VW GTi — not the quickest but it’s the all-round best
More power, new interior bits and more fun for Volkswagen’s warm hatch, writes Michael Taylor
The GTi version of the Volkswagen Golf has been around for 42 years. It doesn’t just have a cult following; it’s got entire generations of cult followings behind it.
And well it might. It’s good. It’s always been good. And now it’s better in the new generation, which will arrive in SA in May.
Sure, there are quicker hot hatches out there (even the more expensive R bearing the body of the same name), but none of them are as all-round good as the GTi.
As the Golf gets the upgrade from Mark 7 to Mark 7.5 (which anybody else would call a facelift), so too does the GTi, complete with a 7kW power hike in the stock model and 10kW in the Performance Pack (which still gets a mechanically locking differential).
With 169kW of power in an unnaturally wide spread from 4,700 to 6,200r/min, the stock GTi 2.0l turbocharged four also fleshes out the torque curve with 350Nm of torque from 1,500 to 4,600r/min. Read that again. It means the Golf is giving its best in either torque or power across a 4,700-rev spectrum. That’s astonishingly broad, especially for a small car.
It comes with either a six-speed manual or the faster and more economical (but less involving) six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The DQ250 DSG unit takes up to the GTi’s 350Nm torque peak and adds 22kg to the GTi manual’s 1,364kg kerb weight. Those kilogrammes, and a slightly softer focus, make it feel slower than Honda’s Civic Type R, though it also feels less busy and less frantic, which plenty of harried Type R drivers might regard as a boon in day-to-day life.
A sprint time to 100km/h of 6.4 seconds isn’t slow, but it leaves the GTi behind offerings from Honda and others, though the DSG version stretches up to 248km/h and the manual pushes further to 250km/h.
Again, though, VW knows what it’s doing in this segment. The utter flexibility of the GTi’s performance delivery and its anytime-anyplace attitude to acceleration makes it fantastically liveable in the real world of traffic, back roads and high-geared cruising.
It’s also pretty reasonable in handling, though it lacks the high-energy, input-craving nature of the Honda. VW bets instead that its drivers want a cornering experience that favours balance, ease of control and unshakeable composure.
The manual transmission versions are slightly sharper in their throttle response, especially in their ability to tuck the nose tighter towards the inside of a corner when the driver eases off the throttle, but the in-gear performance of the two transmissions is otherwise identical.
It will ultimately run out of grip at the front, but only after the GTi has done everything in the power of its mechanical and software engineering to make you believe its hold on the road would never, ever be loosened.
It does all this without a limited-slip front differential but instead uses what VW calls the XDS+ (which is what the rest of us would describe as an electronically controlled system that brakes the inside wheels in a crisis to send more drive to the outside wheel).
Even when it’s out of grip, the GTi still refuses to drop the poise, showing that it’s an attitude that’s more than skin deep.
It can change direction swiftly and calmly, the rear end adds only subtle, controllable help with rotating the car into corners and all the controls have just enough feedback to keep you pushing without disturbing the peace wrought by the rest of the engineering.
There are adaptive dampers, too, and it’s so calm that you might as well ditch the default comfort setting and leave it in the more active sport mode instead. There’s a lot to be gained in cornering alacrity and little to be lost in ride comfort. What you’ll pick up is an enhanced feeling of accuracy and more feedback from the already precise front end.
It’s a great car to hustle through corners, feeling calm and secure in the fast stuff, remaining flat in the body on ultra-rapid direction changes, and slower bends leave you feeling like you could fling it at the turn-in point as hard as you dared without undue risk.
And when you do finally manage to overcook it, the GTi’s tech just eases it back to where you need it to be without fuss or recriminations, to the point where a passenger might never know you’d crossed the line.
The back is calm, but the steering is a highlight. The feedback isn’t Cayman-sharp, but it’s pretty good for a front-driver, and the steering wheel is wonderfully shaped and designed and so is the heft needed to swing it.
There’ll be no fuss and increased economy from the DSG (which uses 6.3l/100km compared with the manual’s 6.4), but it’s not as much fun to use as the slick-shifting manual unit. You could understand the demand for the DSG more if the GTi had a tiny power band at ludicrously stratospheric revs, but it doesn’t. It’s strong at every single point in its rev range and, far from actually needing six gears, it could probably get away with four for Germany and three everywhere else.
It still has 380l of luggage capacity and a useful bit of storage under the boot floor, too.
It also has the option of the Discovery Navigation Pro 9.2-inch high-resolution screen, complete with gesture control. But the gesture control only works so well, for so long, in certain circumstances. You can’t quickly turn down the audio system with it, for example, or quickly zoom the satnav in for a tricky intersection.
It would all be great if it just had one big knob that you could use to do things in a hurry, sight unseen. But you don’t. Still, it has voice control, touchscreen options and the steering wheel’s buttons if you don’t like gesture control (or can’t make it work without getting distracted).
It’s connected as never before, too, with MirrorLink, Carplay, USB connectors and thousands of available apps to get stuff done with, but it hasn’t forgotten the basics. Its driving position is superb, the rear seats are comfortable and the back seats are surprisingly spacious.
The biggest question mark for us isn’t that Honda and others make hot hatches for similar money that are quicker. It’s that Volkswagen has already flagged that there’ll be at least four Golfs faster than this one, and that three of them will be similarly front-drive. It did it with the GTi Mark 7, with the GTi Performance, the GTi Clubsport, the GTi Clubsport S and the R, and it will likely do all of that again.
Where once the GTi was the flagship of Golfness, it’s now the entry point to a whole family of warm-to-hot Golfness.