Is the hot new Volkswagen Golf VII GTI as revolutionary as the original was 37 years ago? The Wheel Deal jetted off to the South of France to find out
Dawn has broken over St. Tropez and I’m zipping along the promenade in a boxy piece of motoring history. It’s an original Volkswagen Golf Mk1 GTI, which, as you may or may not know, was the catalyst for hot hatch revolution when it debuted in 1976. Yeah, back in those Kodachrome days it blew the masses’ minds by shoehorning sports car levels of performance into a practical, Giugiaro-penned body shell.
It had a boot and four seats, yet could breathe down the tailpipes of many a pricier coupé. Suddenly, and almost overnight, the upstart GTI rendered flaky British sportsters like the MGB obsolete (thank god). And in fact even now, here in our world awash with more modern imitators, this classic origami assignment on wheels is nothing short of a revelation. It is light and eager and nippy and capable of closing distances at a remarkable lick despite having a mere 81 kilowatts at its disposal.
I could happily drive it around the Cote d’Azur all day. But I’m not going to. You see I’m actually here to sample this machine’s latest descendant – the fresh-faced Golf VII GTI – to see if this magic, all that game-changing DNA, is still evident. Talk about having lots to live up to.
Fortunately the seventh-generation model makes a damn fine effort right out of the blocks. The GTI has always been something of a classless beast and here it’s no different. Subtlety is still the order of the day, which means that the already dapper-looking Golf VII shape only gets a few restrained styling tweaks to help set it apart from its lesser brethren. For starters it sits 15mm lower to the ground and rides on a distinctive set of five-spoke, 18-inch Austin alloys – a nice departure from the ninja star-aping Detroit wheels that did duty on the two previous incarnations.
Behind them lurks large red brake calipers emblazoned with those three famous silver letters. Shuffle around to the snout of the car and you will discover one of its biggest design party tricks: the reinterpretation of the first GTI’s radiator grille. While the original had a red lip running right around its outer edge, here a single line of crimson cuts across the bottom of the honeycombed grille and into each one of those standard bi-xenon headlights. It is an interesting and avant-garde touch, one I really like. Ditto the threesome of gloss-black fins that shroud fog lights set on each far corner of the front apron.
So what about the rear then? Well standout bits include a new integrated roof spoiler, smoked LED taillights and two chrome exhaust tips. You also score one of those very fashionable air diffusers. This all adds up to a sporty yet very stylish package. One that is equally at home here, around the multi-million Euro mansions of St. Tropez, as it would be on the drag strip at Tartlon Raceway. Not too many hot hatches can pull this trick off.
After signing my indemnity form and picking a test route (a nice three-hour jaunt through the peaks of Southern France), it’s time to get down to business and acquaint myself with the new car’s innards. Building on the somber but impeccably assembled cabin of the normal Golf VII, the GTI comes hung with all sorts of go-faster tinsel. The sports seats are particularly tasty as they’re not only extremely comfortable but also ultra supportive. Plus you can clothe them in old-school tartan fabric just like in the original. Look, it is yet to be confirmed if us South Africans will have this option made available but here’s holding thumbs. If not we’ll have to make do with comparatively bland, black Vienna leather.
Anyway, I digress. There is a whole lot more to get excited about including a multifunction, leather-wrapped steering wheel that offers more fore/aft adjustment, a classic golf ball gear knob (six-speed manual only) and a damn fine set of perfectly spaced aluminium pedals. Cabin ergonomics are nothing short of top-notch – you could not ask for a better workspace.
Now unfortunately I don’t have enough space to rattle off all the optional extras available but highlights include a bespoke 400-watt Dynaudio stereo; adaptive cruise control; lane assist; park assist as well as an all-new Car-Net satellite navigation system that sports both Google-Earth and Google Street View. When paired to a data sim-card (your responsibility), this terrain-conquering tech lets you to become one with your surroundings.
But enough of all these tiresome spec-sheet semantics already: let’s stomp the loud pedal and see how well the new GTI does the blacktop boogie. Turning off a busy seaside boulevard, I open the taps and find that the revised 2.0 TSI engine muscles out some serious thrust. In fact compared to the outgoing engine this new all-aluminium lump kicks out an extra 7kW of power and, more importantly, 70Nm worth of torque.
