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Can the hottest Volkswagen Golf GTI ignite the passion and reclaim its crown now lost to the Ford Focus ST?

No matter how ubiquitous the letters ‘GTI’ become, they are synonymous for much of the population with only one car: the Volkswagen Golf GTI. This has less to do with their original placement and more to do with serious, unbroken longevity. 

There has been a Volkswagen Golf GTI on sale for as long as any of the current Autocar road test team has been alive. Although other manufacturers have been dabbling in hot hatches for close to four decades, none comes close to imprinting a single model identity on the segment in the way that VW has done

If you want a bit of extra oomph then the GTI Performance is worth investing in

But while it may stand alone as a recognisable icon of the class that it pioneered, the Golf GTI has been acknowledged as its leader only sporadically. Instead, VW has sought to stretch its ‘hot’ brief as thinly as possible so that it might be pulled down over a car of incredibly broad appeal.

There are few model introductions as notable as the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s debut at the 1975 Frankfurt motor show. In the UK, the car struck a chord, and what started as a trickle of left-hand-drive Mk1 cars in 1977 turned into a torrent by 1989, when the all-conquering Mk2 sold a remarkable 16,000 GTIs in one year.

The Mk3 and Mk4 were a comparative disappointment, but the Mk5 and copycat Mk6 marked a welcome return to better form, especially in runout Edition 30 and 35 formats.

In a bid to drag this new performance-orientated Golf towards the eyeline of those of us fixated on the Renault Mégane 265 and Ford Focus ST, a 2017 facelift of the Golf range saw Volkswagen give the GTI tools to compete in an ever expanding sector with the standard GTI's power increased to 228bhp, while the GTI Performance gets 242bhp - the same as the hottest Skoda currently on sale. The seventh generation Golf GTI was given special makeovers to mark the 40th anniversary with the GTI Clubsport Edition 40 and a limited run Clubsport S.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf GTI rear

Subtle, isn’t it? The Golf GTI hasn’t endured for more than three decades by offending your mother with its outrageousness. VW says the GTI has a “more impressive stance on the road than ever before”.

We’re unconvinced but are happy not to have it any other way. The GTI remains, as ever, a car whose appearance will lead people to assume only good things about you. 

Three-door versions look better than the five-door models

Beneath the skin, it’s a familiar story, too. We wouldn’t call the Volkswagen Golf GTI predictable, but you could have guessed at the spec of this GTI two years before its arrival and be pretty close to it.

The multi-link rear and MacPherson strut front suspension leave the GTI riding 15mm lower than a standard Golf. A turbocharged 2.0-litre engine makes 227bhp in standard guise, while the GTI Performance gets 242bhp - the same as the Skoda Octavia vRS 245 - but is far short of the Seat Leon Cupra 300. But it is so far, as is expected.

The 2.0-litre ‘EA888’ engine has been tweaked for this, its third generation. It’s now compliant with Euro-6 emissions regulations, thanks in large part to a redesign of the cylinder head.

Exhaust gases are now cooled within the head before they depart to the turbocharger, and a dual-injection system has been introduced that combines multi-point injection with direct injection. Two-mode lift on the exhaust valves, stop-start, reduced internal friction and intelligent control of the cooling system (which can close off all circulation on warm-up) complete the picture.

One more anomaly: the Golf GTI now comes with a non-linear steering rack. It quickens as you wind on lock to make it just over two turns lock to lock. As standard, GTIs get a six-speed manual gearbox. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf GTI interior

It would take a blindfold and a set of chain-mail gloves to misidentify the Volkswagen Golf’s interior. It has only been with us since the start of the year, but the switchgear placement, structural solidity and ergonomic precision are not the work of a moment.

They have been over 40 years in the making – and it shows. Turning up the temperature on this elegant workhorse has always been a conservative (and cost-effective) affair. Tartan upholstery – a reoccurring tribute to the Mk1 – is about as overtly racy as the Volkswagen Golf GTI gets.

The Volkswagen Golf's new tartan pattern is called 'Clark'

For most of Volkswagen’s solidly mature, middle-of-the-road buyers, such modesty will not be an issue. There is a worthy set of sports seats beneath the decorative covers; they’re supportive, but not as clingy as those of the Vauxhall Astra VXR.

