Volkswagen’s GTI badge remains one of the most famous and iconic in the automotive world, but even VW itself has admitted that recent products have not done the moniker justice. As Golf 3 and 4 evolved into plusher, more sophisticated offerings, much of the agility, lightness and “verve” of the legendary Mark 1 and 2 models were sacrificed in the process. Now, the Wolfsburg-based car maker says, the time has come to rectify the situation. The new Golf 5 GTI, they claim, is a real return to form. Marketing speak or the truth? Let’s find out.
Subtle, but strong visual identityThe Golf Volkswagen Golf GTI is a handsome, upmarket-looking hatchback in standard form, but even with its neat rear light clusters and rising window line, the more accurate description is “sophisticate”, rather than “sporty”. Somehow, however, designer Marc Lichte and his team have managed to inject a healthy dose of visual testosterone into the look of the GTI. The grille is much more aggressive than the standard car’s and the thin red line that follows its lip was inspired by a similar one on the Golf 1 GTI. The lower sections of the bumpers and sills are also beefier and at the rear the double exhaust tips are a sign of intent. But to really make the look work, you have to specify the stunning optional 18-inch wheels.
The cabin of the Golf 5 reminds strongly of the one in the Touran MPV. For a hot hatch such as the GTI this may not sound very promising, but the opposite is true. After all, in MPVs the controls are usually moved higher, to free up space for storage spaces etc. lower down, but the other benefit is that the controls are closer to hand… and in an engaging hot hatch, that can only be a good thing. Consequently, the driving position offered by the Golf GTI is just about perfect. There’s plenty of adjustment on offer from the steering wheel and driver’s seat, and the gear-lever falls nicely to hand, too. To remind the driver that he (or she) is at the helm of something special, there’s a flat-bottomed steering wheel, heavily bolstered Recaro sports seats, drilled pedals etc.
The rest of the cabin is pretty much standard Golf 5 fare, which is no bad thing. The build quality of this car is probably unmatched in this segment, and the levels of comfort and spaciousness certainly near the top of the class, too. There has been no compromise on occupant comfort in the transformation to hot hatch, so this Volkswagen Golf GTI should still be able to perform well in the daily grind and even as a family car. The specification level is good, too. Volkswagen has included climate control, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers and even cruise control.
Beautifully balancedAt this point it is worth mentioning that a big goal during the development of the Golf 5 was to cut the flab in an effort to regain some of the lost agility. With a weight of 1 364 kg, this has certainly been achieved. Another important development has been the fitment of a multi-link rear suspension system, an important development because this is a superior design, and one which suits particularly the requirements of a performance car because the lateral and longitudinal forces that a car is subjected to under hard driving (including braking and direction changes) are better controlled that with a traditional torsion beam system.
Under the bonnet is the Volkswagen group’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that develops 147 kW and 280 Nm of torque. It fires up with a gruff sound, and remains a talkative unit, especially in terms of its turbo, at higher engine speeds. But it always feels smooth and eager to rev. It delivers its power to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission, a ‘box that is a real delight to use…
… Not that you’ll have to use that gearbox very often, because the power delivery is very linear and strong from low-down, remaining so until very high engine speeds. This means the flexibility is very good. Potter around in traffic in third gear, spot an opening, floor it, and the take-up is immediate and eager. It’s a car that always feels keen to respond, and it’s not only about the throttle and the power, but, thankfully, also about the way it feels on the road.
The steering, devoid of much feel as it may be, is very accurate and the weighting is not bad at all. This means the nose of the car responds very quickly to the driver’s inputs. And the suspension set-up is truly excellent. Volkswagen says the only real differences between a GTI and other, more basic Golfs are firmer dampers and springs, and 20 per cent stronger anti-roll bars. Well, it works. The Golf GTI has beautiful body control and exhibits a remarkable resistance to understeer. In fact, it feels as if this platform can easily cope with even more power.
VerdictWelcome back, Golf GTI. Volkswagen has been true to its word, because the latest hot Golf marks a real return to form for the GTI badge. The handling is sublime, being beautifully balanced, and with no cost to the ride comfort. The engine delivers its power willingly, efficiently and with an eagerness that fits perfectly with the car’s overall sense of urgency. It really is a very difficult car to try and fault. Go on… you try it.
We don’t like:
No steering feedback
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 147 kW @ 5 100 rpm
Torque: 280 Nm @ 1 800 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 235 km/h
0-100 km/h: 7.2 seconds
Fuel economy: 8 litres/100 km
Another famous badge returns, but ultimately it is not quite as convincing as the GTI. The engine is similarly powerful, the build quality good and the specification generous, but the engine lacks the VW’s responsiveness, and dynamically it is off the pace.
More powerful than the Germans and of even higher specification. Not a bad effort at all, but there’s the sense that it is almost overpowered for its underpinnings, especially compared with the better-balanced Golf. Three-door body only.
Not without its charms, the much more affordable RunX offers a very different type of driving enjoyment… that of a very high-revving naturally aspirated engine. Performance apart, however, it can’t match the other cars here for sophistication and balance.