In case you care, these boast-worthy figures were achieved by bolting on a newly developed cylinder head that features an advanced thermal management system for improved efficiency as well as reduced fuel consumption. Inside there’s also variable valve timing with dual camshaft adjustment: features that really help the GTI clear its throat and sing up at higher revs. Here in Europe you can even up the firepower ante with the GTI Performance package that nudges peak output up to 169kW. Unfortunately South Africa won’t be getting this option any time soon.
Thankfully, however, you don’t really need it, as the standard car is rapid enough. Impressively linear in its delivery (read hardly any hint of turbo lag) it has me dispatching curvy mountain passes at speeds that would give many a purpose built sports car sleepless nights. And damn, it sounds wicked too: growly like a slightly more civilized Scirocco-R Cup car. Gearbox wise, you can pick either the standard six-speed manual (my favourite) or optional DSG. Both are brilliant, so you cannot really go wrong no matter which one ultimately flips your cog-swapping switch.
The further I hammer on down the cote d’azur, it becomes evident that effortless speed and smooth power delivery are just some of this machine’s many talents. Riding atop the newer and lighter (-42kg) MQB platform, the way it handles through the bends is speech-robbingly good. You see unlike a lot of other modern cars, this one speaks to your senses by telegraphing exactly how it’s engaging with the asphalt busy blurring beneath your buttocks. Feedback, through both the chassis and the steering wheel, is something you’ll never find lacking.
Like I mentioned before the GTI also benefits from a unique sports suspension system that builds on the standard Golf’s already class-leading dynamics. Body roll is almost nonexistent while understeer is always kept to a minimum thanks to the implementation of a revised (and standard) XDS+ electronic differential lock.
How does it work? Being linked to the ESC it basically mimics the effect of a proper mechanical limited slip differential by applying the brakes, when needed of course, to wheels sat on the inside of a bend. And this prevents them from spinning, uncontrollably, when exiting tight corners under full power. I have to admit that the previous XDS system always struck me as a something of a gimmick. But this new-generation version works well, hooking you through corners with maximum gusto and minimal fuss.
Another significant feature is the all-new Progressive Steering system that, thanks to the rack’s variable tooth spacing and more powerful electric motor, makes the GTI feel a little bit more direct by reducing the amount of turns it takes to reach each end stop – 2.1 versus the 2.75 it takes in other Golf models. You can also tweak its character by scrolling through the standard Driving Profile selector.
Similar to Audi Drive Select, this sweet bit of gadgetry lets you tailor the weight of your steering, urgency of the engine and, in cars equipped with the optional Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), the firmness of the suspension damping by selecting one of four modes: Eco, Sport, Normal and Individual. Checking the DCC option box throws an extra Comfort setting to the mix. Not that you’re really buggered without it because, as it stands, the regular GTI rides with a supple grace, soaking up France’s rougher tarmac with little drama.
And this is the incredible thing about the Golf VII GTI. Even though it might be down on power compared to some rivals, its ability to perform better across a broader range of disciplines still makes it the most rounded hot hatchback on our roads. Whether you need to be taken seriously on the streets of St. Tropez, gobble up a few hundred kilometers in back-soothing comfort or rock a track day with some friends, this is the one car that will do it all. Brilliantly. 37-Years ago the original Golf MK1 GTI created the class benchmark. And here, today, it’s just been redefined.
Fast Facts: Golf VII GTI
Engine: 1984cc four-cylinder turbo
Power: 162W from 4500 to 6200rpm
Torque: 350Nm from 1500 to 4400rpm
0-100km/h: 6.5 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 246km/h (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 6.0l/100km (claimed combined)
Price: TBC when launched in July. Expect an increase of between 3 to 5%
Stylish, classless looks
An incredible all-round performer
A premium package inside and out
Some may find it too clinical
GTI Performance pack not confirmed for SA
Steering feels too artificial in Sport Mode
This sounds more like it! Can`t wait for the launch..I’ll be the first to test-drive and probably the first to place an order…I`m just a fan and VW never disappoints…!
When are we expecting the MK7 R line to be launched??
I was just going to comment about how this is one of my favourite writers, only to realise it was Thomas Falkiner! Excellent review once again, sir. Up to the standard we expect from you. The GTi is worth waiting for, thank goodness that wait is almost over
Under power, nothing new- facelift from the Golf Gti 6