As well as the essential height adjustment and manually adjustable lumbar support, there is a dash of red embroidery (and a splash of branding) and a modest sprinkling of superior kit to better suit the higher price.

Like the regular Golf, the GTI is well-equipped and being near the top end in terms of pricepoint and performance for this model means its equipment list is fairly hefty. Key features include LED headlights, foglights and rear lights, GTI-tuned sports suspension, an aggressive bodykit, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control and a twin stainless steel exhaust system on the outside. Inside you will heated front seats, ambient interior lighting, dual-zone climate control, Volkswagen's 12.3in digital instument binnacle and 8.0in touchscreen Discover Navigation infotainment system complete with sat nav, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, DAB radio, smartphone integration and subscription to VW's online services.

Opting for the Golf GTI Performance not only gets you an extra 15bhp but a mechanical slip differential and larger brake discs.

The driver is placed in much the same position as in the standard car, which is fine because there’s already plenty of purpose in VW’s default arrangement. Visibility is good, as is the sense of control that comes from being at just the right kind of height relative to an ultra-coherent dashboard.

There’s room in the back to seat adults comfortably, a bigger boot than most rivals manage and all the practicality that comes with a flat-floored, 1270-litre load space. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen Golf GTI side profile

There’s a fine line to tread here. The GTI must have the capacity to thrill and excite, but it would never do if, by over-endowing it with punch, VW made this driving experience approach the extravagant.

So, in the main, it doesn’t. The hot Volkswagen Golf – in full 242bhp Performance mode and DSG dual-clutch gearbox-equipped form – recorded a 6.5sec 0-60mph sprint and picked off 100mph in 16.4sec. These figures are competitive, if a bit run-of-the-mill for a front-drive hot hatch at this level. 

We'd be inclined to opt for the manual transmission

But it’s only the lack of a decent launch control mode that prevents the GTI from performing better against the clock. With the traction control on, the software regulation is – like so many ASR systems – too heavy-handed for the perfect standing start.

With it off, the gearbox calibration overcompensates, giving you far too much spin at the driving wheels. We’d expect to take at least a couple of tenths off that 0-60mph time in a manual-equipped GTI, putting it there or thereabouts with the likes of the Focus ST and Mégane 265.

Wring that motor out and you can tell that it has been tuned for flexibility rather than top-end thrills. It’s gruffly tuneful and the knockout blow comes between 2500rpm and 4000rpm, which is where you want it for real-world overtaking and short-squirt response.

But it’s a little bit lacking when you’re chasing the red line on track, or even on a cross-country blast. Not lacking generally, we hasten to add – just lacking compared with some of the Golf’s hot hatch rivals.

Our reservations about a dual-clutch ’box in a car like this remain valid. If you want an affordable driver’s car with as many paddles as pedals, you won’t find many better than this. The gearbox is smooth and judicious in auto mode, quick-shifting in manual.

But if you want a more involving driving experience still (and we do), you’ll want the manual. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf GTI cornering

The GTI’s affinity for British roads is alive and well. When equipped with the optional Adaptive Chassis Control system, the GTI has compliance to spare on uneven surfaces in Normal mode.

But it also has enough support in its suspension to maintain an unerring sense of precision in its controls, even when stretched. Its Sport mode is also supple enough to use out in the real world – and we can’t say that about every hot hatch.

I miss the blissfully honest steering of the VW Golf GTI Mk5

Out of this flows the Golf GTI’s enduring dynamic persona; welcome back to the pragmatist of the class. That sounds like a contradiction, but the car’s charms are convincing all the same.

Its steering is quite light and never takes you by surprise with its directness – new steering rack and all. Its handling is poised but proportionate – accurate and never a handful on the road. And its ride is very nicely judged for the UK. There’s just enough edge to it to remind you that you’re driving something a bit zesty, but not a smidge more.

This is a use-it-every-day kind of performance car, just as the Volkswagen Golf GTI always has been. But by almost inevitable extension, it’s not a spectacular, attention-grabbing drive. If you’re in the market for glittering driver engagement, instant cornering response, neck-testing grip levels and the like, it’s not for you. 

