Twenty years ago the Golf GTi defined a new breed of fast, practical fun car. Now, says Andrew Frankel, VW is devaluing the badge on a placid pretender
As a concept, the VW Golf GTi was one of the greatest inventions in the history of the motor car. We don’t realise this because it has not yet aged sufficiently to be talked of with the breathless awe now routinely reserved for the Mini, Beetle and Ford Model T. It is time and time alone that prevents the Golf joining their ranks at present.
Others had scouted around the issue in advance, notably the Alfasud, but without a hatchback and with now-you-see-it build quality, it fell wide of target. Yet when the Golf GTi hit dead-centre, the route it had taken was so simple and, in retrospect, so childishly obvious that it actually raised surprisingly few eyebrows. All it was, after all, was a Golf like any other with a warmed engine, some conservative suspension modifications and a few detail cosmetic changes. You could be forgiven for failing to realise a superhero had landed in your midst.
It didn’t take long, however, for the world to realise that a car which was both light and strong, quick and practical, fun yet safe would find broad appeal. And as it swiftly proved to be a master of all trades and a jack of none, so the legend was created. Here was a car which would murder all those silly ’70s sportscars, take you shopping, cruise at 100mph all day and night and provide 150,000 trouble-free miles of service without blinking. In its own way and, without anyone realising it at the time, it had captured the essence of what made the Porsche 911 great: it was a car for all reasons.
Of the two, however, it was only the Porsche that stayed great. Today’s Volkswagen Golf GTi is no longer great; it’s not even that good. It has become a bloated parody, an ugly caricature of one the finest cars ever built. Worse still, its failings today mirror exactly its triumphs of the past.
Take their engines as an example. Twenty year ago, the GTi had a 1.6-litre unit producing 110bhp; today, it has 2 litres and 115bhp which, even allowing for the creeping advance of power-sapping emissions equipment, is not exactly what you would call progress. Worse, where once the Golf’s engine was a delightfully smooth, sweet unit, happiest the far side of 6000rpm and heading hard for the limiter, today’s engine is a slogger, pleasantly torquey for sure, but lacking entirely the appetite for high speed thrills.
In the meantime, the GTi’s kerbweight has risen from a svelte 906kgs to around 1135kgs, knocking the thick end of 20 per cent off the power to weight ratio, to the point where it possesses barely 100bhp per tonne, a figure beaten, for instance, by today’s far from sporting 1.8-litre Hyundai Lantra saloon. For a car which once changed the face of affordable, fun motoring, this is not good enough.
There are some mitigating circumstances. The Golf GTi no longer tops the range and must find its own level as the most junior of the sporting Golfs. For a decade now, it has lived below the GTi 16v and today that situation remains. Except that now the performance differential between the two is wider than ever.
Where the 8-valve GTi struggles to crack 60mph from rest in under 10sec, the 16valve model manages no less in a fraction over 8sec and will continue to around 135mph, not run out of breath at 120mph. Above both, of course, lives the titan VR6 which while performing now to a rather better-heeled audience, shows that VW still knows exactly how to build a simple, straight-forward world-beater.
And it is this knowledge that detracts further from the driving experience offered by the current Golf GTi. I’m not saying for a moment that it’s a bad car and, had I not known its heritage, doubtless these words would never have been written, but if you seek to associate yourself with the great, you must also be able to stand the comparison.
That said, there is still much the Golf GTi does well. It may look fat and the scales read heavy, but it is still quick and composed if you learn how to drive it to best effect. You stay a gear higher than usual, keep the engine away from the red line and rely upon the deftly balanced chassis to make up the speed through the corners that it lacks on the straight. It is at its best when driven with minimal effort. It is also, as you’d expect, rather more comfortable, quiet and spacious than any of its antecedents.
To me though, none of this was ever part of the core business of the Golf GTi. Where once it handled as if alive, nimbly darting into corners, steering full of feel, now it impresses merely with generous grip and mature responses. Twenty years ago, a Golf GTi was a device to amuse and enthrall; now the best it can hope to do is to quietly satisfy.
To me the Golf GTi today is just one of a huge, faceless mass of broadly competent hatchbacks, each with minor strengths and unremarkable weaknesses. To have fallen so far from being one of the most significant cars ever to be created to rank and file anonymity is as sad as it is surprising.
That GTi badge is now devalued. Where once it towered above the Golf range, it now sits uncomfortably within it, sharing engines with the 2.0GL Estate. Volkswagen should bin the Golf GTi and show some respect to the car that made it possible. Or it should retain the name only for use by the VR6, a fabulous car and the one that today comes closest to echoing the aspirations of the original GTi.
VW, however, is not silly. It knows that, for all that the GTi badge once meant and no longer does, it retains one crucial talent: the ability to sell cars to people who otherwise wouldn’t give a second look. Imagine if this Golf was called GLS instead of GTi. I doubt this more honest title would serve the company balance sheet anything like as well.
VERDICT: Rotten apple