There are all sorts of reasons why you will be somewhere between impressed and blown away by this latest, seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI.
For starters, it costs a mere £195 more than the outgoing model, at ‘just’ £25,845. Second, it is rated fully five insurance groups lower than the previous Mk6 Golf GTI, thanks chiefly to that strange little device that you can see in the middle of the grille, the one that looks a bit like a camera. It’s a radar-operated speed and distance sensor, basically, and, according to VW, it will prevent you from lunching your sparkling new GTI into the back of another car by applying the brakes for you in an emergency, hence the hugely lower insurance rating.
Third – and this is the bit that counts – it is a quite phenomenally well resolved car to drive. And by that, I don’t just mean that it’s unusually secure or stable near the limit (even though it is exactly that). It’s also razor sharp, dynamically.
The new variable-ratio steering rack is crisp and ultra-incisive but also natural and full of feel. The handling is similarly sweet, the front end feeling as if it has been physically nailed to whichever apex you aim it towards. Even the ride quality has taken a monumental step up in overall quality, which is probably the biggest surprise of all, given what VW has served up in the past: a series of GTIs that have been composed but firm in the extreme, and not exactly bubbling with feel, either.
But there’s really only one thing you need to know about the latest GTI to understand why it’s as peachy to drive as it is. The chap who signed off the chassis of this car used to work for Porsche until VW gave him a new set of overalls with the words ‘Golf GTI’ emblazoned on them. And when he worked for Porsche, his last job was to sign off the 997-generation 911 GT3 RS. So right there, you can see the pedigree that the new GTI contains – because the 997 GT3 RS was one of the best-handling Porsche road cars that there has ever been. Amen.
Do not, however, think that the new GTI is some kind of thinly disguised road racer that has the ride quality of a skateboard and the handling of a nervy competition car. It isn’t like that at all, in fact, but it is a whole lot more agile and communicative than pretty much any GTI since the Mk2 16v.
Yet at the same time, it’s also at least as stable at high speed as the previous model (VW’s claim, not mine) and at least as predictable to control near the limit – with a suppleness of ride that is head and shoulders above that of any previous Golf GTI. All of which is exceedingly good news if you’re a GTI fan who happens to appreciate the finer points of a car’s ride and handling, because at no stage in the past, ever, has the Golf GTI driven as beautifully as this.
The model we tried was the slightly more expensive, but actually rather good value, GTI Performance edition. The standard car comes with a 217bhp version of VW’s turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-litre engine, with a hefty increase in torque over the old car to 258lb ft (the same amount of lugging power as you get in the Golf R and Scirocco R, no less). In the GTI Performance, though, you get 227bhp, slightly bigger front brake discs, ventilated rear discs and, best of all, VW’s exceedingly trick new E-diff at the front, all for a mere £980.
This is the first time that any front-wheel-drive road car has been offered with an electronic diff (rather than a mechanical limited-slip diff), and on the road it endows the new GTI with a quite uncanny combination of stability and traction. It works in a similar way to the various torque vectoring systems that you get in most Porsches nowadays (spot the connection there?) and it makes the GTI feel much like a four-wheel-drive car on the move in that there is grip available seemingly everywhere.
Understeer is virtually non-existent, and the traction it finds, not just on smooth roads but rough ones too, is ever so slightly surreal in practice. If ever an option was worth £980, this is it, especially when, for the same amount of money, you can upgrade from the standard 18-inch wheels to 19s, which would seem a heroic waste of money by comparison.
Inside, you get the same high-quality fixtures and fittings that you’ll find in any other Mk7 Golf, but with beefier front seats, racier-looking dials, a standard-fit touchscreen on-board computer system and a genuinely decent amount of space in the rear seats and boot. There’s a very real feeling of being on board a well executed piece of engineering in the new GTI and, as ever, the doors thunk shut in a way that no other rival at similar money can replicate.
Externally, there is a predictable amount of LED lighting to keep fans of the genre contented and the Audi R8-like strakes beneath the xenon headlights tell the world that this is A Fast Car. Otherwise, the GTI is predictably restrained on the styling front. The only way you can tell that someone has specified the GTI Performance pack over the standard model, for example, is by looking at the brake calipers, which bear the magic moniker. Subtlety is the key word here.
But there’s nothing subtle whatsoever about the vast range of improvements to the way the new Golf GTI drives. It is a superb return to form for the iconic model. The Golf GTI has got its mojo back.