Drive Thru: Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

After losing its way in the mid-late 1990s the GTI badge relinquished the credibility gained with the first two GTIs. The fifth generation GTI, launched in 2004, has been widely acclaimed all over the globe. It won back respect for the GTI, a respect the badge so richly deserves. As a result, this new Mk6 Golf GTI has some big boots to fill. So, it was with great anticipation that I took the keys to Volkswagen’s latest hot-hatch.

Without giving away too much, too early, it’s safe to say that, in its sixth generation, the GTI legend is in very safe hands.

Before I expand on the driving experience, it is worth a cursory glance at the steps that led to the creation of the Mk6 Golf. Normally, this would not need addressing, but the step from Mk5 to Mk6 came about quicker than Volkswagen had hoped, and as a result, the jump between these two generations is one of the shortest in the model’s 35 year lifespan.

As noted, the Mk5 Golf, and especially the GTI, was a very fine motor car. However, as good as it was, the profit margins were too slim and, ultimately, this was a thorn in Volkswagen’s side. Therefore, the Mk6 model roll out was brought forward. Across the range major improvements in the new Golf have been delivered through engine selections and available options, rather than any major mechanical upgrades. There have been some geometry changes, of course—the car has a wider front track and the driver sits a bit lower in the car—but, overall, the chassis is heavily based on the Mk5 Golf.

UPDATE 3 November: Refer to “On the track” section below to read how the GTI handled the GTI Advanced Driving Academy.

Volkswagen GTI - first five generations

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

Given the new Golf, and with it, the GTI, have been built to a price Volkswagen has done a great job of hiding the cost efficiencies introduced in this upgrade. The GTI’s interior is just as nice a place to be as the previous model. In fact, it’s probably a touch nicer with tweaks to the layout and a general overhaul that, ironically, results in a more expensive feel. The base spec screen radio/CD head unit, which looks like satellite navigation screen, is a case in point. However, there are a couple of cost cutting measures that are noticeable at first glance. The side “skirt”, for example, is really just a piece of plastic crudely glued to the car and, in the examples I’ve seen to date, the front bumper includes cutouts for headlight washers, even if the car is not fitted with them. Obviously, it’s cheaper to have one bumper mould, than two. These are small gripes however, and, in reality, won’t affect the ownership or driving experience.

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

This Drive Thru report is split into two sections—on the road and on the track. I will be attending the GTI Advanced Driving Academy at Eastern Creek tomorrow and, while I can’t be certain that a true track day experience will be offered, I can live in hope!

My wife is a very satisfied owner of a Mk5 GTI three door, and extensive time behind the wheel of her car over the past three years allows me to compare the Mk6 GTI to the outgoing model with a degree of authority.

Part 1—On the road

The car sampled was a Tornado Red 5 door, fitted with six speed manual and optional 18″ ‘Detroit’ alloy wheels. Immediately you notice how much lighter the clutch pedal is in the new GTI. This affords neater gear changes, and while the bulk of the transmission remains untouched from the Mk5, it is clear the engineers have had a bit of a tinker—moving from gate to gate is shorter and more natural feeling.

Around town the car GTI is easy to manoeuvre and cabin noise has been slightly reduced. This brings with it the unwelcome loss of exhaust note inside the cabin. You can still hear it, of course, but what you hear from the driver’s seat is not as nice as the car it replaces. The driving position is as good as ever and the new dash cluster (now with white lighting) is clear and easy to read. Although, boy racers will bemoan the 280km/h maximum marking on the speedometer, down from 300km/h on the old model.

The turbocharged four cylinder engine has been mildly revised and now bares the label of 2.0 TSI, rather than 2.0 TFSI. Power is up 8kW to 155kW, peak torque remains at 280Nm, but now arrives earlier in the rev range. Seat of the pants feel indicates that the car does feel slightly quicker, but it is the earlier arrival of maximum torque that is most noticeable. Action higher in the rev range has been improved, too, with the GTI now more willing to keep on puffing as maximum revs approach.

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

While one expects a hot-hatch to have a firm suspension, the Mk5 GTI handles this burden quite well, up to a point. Beyond that point, over larger bumps, it is harsh, bordering on crude. The new GTI, though, copes with city traffic much better, even on the optional 18″ wheels (my wife’s GTI is standard, save for the fitment of some aftermarket 18″ alloys).

Once out on more open flowing roads, the ride remains compliant and sure footed. The car’s steering has a familiar feel and is very capable, letting you point the car where you want it with a high degree of accuracy. While I didn’t get as much time in the car as I would like, it is clear that the handling of the Mk6 GTI carries on from the platform before it. Brief sampling of the XDL (electronic diff) indicates that there may be more merit to this feature than simple marketing guff. When accelerating through corners the car obliged by offering confidence and willingness for further examination. With any luck that further examination will come tomorrow and, if not, with a longer test drive at a later date.

