all-pervasive greyness of the past is ameliorated.
There’s still an air of understatement at play but there’s no denying the exceptional comfort of those seats as well as the tactile and visual quality of the fittings and finishing details. Given the compact external dimensions, interior space is actually quite good with more than enough lounging room for four big adults. Luggage space at 380l is also highly competitive which tells you that while this GTI might be known for its get-up-and-go, it’s actually a very practical piece of kit too.
The big news inside, if you’re prepared to pay extra for it – and I certainly would – is the availability of VW’s quite excellent virtual instrument display which allows for a multitude of screen images all of which contain a wealth of information. And I reckon the optional 9.2-inch central digital display with sat nav and gesture control is worth every penny asked. It integrates beautifully into the central dash area and provides great graphics and sounds. It’s a pity though that VW has seen fit to remove a separate, rotary volume control with this application.
It’s this multi-talented persona that has made the GTI such a huge success all around the globe and all the good things are highlighted by the excellent refinement that underpins all Golf 7s. That MQB platform imparts exceptional stiffness and with this structural integrity comes consistent handling behaviour – because suspension mounting points remain in optimum position – and a remarkable isolation from niggling creaks and externally-sourced disturbances.
Under the bonnet, the familiar 2.0 turbo four now delivers a conservative 169kW that’s on tap from a mere 4 700 rpm. Even more importantly, a meaty 350Nm torque output is held all the way from 1 500 to 4 600 rpm. The combination provides utterly effortless thrust in the most commonly used speed ranges so while the quoted (and conservative) 0-100 km/h time of 6.4s may be no better than mid-field, it’s the incremental grunt of the GTI that is grin-inducing. For the record, you’ll be able to reach terminal velocities just short of 250 km/h and in the real world, experience suggests that fuel consumption in the 8.5l/100km ball park is entirely attainable if you can resist mashing the throttle too often.
Racing off from a standstill simply isn’t how we drive all day and every day (well, I do know of some who would disagree!) which is precisely why the GTI motor is tuned to concentrate on the mid-range. Small throttle openings provide surprising urge that is now harnessed only by the 6-speed DSG automated manual gearbox (RSA market) which in its latest iteration raises the bar even further.
For the most part, changes are imperceptible and lightning fast and usually accompanied by a delightful pop from the larger-than-before chromed exhaust tips. The real point about this gearbox is that it suffers from no slip yet still manages to swop cogs with slippery smoothness. And for keen drivers, the discrete paddle shifters provide full driver control albeit that the DSG brain reads driving style and adjusts automated shift patterns to suit.
If the powertrain of the GTI deserves all the plaudits it gets, the rest of the dynamic package isn’t far behind. The MacPherson strut/ multilink suspension is set up on the firm side but still delivers a pleasing degree of pliancy. However, for the best driving experience, I’d strongly recommend specifying active chassis control which allows the driver to select suspension, steering and sound settings to suit prevailing moods.
This recommendation is especially relevant should you specify optional 19-inch tyres with their very low 35 profile. In day to day use, the comfort setting takes the hard edge off the unyielding characteristics of the stiff side walls but should you want to take to the track, the sport setting is at your fingertips.
On the cruise, the GTI wafts along with utter equanimity and very low sound levels, albeit that coarse tar can set up quite intrusive road noise, especially if those 19-inch tyres are specified. Wind noise is never an issue thanks to multiple door seals.
As you have the right to expect these days, the all-disc brake system provides immense stopping power and the power steering is nicely-weighted and linear, but again, it’s really nice to avail yourself of the different settings provided by active chassis control.
In terms of equipment, including active and passive safety items, the GTI lacks for little but a couple of extras such as rear camera, park distance control and blind spot monitor are definitely worth consideration.
In summary, the Golf GTI is not a machine for boy racers, a breed this car probably won’t attract anyway with its conservative disposition and lack of go-faster appendages. Indeed, some may suggest its disposition is too discrete but that misses the point of this wonderfully-rounded package that offers very incisive and easily-accessible performance but which can carry four adults and their luggage in absolute comfort while offering economy of operation to match more mundane hatchbacks. It truly is the definitive all-rounder and even if some may regard its asking price as relatively high, when it comes to re-selling time, that premium will normally be more than recovered. Maybe that alone explains why one in two Golfs sold in South Africa is a GTI.
(The VW brand in Zimbabwe is represented by CFAO Volkswagen. Note that vehicle specifications for the local market may differ)