It’s been 40 years since the Golf GTI set the hot hatch template. In that time, there’s been host of imitators from rival brands, but the Volkswagen still sits at the top of the pocket rocket pile.
To celebrate the GTI’s big birthday, we brought our car together with the model that started it all: the legendary Mk1. Owned by VW UK, the silver car in our pictures is a later 1983 example with a 1.8-litre engine and five-speed gearbox in place of the original’s 1.6-litre unit and four-speed transmission, but in terms of look and feel it’s near identical to the 1975 trend-setter.
With its compact dimensions, the Mk1 is dwarfed by the latest version, while its upright stance and sharp lines are a world away from the rakish, aerodynamically honed Mk7. Yet with their red pin-striped noses, thick C-pillars and squat stances, it’s clear these cars are cut from the same cloth.
Even now, it’s easy to see why the GTI was such a revelation in the mid-seventies. The 112bhp 1.8-litre engine fires into life, before settling to a rock-steady, digitally dictated idle. Blip the throttle and the four-cylinder revs cleanly and crisply all the way to the red line.
To a generation of drivers used to performance cars fuelled by coughing and spluttering carburettors, the hassle-free power of the Golf’s K-Jetronic fuel-injected motor would have seemed otherworldly.
The Mk1 was quick, too. With just over 800kg to haul around, the 110bhp 1.6-litre did 0-60mph in just 9.1 seconds; the 1.8 was nearly a second faster. Mid-range acceleration was effortless, with the Golf pulling strongly from low revs in any gear.
Of course, what really marked the GTI out as special was its brilliant handling. A wheel-at-each-corner stance, lowered and stiffened suspension and wider, low-profile tyres helped the front-wheel-drive Golf corner with a poise that left traditional sports cars trailing in its wake.
Four decades later, the GTI has no trouble keeping up with modern traffic, and only the heavy unassisted steering and alarming lack of stopping power betray the Mk1’s age.
Take the wheel of the latest car and it’s instantly clear it carries the spirit of the original. It’s fast and fun, usable every day and practical enough for most families. Yet that’s not to say the GTI hasn’t moved on – it’s still setting new standards, like the old car.
While most hot hatch pretenders stick to the Mk1’s fast, frantic formula, the Mk7 has matured. It’s far more refined than most rivals, while our car’s £815 Dynamic Chassis Control delivers an executive saloon-style ride. And the cabin oozes premium appeal.
In fact, with its pace, poise, luxury, comfort and practicality, the current GTI is more than a hot hatch. No longer is it a family runaround with an injection of fun; this is a super hatch, and could be the only car you ever need.
After nearly a year on the Auto Express fleet, our VW Golf GTI has finally found its voice. The classy hot hatch has performance to spare, but until now it has lacked the sort of sporty exhaust note you’d expect. There’s a clever sound generator behind the dashboard, but its purposeful growl sounds synthetic rather than soulful.
However, as the miles have rolled under the Golf’s wheels, the noise from its twin tailpipes has changed from dull to distinctive. It could be rattly baffles in the exhaust or just the effect of hundreds of heat cycles on the system’s steel, but whatever the reason, the transformation is music to my ears.
There’s now the hint of a baritone burble at idle that’s reminiscent of my trusty Mk2 GTI, while fast gearchanges deliver the same characterful flutter as versions equipped with the DSG gearbox. It’s a small thing, but this has really helped to add an extra layer of involvement to the VW’s already engaging driving experience. This new-found mechanical musicality doesn’t come at the expense of refinement, either, as the Golf is still a quiet and composed cruiser.
It’s not only the exhaust giving my ears a workout; our upgraded sound system has also been at it. Designed by Danish hi-fi specialist Dynaudio, the £535 set-up features eight speakers, a separate subwoofer, a 400W amplifier and a Digital Signal Processor.
Like most modern stereos, you can alter the sound using a number of pre-programmed settings, such as Voice, Jazz, Rock and Pop, but I prefer to leave the tone controls flat, as this results in a powerful and surprisingly immersive sound.
It’s not quite as accomplished as high-end in-car products from the likes of Meridian or Burmester, but it’s not far off and costs nearly 10 times less. My only criticism is that I can’t use the touchscreen display to access albums and playlists when my mobile phone is wirelessly connected to the stereo, which is disappointing given that the combined cost of our car’s upgraded infotainment system and hi-fi is an eye-watering £2,300.