Oh, one very neat trick that the entry level radio screen allows is the simple and relatively cheap addition of a reversing camera. The camera is hidden behind the Volkswagen badge on the rear hatch and pops into life when the car is placed in reverse. At this point you get a clear view of what is behind you. This is a great option, and one I would be selecting for sure if I was to buy a new GTI.

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

So, the ultimate question then, is the Mk6 a better can than the Mk5? The short answer is, yes. Indeed, the Mk6 GTI could very well be the best GTI ever. I’ll need more time in the car before making that claim with certainty.

The long answer, though, reveals that while the new car is a solid step forward, pinpointing areas of great improvement is a much harder thing to do. Improvements have been made in many areas, but there’s no one area that has advanced to a degree that you could say, this one thing is what makes the Mk6 a better car.

In some respects, though, this is befitting of a GTI. You see, when compared against its rivals the outgoing GTI rarely landed a knockout punch in any one aspect of the driving experience. It wasnt the quickest and nor was it the sharpest tool available in the hot hatch garage. What it remains, though, is a superb all-round machine that delivers the goods most of the time, and more often than its competitors.

Similarly, then, the Mk6 GTI betters the Mk5 GTI not in any one aspect, but in several. The improvements may only be marginal, but when you’re starting with such a complete package, you can’t expect the same miracles to be delivered as was the case in the step from Mk4 GTI to Mk5 GTI.

Owners of the current GTI need not bang down the doors of their local Volkswagen dealer desperate not to be left behind. However, when the time comes to upgrade their current Mk5 they will find Volkswagen has created a highly competent and effective replacement.

Volkswagen Mk6 Golf GTI

Part 2—On the track

Yesterday I attended the GTI Advanced Driving Academy at Eastern Creek. There were three main activities during the day. Some track time behind the wheel (Corporate Hill layout), an XDL demonstration on the skid pan and some hot laps around a shortened Eastern Creek layout. All cars used for the day were fitted with DSG transmissions.

Around the Corporate Hill loop the GTI handled itself with great composure. The photo below hides the elevation changes quite well and the left hander under the bridge, especially, was one that might have unsettled less capable cars. It is a reasonably high speed, slightly off-camber corner which demands your full attention. The GTI, though, inspired confidence with strong road holding even as the car got light on the entry to the turn.

Shortly after that was a downhill run with hard braking required before another left hander into a short makeshift section linking back to the main track. Under heavy braking the GTI would squrim about somewhat, but at no stage did it feel like it would break free.

Through the following chicane section the steering was accurate and the suspension was more than happy to soak up small amounts of kerb, as well.

In all we completed around 6-8 laps on this circuit, and while it wasn’t the most demanding of track assaults, at all times the GTI behaved as I intended. Moments after I had my run the car was out circulating again. When the driver finished his session, he was all smiles too, indicating that the car behaved as well for him as it did for me.

Onto the skid pan next. If you’ve not sampled this part of Eastern Creek before, it is a large concrete area with standing water adding an extra dimension. Here we were able to pit the new Mk6 GTI, fitted with XDL, against a Mk5 GTI with no electronic diff.

You can read more about the XDL in the two links at the end of the article, but in basic terms the system borrows different parts of existing technology fitted to the car to reduce understeer. Under more demanding cornering the inside wheel will tend to spin due to the load of the car being forced to the outside wheel. Once the XDL senses the wheel slip it will use the ABS and ESP systems to individually brake the slipping wheel so that it can regain traction. Now, with both front wheels gripping, instead of one, the car can better maintain the driver’s intended line.

This test was a double edge sword for Volkswagen. In isolation, the Mk5 GTI handled the slalom layout very well, in what were trying conditions for a front wheel drive car. However, the new GTI behaved that little bit better. Its more advanced electronics offered a more compliant experience and allowed a greater degree of steering accuracy. At the halfway point of the slalom course was a 180° left hander and here the XDL allowed a higher exit speed as the car was less prone to understeer.

XDL seems like a bit of a marketing gimmick, but as this test proved, there is enough merit here to make even the harshest critic take notice.

Our final test was a couple of hot laps on a shortened Eastern Creek circuit. A number of drivers were used for this part of the day and included the likes of Steve Owen, Luke Youlden and James Brock. In other words, guys that know their way around a track and especially Eastern Creek. With four people on board the car handled the track very well indeed. It never really felt bothered by the extra weight, and even in this more extreme test the car still felt well balanced at all times.

All the drivers were singing the praises of the car and the XDL system. Of course, they were being paid by Volkswagen for their services so you would expect them to say as much, but you got the sense that these guys were genuinely surprised by how well the front-wheel drive GTI handled its track duties.

So, after my second experience in the new GTI the car has continued to impress. Due to its similarities to the outgoing model the Mk6 is often criticised as being a facelift, rather than a new model. The merits of that opinion can be debated elsewhere, what is becoming clearer, however, is that the new GTI is a better overall car than the Mk5. And that means the new, and improved, GTI remains one of the best hot hatches on the market.

Eastern Creek Raceway

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