The seventh chapter of a familiar tale | by Andrew Frankel
You’ll think I’m saying it simply to be contrary but I’m not. For most of its life, the VW Golf GTI has been a largely over-rated device.
I’m not talking about the original, for that would be absurd. The 1975 Golf GTi was proof, if ever it were needed, that genius lies in simplicity.
By taking a robust, well-engineered but otherwise unremarkable example of the still relatively new science of hatchbacks and fitting a mildly tuned, single-cam, fuel-injected 1.6-litre engine plus firmer suspension and a few well-judged visual modifications, a legend was created.
But not maintained.
The problem with legends is that they rarely, if ever, live up to their own billing. It took the world a while to respond to the Mk1 GTi, which is why all variants – and none more than the later 1.8-litre cars – deserve their place in the pantheon of great hatchbacks to this day. The early Mk2s were good, although nothing like as great in the early ’80s as had been the Mk1 in the mid ’70s. But the truth that dares not speak its name is that from about 1984 – and the arrival of the Peugeot 205 GTI – the Golf GTi started to look decidedly old hat. And nothing VW chose to do about it – including the fitment of a twin-cam, 16-valve head – could put it back on top. Of course it was far better built than the Peugeot and certainly the likes of the Renault 5GT Turbo or Fiat Strada 130TC, but who cared about that when these cars were not merely fast, but far more fun?
And for many years thereafter the Golf GTi (or GTI as it latterly became known) slid so far from its one-time greatness it seemed impossible that status could ever be regained. MkIII versions were an insult to a once great name, MkIVs not much better. It was only in 2003, with the introduction of the MkV GTI, that nearly 20 years of rot was dramatically reversed. With proper power (200bhp) and a nose tuned once more to sniff out apices, the car’s arrival marked an entirely unpredicted return to form and, for a while, all was well with the world.
If you believe the consensus of the motoring press, the Golf GTI has been hitting its marks with impressive consistency ever since. Certainly the car has stayed quick and capable, fun even in a risk-averse kind of way. But for me at least, the car has evolved very little in the last decade, through its fifth and sixth generations. It’s not just that there’s been very little extra power available, for that would be a strange determinant of ability even for a car such as this. The problem, as I perceive it, is that while the car became quieter and more comfortable, it was at best no more fun to drive while others like Renault and Ford started to make Méganes and Focuses that could make you almost literally cry laughing.
Volkswagen’s response is the car you see here, the seventh generation of both Golf and Golf GTI. It might look little different to sixth- and indeed fifth-generation cars, but it is all new, from its lightweight MQB platform upwards.
Like all Golf GTIs including the bad ones, this is not a car to shout about its potential. While its closest rival the Ford Focus ST positively yells at you with its selection of wings, chin spoilers and violently orange paint (if you so choose), the Golf continues to believe discretion to be the better way to talk to its more conservative customer base.
You’ll know it’s a GTI from its wheels, lowered stance, side vents and, inside, retro-cool tartan upholstery and golf ball steering wheel. These are but subtle nods to its potential, not sharp prods in the ribs.
The car I drove was the most basic possible: three doors, six manual gears and no performance pack bringing 10 extra horsepower, an electronic differential and bigger brakes. In my experience, the more the fast Golf recipe is varied, the greater the opportunity for ballsing it up becomes, as readers of last month’s review of the absurd Golf R Cabriolet will recall.
It feels quicker than its 217bhp suggests, partly because at 1351kg it’s lighter than you’d think (a Focus ST weighs 1437kg), but also because torque has risen massively – from 207lb ft to 258lb ft – since the last GTI, although power has risen only fractionally. What restricts performance on the road is the traction limit of its front-drive layout. Often you’ll try to power away from a roundabout only to be greeted by merely modest acceleration, a gentle writhing of the wheel as the front tyres fight conflicting instructions from the engine and steering and a little dash light telling you the electronics are now at least partly in charge.
At higher speeds, where traction is no issue, the car is far better, feeling substantially quicker than its numbers imply and emitting an offbeat wail that in my more fanciful moments I could just about imagine emanating from a five-cylinder Audi Quattro.
In terms of its cornering behaviour, my experience of the car appears to vary significantly from that of other journalists who’ve driven it.
Make no mistake, it handles well, exhibiting excellent levels of grip and strong body control over undulating roads. But where’s the fun? Where’s that dogged determination to get into the corner at all costs, even if it means a trailing throttle, a cocked inside rear wheel and a back end waving around in the breeze? It’s almost too composed and, when the grip finally runs out, its default setting is to understeer quite notably and, as you lift, then merely reduce the rate at which the nose peels away from the apex. There’s still some entertainment here, but the Focus ST and Mégane 265 are nothing short of riots.
It is, of course, entirely possible that VW not only knows this, but intended it. I read much into the provision of an optional electronic differential along with extra power and bigger brakes for those wishing a more hardcore kind of GTI experience. Before I drove it, my instinct was that this £980 additional package would be a gimmick the car wouldn’t really need, but now I think it might be just what’s required.
As ever two kinds of people will buy a GTI. Both will need the quiet, comfortable space it provides, but while one will be fixated on how it drives, the other will be bothered only with the image it projects. VW appears to be catering for both.
So perhaps I should wait until I’ve driven the GTI with the performance pack before delivering a final judgment. Less tends to mean more in such cars, but perhaps this is the exception.
As it stands, however, what you’re looking at is a good Golf GTI, but not a great one. I’d probably choose to own it over a Focus ST, for all the reasons anyone might choose a Volkswagen over a Ford and because I’m lucky to have access to other machinery in which to indulge my inner hooligan. But if it were an only car to use for all purposes, it would be impossible to overlook the fact the Ford is faster, funnier and many thousands cheaper.
Engine: 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders
Power: 217bhp @6300rpm
Torque: 258lb ft @1500rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Top speed: 152mph