Volkswagen Golf GTI still such a great driver
- Credit: VW
Is it lucky number seven for Volkswagen's iconic Golf GTI? Iain Dooley tries the more powerful yet more mature benchmark hot-hatch for size.
It's a sign of progress that there's more choice in the hot-hatchback market than ever before. Diesel power is now considered a worthy alternative to traditional petrol motors that have dominated the market, while the theoretical 200bhp barrier was blown wide open some time ago.
While some rivals have come and gone, only to have come back again, Volkswagen has been a stalwart of the hot-hatch market with its Golf GTI. While you can have a tax and wallet-friendly diesel GTD variant, there's something about the petrol model that will always be the one you buy with your heart.
Seventh time around and the Golf GTI remains a visually conservative choice in a market full of brash, bespoilered opposition. The squat stance is the obvious giveaway but, save for GTI badging and subtle bodykit, this is not a car that shouts about its arrival.
That approach has always been part of the Golf's appeal and, for buyers seeking an element of discretion when they choose to drive briskly, this is something of a plus point for Volkswagen's hot-hatch.
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There's nothing conservative about the car's performance. Evolution has seen power outputs rise across the board, although it's what you do with the extra horses that matters. Volkswagen retains the faithful 2.0-litre, four-cylinder format, although, in seventh generation guise, output is a more-than-adequate 217bhp. Opt for VW's own performance pack and you gain another 10bhp plus bigger brakes and a limited slip differential – a first for the Golf GTI.
The GTI delivers a smooth and refined driving experience if all you want to do is get from A to B with the minimum of fuss. Naturally the car's capable of a brisk fuss-free pace, and that's the great thing about the Golf GTI. The GTI is a vice-free machine and if you want a smooth, well-damped experience the car will deliver – pretty much like every other Golf.
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Things get interesting when you up the pace, with the Golf capable of delivering a confidence-inspiring drive that will flatter the novice and reward the keen driver. In non performance pack trim, the car is forgiving yet entertaining enough to justify the price tag. The engine's elastic nature ensures there's plenty in reserve for overtaking, while it never feels like it'll run out of puff if you spend all your time in the upper reaches of the rev range.
Exploring the ragged edges of the driving envelope isn't how you get the best from the Golf. It's been designed to be composed and refined – call it GTI Luxe if you wish. That said, the bigger brakes and trick differential do make a tangible difference and further sharpen responses and, in the case of the latter, allow you to put the power down earlier in the corners.
Aside from being rapid, slick is a good way to describe the driving experience. The composed Golf does a great job of coping with a wide variety of road surfaces, while the main controls are well damped and offer just enough weight and accuracy. Opt for VW's polished direct-shift DSG transmission over the default manual and you've got the best of both worlds – a smooth auto-like delivery plus the full-on flappy paddle deal when you need it.
For all this Golf's new technology some things never change. The car's cabin might be more spacious than before but the tartan upholstery and golf ball gearknob prove VW is in touch with its heritage.
And while the cabin decor might look like it's been lifted from a Mark 2 GTI, you get all the mod-cons such as air-con, a decent audio unit complete with DAB radio, adaptive cruise control, Bluetooth plus the option of leather and a comprehensive sat-nav system.
A Golf GTD might be kinder to your wallet but Volkswagen's diesel warm hatch will never match the real McCoy for thrills on the road. The GTI boasts an agility and eagerness to please that the GTD simply can't match.
As a rounded package with the potential to excite and pamper in equal measure, the Golf GTI remains a tough act to follow.