Volkswagen Golf GTI review – is the hot hatch stalwart still the one to beat?

We can think of few more rounded, gratifying and superbly executed everyday performance cars. Classless, understated and utterly wonderful

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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’ 227bhp version, only offering the higher-output GTI Performance model with a more potent 242bhp, with the range now topped by a limited edition Golf TCR with 286bhp.

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.

Prices, Specs and Rivals

The GTI’s list price starts from $40,760 for the three-door model with a six-speed manual ’box. This basic configuration is arguably our preferred spec, although neither the five-door body and optional seven-speed DSG ruin the experience. As mentioned above, this is the cost of the higher-output 242bhp variant now that the 227bhp model has been dropped.

If practically is king you’ll be parting with about $900 more for the five-door body, and while the dual-clutch transmission fits well with the GTI character it adds almost $2000 to the final price. You can fish through the options list for four alternate alloy designs and eight different paint jobs, all at a price. In place of the classic tartan upholstered seats you can have faux leather or the real thing – the latter quite pricey at almost $3k.

The hot hatch segment is fraught with competitors that all depart from the GTI’s trailblazed path in some way or another. Trading looks for practicality Skoda’s top-spec Octavia vRS 245 shares the GTI’s platform and engines whilst undercutting it by a considerable $4k. It’s also available as an estate unlike the GTI. Such practicality from a performance Golf would require you to go for the Golf R. Another enemy from within (the VW Group) is the SEAT Leon Cupra 300 which squeezes 296bhp from the EA888 and starts at just over $40k.  

Outside the VW conglomerate you have the Honda Civic Type R which is similarly priced to the SEAT. The jury is still out on the Honda’s exterior, but there’s no question over what’s under the outlandish skin; it’s a return to form for the Type R division. Ford is currently between hot Focuses, the latest model only recently having been revealed. We are expecting an ST to arrive sooner rather than later, mind, likely pushing closer towards 300bhp.

Hyundai’s first ever N division creation arguably poses the greatest threat to the GTI. The Hyundai i30 N possesses all the everyday friendliness the GTI is famed for while offering dynamics that not only trump the GTI’s, but possibly the whole class. It looks like it’ll be good value, too. Renault’s Mégane RS has also now joined the fold with a myriad of new chassis tech. It’s an entertaining ride, especially so in Trophy form, but can feel a little synthetically enhanced, without the natural fluidity of a Civic Type R. Both transmission options are also problematic. 

Performance and 0-100 time

The Golf GTI’s 242bhp 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.Latest deals from Buyacar

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 0-100kph time of 6.4sec and 250kph 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. Latest deals from Buyacar

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.Latest deals from Buyacar

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.

evo Tip

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.

evo Comment

‘The main issue is the GTI’s ability to excite. The most engaging front-wheel-drive hot hatches take a while to key into. After a couple of hours on the road it sometimes feels as if the GTI had yielded all of its character. But the GTI is now in its seventh iteration and 37th year and we’d wager no other car of its genre has ever benefitted from more engineering man-hours, development kilometres or intellectual effort.’ David Vivian, Contributing Road Tester

L/100km and Running Costs

In three-door manual trim, claimed fuel economy is 7.7L/100km, with CO2 emissions quoted at 139g/km which is a fair chunk higher than the 2018 model. Blame that on the new WLTP regulations, but in reality shouldn’t particularly affect real-world numbers.

The good news is that the GTI’s insurance rating has been lowered by a whopping five groups compared to its predecessor, thanks to extra safety systems, including emergency city braking technology. Fixed-price servicing and a large dealer network mean it’s not too expensive to keep on the road and it’s likely to retain more than 50 per cent of its value after three years, too.

Interior and Technology

If you need the extra practicality that rear doors offer, the five-door GTI can oblige. And you’re not alone. The five-door model accounts for about 70 per cent of all GTI sales. The GTI is virtually identical to the standard Golf in terms of size, so it’s just as practical as the standard car. There’s a generous 380-litre boot with an adjustable floor, making it better for luggage than the Ford Focus ST, but it has less cargo capacity than the Honda Civic Type R and significantly less than a Skoda Octavia vRS. 

Golf GTI Performance

With the rear seats folded flat the load area becomes even more practical – it’s completely flat and the low lip makes it easy to get things in and out. The rear seats are definitely large enough for most adults and there are plenty of storage cubbies around the cabin. Standard tech includes DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and, perhaps most impressively, adaptive cruise control.Latest deals from Buyacar

The interior changes in the GTI are mostly contained to tech upgrades, with the GTI getting a new 8-inch infotainment system, although the larger discover pro system is available on the options list alongside a new set of digital dials. Both systems help raise the interior wow factor but don’t work quite as intuitively as the standard dials or infotainment system.

Design

The Golf GTI is the little black dress of the car world. It suits all occasions; sophisticated, but not sterile, sporty, but not garish. It’s more inventive and distinctive than the Golf R, and executed almost perfectly.

Like all GTIs, the aesthetic is highlighted by the red stripe that runs along the grille line and into the headlights. Although the lights themselves don’t look as clean as the pre-facelift model, it’s not night and day (no pun intended). Latest deals from Buyacar

But overall VW has played things relatively safe and you’ll go hunting for the details which set the Mk7.5 apart as opposed to being overawed by new looks. Still, neat touches like the petrol cap, the lines of which sit in parallel with the kick of the rear window and the tail light, emit a sense of attention to detail that helps set the Golf apart from its mechanically similar relations. Quite important when that Skoda is so much bigger and so much cheaper…

This article originally appeared at evo.co.uk

Copyright © evo UK, Dennis Publishing

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