This is the VW Golf GTI Mk7: the fastest, most frugal Golf GTI ever made. Is it just a subtle tweak of its Mk6 predecessor, or a truly great hot hatch worthy of the GTI name?
To find out, we’ve borrowed a pre-production GTI for a revealing 350km shakedown experience in the Ile de France region around Paris. The car’s as near as dammit production ready. They call it a ‘zero series’ model. In this case that seems to mean zero deviation from the end product which will go on sale in May.
What’s new for the Mk7 Golf GTI?
At first glance it may look evolutionary – derivative even – but there’s a lot going on here. For a start, the new Golf sits on the VW Group’s much talked about new chassis known as ‘MQB’, which radically reinvents the way cars are designed and built .Then there’s a new variable-ratio steering system, a heavily upgraded engine, and a raft of extra abilities contained within a new ‘Performance Pack’.
Look closer and the subtle changes start to roll out. The trademark red stripe now stretches across the entire front end into the headlamp housings, the extended rear roof spoiler seats an extra couple of crows, the 19in alloy wheels have swapped telephone dials for axe-heads and the tartan chairs have changed from Stewart to Clark. And there’s a starter button.
Tell me about the new VW Golf GTI’s engine
The 2.0-litre sounds growly, even at idle. Tap the accelerator, and it snarls up the rev ladder, vocal and self-conscious, a politician preparing its re-election speech. The lever of the six-speed DSG slides into D and then further down into S – after all I didn’t come here to pick the daisies. Rated at 217bhp and redlined at 6200rpm, the engine differs from the Mk6’s powerplant: it has reinforced crankshaft bearings, modified direct fuel-injection, reduced friction, improved efficiency and an exhaust manifold integrated in the cylinder head. While ten extra horses are certainly nice to have, what makes the real difference is the massive increase in torque from 206lb ft to 258lb ft at 1500 to 4400rpm. At the same time fuel consumption is claimed to be 14% better (44.1mpg), top speed has squeaked up from 147mph to 153, and the 0-62mph sprint now takes 6.5sec – 0.4 less than before.
The turbocharged four is a brilliant engine – potent, yet totally relaxed and always eager to rev. Unlike the Mercedes CLA I drove a couple of days later, the Volkswagen gets on very well with its DSG gearbox. Shifts tend to be quick and smooth, the electronics are rarely in doubt about which ratio they should pre-select, and the paddleshift enhances the feeling of being in total control. That’s the good news. The bad news concerns the calibration of the six-speeder. While the first five ratios are staggered just about right, sixth is so long it’s almost grotesque. If maximum speed was to be attained in top gear, the new GTI would be good for a hyper-theoretical 208mph. With the transmission in S, however, this is rarely an issue because S happens to obey a very energetic algorithm. When in D, the black box shifts into sixth at low engine and road speeds, thereby changing the character of the car from GTI to mpg. It may be politically incorrect to accept higher fuel consumption, but a GTI top gear ought to be a proper driving ratio. Perhaps the cogs in the optional Performance Pack work better (a snip at around £1000, but our car didn’t have it).
What extra kit does a Performance Pack Golf GTI get?
It comprises a slightly beefier 227bhp engine, bigger 17in brakes with red GTI calipers and an electronically controlled mechanical diff lock by Haldex. While the base model makes do with solid rear discs, the PP includes larger inner-ventilated rotors all-round. To improve grip and traction through tight bends, the state-of-the-art differential sends more ooomph to the outer wheel. At the same time, it’s claimed to curb excessive understeer and soften lift-off oversteer. Torque is unchanged, but the acceleration improves by one tenth, and the maximum speed increases to 155mph. VW is expecting every second GTI buyer to tick the box marked Performance Pack. I would.
What other dynamic tweaks feature on the new Golf GTI?
I’d also tick the box marked Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC). It lets you choose from five different driving modes –Comfort, Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual. Hit the symbol on the touchscreen and you instantly tune dampers, steering, engine, transmission, adaptive cruise control, dynamic cornering lights and air conditioning. Great, but you’ll be surprised to hear that not even yours truly would put the drivetrain into Sport. Why? Because that entails early downshifts, late upshifts and an unnecessarily high rev level. Even when you try to maintain a steady throttle position, the black box takes too long to calm down.
Standard equipment includes the so-called ‘Progressive Steering’ which works either in Normal or in Sport mode. This constant-effort, variable-rate device requires only two turns from lock to lock. While the ratio around the straight-ahead position is very similar to that of a run-of-the-mill Golf, the steering will speed up as you turn in thanks to a progressive gearing between rack and pinion. This system yields two effects: reduced effort at parking speeds and quicker action on winding roads. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not as artificial and lifeless as other electro-hydraulic systems. I found myself liking it. True, the set-up is on the light side, the feedback blurs a little bit as you wind on more lock, and the self-centering motion could be more pronounced, but it’s hard not to be smitten by the go-kart-like directness, by the absence of filters and softeners, and by the depth of feel at the limit of adhesion…
So, how does the VW Golf GTI Mk7 drive?
The GTI communicates on all levels: steering, throttle, transmission, suspension, brakes. This car loves being pushed, but only to a point. Overstep it, and things get messy with too much attitude, too much electronic interference, too much drama. That’s not what fast Golfs are about. They are nine-tenths winners, not eleven-tenths wannabes. So let’s stay composed. Play it right, and the GTI will indulge in a super-sweet four-wheel drift or a three-wheeled corner, but it stays sufficiently well planted to make full use of all the Tarmac there is. True, the brakes feel a bit soft after the third run, but after about half an hour it’s quite obvious that the driver would run out of stamina long before the Golf runs out of talent.
That said, you’d be disappointed if I hadn’t switched off every electronic driving aid in search of juvenile thrills I’m clearly too old for. Hitting the ESP button once will deactivate traction assist, but this can be counter-productive on moist Tarmac where a little wheelspin tends to be faster than no slip at all. Keep the button depressed for at least three seconds and ESP will switch to Sport mode, but even on a race track you can never totally deactivate stability control. As soon as any brake intervention occurs, the system is automatically back on duty. Perhaps VW should reconsider its ESP policy for the GTI Performance Pack. After all, stability control can be switched off completely in the 286bhp four-wheel-drive Golf R out later this year.
The latest version of the iconic Golf was never meant to be loud or young, and it was neither going to be a sports car in disguise or a hardcore hot hatch. Instead, this car has to incorporate the best of all worlds, even though it may never rule a single one of them. It epitomises effortless velocity, practical sportiness, accessible performance. It is an everyday, any road, everyman car that makes its owner shine because it is so easy to drive, astonishingly quick, totally benign and yet more rewarding than many extrovert crackerjacks.
Which spec to buy? Take the more practical four-door, spend extra on the Performance Pack and on 18in rubber, and try DSG before signing the dotted line.