Not even in Performance guise, which does seem a shame. You’ll dig deep and in vain into the Volkswagen Golf’s handling reserves, on road or track, to find much evidence of that diff. 

There have been front-drive cars with open differentials before (just about all of them). There have been front-drive cars with pure mechanical limited-slip differentials before (Ford Focus RS, Vauxhall Astra VXR). And there have been cars with ESP functions extended to mimic a locking differential (like the Ford Focus ST’s torque vectoring).

However, no production front-driver, Volkswagen claims, has had an electronically controlled locking front differential found in Performance versions of the Volkswagen Golf GTI. This features a motor that drives a pump, producing hydraulic pressure to close a multi-plate clutch on demand, which in turn limits the amount of slip allowed between the individual front wheels. 

Jaguar’s Jaguar F-Type V8 S uses a similar system. The advantage is that it’s more refined than a pure mechanical differential (and corrupts the steering less in a front-driver). The downside is that the electronic controls inevitably take a short time to wake up and the system is a touch heavier – although VW claims no weight difference between normal and Performance GTIs.

It's no great aid, however. Put simply, the GTI lacks the voracious front end of a really compulsive hot hatch, either on or off the throttle, and its handling never really comes alive under pressure. It just grips, until that grip gently fades away. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Selling different versions of the GTI isn’t quite as novel as VW makes out. Although it may have fallen out of fashion in the past couple of generations, the difference between owning an 8v or 16v GTI was a topic for heavy discussion 15 years ago.

Granted, this is the first time that the firm has offered anything as mechanically enticing as a limited-slip diff, but with the final price for the Performance edition bumped close to some serious rivals, the car will arguably need all the sweeteners it can muster. And although the Volkswagen Golf is no stranger to the more expensive end of the hot hatch niche, the Ford Focus ST-1 is substantially cheaper, which will no doubt cause some brows to furrow.

The GTI's dropped a whopping five insurance groups

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cheerful. The three-door, non-Performance variant starts at a far more reasonable price.

For value retention, the Golf GTI trounces the competition from Ford and Renault three years out, plus decent dealer service standards and good reliability should ensure minimal fuss during your ownership.

It’s also impressively lean on emissions. Even if you opt for the Performance pack (but stick with the six-speed manual), the Volkswagen's CO2 emissions are just 139g/km – only 1g/km more than the far smaller Ford Fiesta ST.

Even with the dirtier DSG, it dips under 149g/km, which, when taken with claimed economy of 47.1mpg (manual) or 44.1mpg (DSG), makes the Golf just about the most efficient hot hatch money can buy.

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VERDICT

4 star Volkswagen Golf GTI

This hardly seems fair. A new platform, more power, even more kit, class-leading efficiency and even a limited-slip differential have only landed the Golf GTI in third place – the same position occupied by its predecessor.

But, for all the tangible gains, the Volkswagen Golf remains much the same sort of prospect as the departing Mk6. Its qualities – dependably solid, safe and strong – remain unmatched. It’s a grown-up tearaway – fast and frugal, comfortable and competent, seldom appearing stretched and yet invested with just enough quick-draw character. 

Go for a three-door version with the Performance pack and a manual gearbox

The established customer base for the Golf GTI will rejoice at that. However, for the floating voter craving a quick and affordable fix, nothing more invigorating has been added. 

Do not think that the new Volkswagen Golf 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.

Even in its Performance guise, the Volkswagen is no match for the dynamic finesse of the Renault Mégane 265. It is perfect for every day of the week, but incapable of blowing off the cobwebs come Sunday. 

The Ford Focus ST, too, matches the Golf's spread of talent, entertains more and is substantially cheaper.

If Volkswagen made the Golf a bit more visually appealing, and a little more interesting at its limits, then it could give it the additional joie de vivre it needs to be a real thriller. That's where the limited edition Golf GTI Clubsport S came in: it was the Golf that the GTI moniker deserved and how Volkswagen should have made the standard car in the first place.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Golf GTI 2013-2017 First drives