The GTI is in fine fettle. In material terms, at least as far as most petrolheads would care, it hasn’t changed much. But considering how much the hot hatch market has transformed around the GTI of late, it’s probably a bolder move on VW’s part to leave the car so unaltered than it might have been to follow the crowd, by dialling up the horsepower, chassis rates and price tag. Thank heavens they didn’t.
Volkswagen has pumped up the GTI’s power output by just 10bhp – enough to cut its 0-62mph acceleration claim by a solitary tenth of a second, and to add just 2mph to its top speed. That gives the standard GTI’s 2.0-litre turbo engine the same 227bhp peak of power that the outgoing GTI had when fitted with VW’s optional Performance Pack.
A new Performance Pack will be launched for the facelifted car later this spring, boosting the GTI’s power to 242bhp and likely adding the same electronically controlled slippy diff to the car’s specification, along with one or two other things. The standard GTI, meanwhile, continues with the same variable-rate ‘progressive’ power steering rack as before, and the same passive sports suspension, which can be upgraded to adaptively damped Dynamic Chassis Control suspension for an extra cost.
A pair of excellent leather sports seats, decorated with some attractive new red piping, awaited in our test car. It was also fitted with the Golf’s new top-of-the-line 9.2in Discover Pro infotainment system and its new 12.3in digital instrument cluster: like the leather seats, the former is optional-fit. The central infotainment set-up has a bright, crisp-looking widescreen display and, for the first time in any car this size, is navigable via gesture control. However, I’m not sure it’s an unqualified improvement on what went before, VW having dropped the handy rotary knobs for volume control and map zoom and switched to a touchscreen-dominated control logic that can be fiddly and distracting. The new digital instruments aren’t as impressive-looking or easy-to-customise as they are on Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, either, although they’re still pretty good. Otherwise, the GTI’s cabin is almost unchanged. Material quality is high, the driving position is excellent, interior space is good; the attention to detail lavished on the underlying product – the humble Golf – really shines through.
So, in a segment now busy with more powerful rivals from Ford, Peugeot, Seat, Honda and others, how can the Golf GTI make 227bhp feel like it’s enough? Well, just as before, it’s by the quality and linearity of the power delivery. This is an engine sufficiently responsive, consistent and free-revving that, by comparison with the more highly strung motors you find in rivals, it barely feels like it's breaking a sweat in motivating the hot Golf up to what can still be a very brisk pace indeed. The GTI is more than fast enough for the kind of cross-country roads with which hot hatchbacks were once intrinsically linked. I’d probably prefer one with a manual gearbox, although the six-speed DSG automatic in our test car proved itself a strong, rounded and quick-shifting option for those who like the idea of paddleshifters on a hot hatch.
What defines the GTI’s point-to-point pace and its capacity to engage its driver much more than its power output on those give-and-take roads, though, is its excellent, poised-yet-absorptive suspension. Because, while rivals turn to ever-firmer springing - either to put ever-greater power levels onto the tarmac, or for ever-more-direct and increasingly over-cooked handling directness, or both – the Golf sticks with the same sweet dynamic compromise that VW has been refining for four decades.
The GTI knows how to handle a bump. Our test car’s adaptive dampers delivered its body control and handling alertness up to a nicely compelling level when ramped up to ‘Sport’ mode but even there left room for some suppleness, and kept the car stable and settled at all times. So you can drive the GTI hard over a really testing surface of cambers, hollows, lumps and sharp edges, and it takes every single one in its stride. The chassis filters out so much more than plenty of others would, but then keeps the car keen, adhesive and balanced through bends and gives you nothing but confidence to enjoy yourself.
The GTI isn’t the kind of car that forces its own contrived presence between its driver and the road, and it steers with much greater feedback and more coherent weight now (thanks, you suspect, to the Clubsport S’s legacy) than ever it used to.