Reviewing a Golf GTI is a bit like reviewing a painting by Picasso, or an opera by Verdi. No matter what I think of it, or say on these pages, its lustre will remain pretty much undimmed. The Golf GTI is so much more than just another car or even just another hot hatch. It is the car which defines both the hot hatch class and the premium hatchback class too. When BMW set out to create its 1 Series, for instance, this was the car it was aiming at. Ditto Mercedes and the new A-Class. The GTI is the Golf that kicked down the social barriers and allowed a relatively humble German hatchback to ascend to the plane of true premium appeal.
That the brilliant Mark I and Mark II versions gave way to the frumpy and unlovely Marks III and IV is well documented. Few superstars have ever had as dramatic a fall from grace as the Golf GTI had in the nineties. That the effervescent Marks V and VI came along and rescued the badge from obscurity is equally well documented and these cars cemented the Golf GTI’s appeal – smart, but sober styling; tremendous quality; sharp handling; just enough power to be fun.
That’s a recipe that the new Mark VII GTI sticks ruthlessly to. OK, so an aficionado is going to instantly spot the big, black and silver alloys, the oh-so-carefully integrated bodykit and the red line that bisects the grille. Inside, the traditional retro-seventies tartan seats are present and correct (don’t bother upgrading to leather, the tartan is much more characterful) and the dimpled golf-ball gear lever is there too. In the new GTI, you also get a hugely impressive touch screen infotainment system that senses when your finger is approaching and makes the buttons bigger, and you get a gorgeous, part-metal three-spoke steering wheel, squared off at the bottom and with GTI embossed in big letters.
Twist the key (no silly starter button here) and get rolling and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in a lesser Golf. A well-specified 1.4 TSI Comfortline perhaps. Aside from a deeper rumble from the engine, there’s nothing to indicate that the GTI is a sporting superstar. It rolls easily over bumps and poor surfaces and the steering is light and easy.
It’s only when you get out onto a properly twisty road that the GTI starts to come to life. Then, the light steering proves to be super-accurate and fast (albeit not quite as good to use as that in the Golf’s distant cousin, the Seat Leon). The suspension, which so easily smoothed away the road surface earlier, is now allowing you to tuck the nose in tight to the apex of a chosen corner, keeping the body impressively flat and stable as you do so. The electronic XDS differential plays a major part, helping the car to find grip where others would break traction and actually pulling the car in tighter if you squeeze on a bit more power. It’s quite brilliant. The Golf GTI is not a rabid, rapid lunatic in the vein of a Ford Fiesta ST, and neither does it give in to the power excesses of a Opel Astra OPC. No, it’s all about providing a near perfect balance between performance, handling and comfort. A fact that’s proven when you come to end of the twisty road, join the motorway, activate the cruise control and roll your way home in near silent comfort. Proven again when you glance in the back and see the decent rear legroom and useful space for bulky child car seats. Again when you open the boot and see the spacious 380-litre boot.
The engine is quite something too. A 2.0-litre turbo unit with 220hp that sings gruffly when you press hard, fades into the background when you don’t want to and which can, if tickled gently, return 47mpg. Remarkably for an engine of such strong performance (0-100kmh in just 6.5secs), it also scores a 139g/km CO2 rating, meaning you can tax your GTI for just €280 a year.
It’s not perfect – no car is, and I’d personally like it if the steering where a touch sharper and better at telling you what the front tyres are doing. There’s also a consideration that the standard Golf is now so good that it makes rather less sense than it once did to spend the extra on the GTI. Previously, a GTI was far and away the best Golf you could buy; an uber-Golf, if you will. Now, the humbler standard versions have closed the gap.
Despite which, there is no conclusion other than that this is still a fantastic car, blending the competing needs of performance, comfort and practicality like not other. Picasso is still a genius with a paintbrush, Verdi certainly knows how to knock out a good tune and the Golf GTI has kept its iconic status.
Facts & Figures:
Model tested: Volkswagen Golf GTI five-door manual
Pricing: €35,520 as tested (Golf GTI starts at €34,570)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hot hatch
CO2 emissions: 139g/km (Band B2, €280 per annum)
Combined economy: 47.1mpg (6.0 litres/100km)
Top speed: 246km/h
0-100km/h: 6.5 seconds
Power: 220hp at 4,500- to 6,200rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1,500- to 4,400rpm