► VW Golf GTI 2017 review
► We test facelifted Mk7 GTI
► Still the classiest hot hatch?
Golf is a Golf is a Golf. Class-defining and at the same time class-less, it has been an icon and talisman for the Volkswagen brand and its treasurers since 1974. True to the maxim ‘never change a winning team’, the design changes introduced for 2017 are subtle. The sheet metal remains untouched; bumpers, lights and grille get fresh make-up. It’s the familiar GTI but looking a little leaner, a little sharper than you remember it.
There are new wheels, extra brightwork and four little red winglets underlining the LED headlights. The turbocharged 2.0-litre four gets more power, thereby matching the acceleration times of the outgoing VW Golf GTI Performance Pack: the Mk7.5 GTI boasts 227bhp in standard form and 242bhp in its Performance iteration. Gearbox options remain a six-speed manual or a DSG twin-clutch auto, but the latter gets another pair of ratios for seven in total.
VW Golf GTI: a quickie history lesson
The first Golf GTI was, in essence, a grown-up Mini Cooper made in Germany. The 110bhp engine had an easy time bringing to life a 810kg crackerjack which made history for its amazing handling, roadholding and performance. Four decades on the very latest top-of-the-line Golf more than doubles that power output, though weight too has also soared by over 70% to 1386kg.
At 6.4sec from 0-62mph, overtaking is as effortless as ever; at 155mph, the GTI is almost always the fastest car in the fast lane; and at 44mpg, the GTI doesn’t lag far behind the super-frugal 184bhp Golf GTD. The most telling number, however, is the midrange in-gear urge.
Put your foot down hard in fifth and the GTI lunges from 50 to 75mph. Although the GTD fields an extra 22lb ft of torque, it loses that particular fraternal feud by 1.5sec.
Unlike the equally cult BMW M3, which has journeyed from four-cylinder to straight-six to V8 and back to six, the engineering fundamentals of the Golf GTI have not changed much over the decades. Instead the car’s focus has wavered from lean (Mk1) through diluted (Mk3 automatic) and clueless (badge-engineered Mk4) to back-to-basics (Mk5).
Browse VW Golf GTI for sale.
What's new on the VW Golf GTI 2017?
The latest metamorphosis is into GTI in the purest sense of the acronym; a gran turismo powered by a feisty fuel-injected and turbocharged engine. Overt sportiness is no longer the prime ambition of this high-visibility Golf with trad plaid upholstery and ’80s stripework.
Instead, this is now the most refined and effortless hot hatch on the market. The Peugeot 308 GTI is rawer and more chuckable, the Astra has a good deal more power, the ill-mannered Honda Civic Type R appeals to a different audience and the BMW 125i is underwhelming and overpriced – twist things however you like but there still is no better all-rounder than the GTI.
On the road in the new Volkswagen hot hatch
I’m driving a red four-door manual GTI with fat 19-inch wheels and adaptive dampers. Pressing the starter button activates two sources of sound: initially, it’s Dynaudio versus EA211 (below), but after a fingertip correction, the powerplant beats the amplifier. It emits marginally less CO2 through marginally larger-diameter tailpipes, humming along happily at idle speed.
While the drive mode selector invites you to tweak engine and transmission response, damper setting and steering behaviour, it won’t let you turn up the exhaust volume. For a loop of wild Spanish C-roads, I lock the shocks in Comfort and leave the other elements in Sport. Although there is an ESP button, you can only deactivate traction control. So it’s a ‘yes’ to take-off wheelspin but a ‘no’ to lift-off oversteer.
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A very refined kind of GTI
Nail-biting excitement and pulse-quickening emotion are not really what this car is about. Like its predecessor, the new Golf GTI is no rock-solid, screaming-at-the-world street racer.
While you might think you want a roadgoing BTCC racer that hops sideways on solid springs and offers a powerband just 258rpm wide, Volkswagen knows that you really want is a relaxed mile-eater with long legs, longer service intervals and plenty of low-end grunt.
After all, this Golf no longer needs to prove anything. Its livery is tastefully tailored, its stance understated yet confident, it’s voice half Peter Fonda, half Sean Connery. A true Volkswagen in the Winterkorn and Hackenberg tradition, the best-seller remains built like a vault – kind of a Golf with Phaeton genes, not vice-versa.
Want to hitch a ride? We’re off, out of first gear and swiftly into second, then third. Even at 4000rpm, the acoustics are still reminiscent of a padded cocoon – no suspension rumble, front axle quiver, tyre roar or driveline indispositions. The only music this car plays in your ears are the dense and delicately staggered tonalities of VW’s finest petrol engine.
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Equipped with sports suspension and the so-called progressive power steering, the new VW Golf GTI 2017 comes well prepared for the narrow twisties that lie like serpents up and down Mallorca’s steep, mountainous flanks. You never need sixth gear on this kind of terrain, but first is a must where hairpins climb like spiral staircases through the rocks.
With the exception of short straights and occasional switchbacks, this is mainly second- and third-gear stuff. Good to know then that this Golf picks up the torque thread at a subterranean 1500rpm and spans its lofty 258lb ft peak from there all the way to 4600rpm.
It does not come as a surprise that the six-speed manual changes ratios as rapidly as the optional DSG transmission. It’s a quick and slick gearbox, precise and well staggered, complemented by a light and progressive clutch. Although redlined at 6500rpm, there is no real need to push the single-turbo 16-valver beyond its broad sweet spot.
Waltzing one-two-three, one-two-three with the GTI along the southern edge of the Balearic island it puts in a controlled, restrained and eerily rapid performance. This is a car that frowns at and refrains from grand gestures. So you turn-in with restraint, stay in the taller of the two gears you had in mind, open up the steering early and feed the torque in diligently.
The reward is a captivating blend of cornering grip and exit speed, a high level of composure, immaculate body control, not much understeer and plenty of feedback. You always know exactly where you are with this Golf, be it one tenth under the limit or a tenth over it.
Over-driving the Golf GTI upsets the handling balance by inducing excess understeer and destructive ASR/ESP interference. It’s much better to keep this car on a long leash, give torque preference over power and maintain a steady flow. After all, this is no longer your father’s GTI, or the original I remember vividly from the press launch.
This Golf has grown up. Of course there’s room for a sharper version, not to mention a Clubsport, but don’t forget that Mallorca and its winding byways are only one side of the coin. On faster, more expansive country roads and motorways and it will no doubt collect yet more brownie points. After all, no contender can match the Golf for its blend of laid-back competence and absolute commitment.
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