Desperate times call for desperate measures – and the departure from the Auto Express fleet of our Volkswagen Golf GTI has forced me to take extreme action. That’s right, in an effort to extend the rapid VW’s stay, I’ve handcuffed myself to one of its chunky door handles.

• Best hot hatchbacks

So why am I so keen to hold on to the GTI’s keys? Where do I start? As you’d expect from a car that drew the hot hatch template four decades ago, it delivers top performance and agile handling. Yet it’s the Golf’s ability to combine these sporty dynamics with everyday civility that warrants its claim as the ‘greatest all-rounder in the world’.

For instance, the spacious five-door car has coped admirably with everything my growing family has thrown at it, while the combination of low noise levels and the £830 optional adaptive dampers means the VW is as happy on the motorway as it is blasting down a twisting back road. 

• Best hatchbacks

And then there’s the interior, which strikes just the right balance between premium appeal and everyday utility. The high-quality materials and robust build give the feeling of longevity, while the checked seat trim, pimpled golf ball gearlever and red LED strips in the tops of the doors add a special feel. To put it simply, it’s always a pleasure to get behind the wheel of the Golf.

Once sat in the heavily bolstered driver’s seat, you’re guaranteed a good time. Our car’s Performance Pack added an extra 10bhp, uprated brakes and, crucially, a clever, electronically controlled limited-slip diff that boosts traction out of slower corners. Combined with optional dampers, it makes the GTI a devastatingly quick and composed cross-country missile. Yet not a thirsty one, as our 37.2mpg economy figure proves.

• VW Golf GTI Mk8: on sale in 2019 with big power boost

Of course, like all relationships, there were ups and downs. Indeed, my love affair with the Golf was sorely tested when a mysterious gearbox rattle appeared with less than 100 miles on the clock. Matters went from bad to worse when my local VW dealer tried to fob me off with the explanation that “they all do that, sir”. Fortunately, a second opinion revealed that the car’s flywheel had broken – likely a rare manufacturing fault.

The offending part was replaced, and the GTI has been as good as gold ever since. Its only other trip to the garage has been for a routine service, which was carried out efficiently by Citygate, in Chalfont, Bucks.

Fast, fun, spacious, stylish and comfortable, the Golf has all bases covered. And over the course of a year or so, it has proven itself to be just about perfect. So, if VW wants it back, it had better bring some bolt cutters...

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.

• Best hot hatchbacks

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.

• Best hatchbacks

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.

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. 

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