The go-faster Golf has been around for 43 years. Many rivals have come and gone, but the VW remains. It’s already an icon.
In the last month, with more or less time behind the wheel, I have driven the new Hyundai i30N, the Ford Focus RS and the Honda Civic Type-R. All of them, no exception, owe their very existence to one car: the Golf GTI.
Volkswagen invented a whole new segment in 1975 when they launched the first Golf GTI at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Here was a family hatchback capable of going head to head with a sports car. No more choosing between the family and fun behind the wheel.
The term hot hatch was coined to describe the Golf GTI – a hatchback with a little fire under the hood. And it stuck. Today every constructor has one, or two. In a world where diesel looks like it is making a quiet exit downstage, hot hatchbacks will certainly gain even more relevance.
In fact, we are living in a hot-hatch golden age right now and have so much to choose from it is hard to know where to put your money. Besides, they are all pretty good: those three I mentioned before – wow. Three extraordinary cars. But there are a lot more: Peugeot 308 GTI, Renault Mégane RS, Audi RS3, Mercedes A45 AMG. I could go on.
So, let’s look at the Golf. Can it still cut the mustard 43 years from its first generation? Is it still the daddy of the segment? Well, in a word, yes. There are faster, more powerful, more engaging cars out there. But the thing that made the first Golf GTI great, which was its usability versus its performance, still holds true today. No other GTI does the GTI thing as well as the Golf.
The car I drove is an MkVII Golf GTI, straight out of a recent aesthetic restyling that makes it, at least for me, the best-looking Golf ever along with the MkIV. Except the MkIV GTI was a dud.
This is a car that doesn’t like to shout about its abilities. Imagine meeting your in-laws for the first time in a Civic Type-R. Either your girlfriend’s father is a dedicated petrolhead and knows exactly why a car has all those wings and vents and scoops, or he will think you’re a show-off. Show up in a Focus RS and he will question why you need a 350-horse power family hatchback to drive his daughter around.
Ring on the door with a Golf GTI behind you on the driveway and he will probably think it is just a regular Golf. A Golf GTI is not a car you buy to impress the neighbours or the girl next door. You buy it because you want the best.
The MkVII has all the traditional GTI hallmarks: the tartan seats, the golf ball gear lever (if you choose the manual), the unmistakable quality, the comfort, the practicality and, of course, the performance.
There are two levels of power from the 2-litre engine: the entry-level 230 horse power GTI and the Performance version with 245 horse power. Portugal only gets the faster one. Good. Forget the entry-level. If you are going to buy a GTI, go all the way. As a bonus, you get bigger brakes and a limited-slip differential. 0-100km/h takes 6.5 seconds.
Inside, you can feel this is not just another family car. The ergonomics and the quality have been 40 years in the making and it shows. However hard competitors try, the Golf still is the leader in the Golf segment when it comes to screwing a car together.
The seats are superb and the driving position faultless. It feels good to be in here. The infotainment system has some gesture activation modes, there is an 8-inch touchscreen, USB-connectivity, smartphone integration and a pretty intuitive navigation system. Above all, everything works perfectly. Like only a German car does. A very, very German car.
Some people say the Golf GTI has become so perfect it has become a bit boring. I can see why someone would say that, but I tend not to agree. Yes, there are more exciting hot hatches on the market, but they have 100 horse power more and boast that ‘in your face’ design I am not so keen on. The Golf GTI is just a go-faster Golf, just like it has always been, and I love it for that. It knows its place. It doesn’t follow the herd, it writes its own rules. Let the others try to be different.
The biggest problem I see with the Golf GTI is the price, a nudge under €52,000. That is a lot of money these days for 245 horse power. Which means you are not buying power or performance, you are buying the GTI moniker. I mean, the Civic Type-R has 320 horse power and costs €47,000.
Is the GTI moniker worth it? Depends. You want the fastest hot hatch, or the best one to use every day?
By Guilherme Marques