Elsewhere, the Golf continues to deliver fast, fun and fuss-free family transport. The 2.0-litre engine is fully run-in and relentlessly impresses with its effortless, deep-chested performance, while the roomy interior swallows everything that me and my growing family throw at it with ease. And it doesn’t matter how bad your day has been, the Golf’s classy cabin always manages to wash away your worries.
However, the steadily increasing temperatures here in the UK have highlighted the need to replace the car’s winter tyres with something a little more suitable. In day-to-day driving, the Pirelli Sottozeros cope well, but brake hard or attack a corner with gusto, and the Volkswagen starts to squirm and slide.
I’ve got the car booked in for a swap back to summer rubber in the coming days, so the GTI’s unflappable poise and laser-guided precision will soon be restored.
Until then, I’m simply going to turn the Golf up to 11 and give my ears a treat.
Mileage: 10,748 Real-world fuel economy: 32.7mpg
It was Scottish comedian Billy Connolly who said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” And it’s the same with cars – with a little preparation you can comfortably shrug off the worst of the wet, cold and slippery winter weather.
So, with a forecast of months of plummeting temperatures and lashing rain, I decided to treat our VW Golf GTI to a winter wardrobe makeover. First came a change of tyres. After 10,000 miles’ hard use, the original-fit Continental Sport Contacts were looking a little thin – particularly at the front – so they were swapped for Pirelli Sottozero 3s.
At £528 for a set of four, the 225/40 18 rubber wasn’t cheap, but I’m already feeling the benefits. The Golf now shrugs off standing water, while braking stability and cornering grip are improved on greasy and frosty surfaces. It’s only when things turn mild and dry that I miss the handling precision and limpet-like grip of the summer tyres.
Of course, there’s more to the Golf’s effortless winter abilities than a new set of tyres. When ordering the GTI this time last year I made sure that it’d be ready for every climatic eventuality. For starters I chose the £360 Winter Pack, which adds three-stage heated seats for driver and passenger, plus heated screenwasher jets. Another worthwhile addition is the £295 Climate windscreen,whose invisible, electrically conductive layer in the laminate heats up to quickly clear an icy screen and eliminate any misting.
The one downside is that this worthwhile kit can only be specified in conjunction with the £315 Advanced telephone connection. This wirelessly connects the phone to the car’s external aerial to compensate for any signal loss caused by the special screen.
These additions aren’t the only winter warmers, though. For instance, the Golf’s standard adaptive bi-xenon headlamps are highly effective at cutting through the seasonal gloom, while their dedicated high-pressure washers do a great job of keeping the lenses clear of salt and other road grime.
The auto wipers are also very capable, as they rarely flail around on a bone-dry screen or fail to jump into action when the heavens open.
All this means it doesn’t matter whether I’m walking or at the wheel, I’m ready for whatever winter throws at me.
Real-world fuel economy: 32.5mpg
VW made the GTI badge famous when it stuck it to the tailgate of a hotted-up Golf in 1976, but it was Maserati that first put the famous three letters together, launching its gorgeous 3500 GTi way back in 1961.
Yet while the sleek Sixties coupe was Italy’s first production car with fuel injection, the ‘i’ in its name actually stood for ‘internazionale’, which was a nod to its intended role as a rapid and relaxing express for crossing continents as quickly as possible. Fast forward half a century and the same job description could be used for our Golf.
You see, sharp handling and strong performance are expected from a hot hatch, but our GTI’s ability to soak up big distances without breaking sweat has come as a pleasant surprise. Like all the best grand tourers, it doesn’t matter how far you have to travel, you always emerge from the VW feeling fresh. And part of this effortless long-distance cruising ability can be put down to the car’s turbocharged 2.0-litre engine.
With 350Nm of torque at 1,500rpm, the four-cylinder unit delivers the sort of elastic performance you’d expect from a V8, meaning you never have to change down from sixth when accelerating past slower traffic on the motorway. Simply squeeze the throttle pedal and the GTI is catapulted down the road.
Then there’s the superb refinement. Wind noise isn’t an issue and the sporty, hard-edged growl of the engine disappears when you start to cruise, while tyre roar only becomes an issue on really coarse surfaces. In fact, there are luxurious executive saloons that kick up more of a commotion than the whisper-quiet Golf.
Yet it’s the VW’s supple ride that makes the biggest difference, and that’s largely down to the optional £815 Dynamic Chassis Control. This adaptive damper set-up isn’t exactly cheap, but it only takes a short drive to realise it’s worth splashing out on. Set the suspension to Comfort and the Golf simply irons out the worst bumps, particularly on fast A-roads and motorways.
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