The evolution of the Golf GTI has entered its seventh stage and it’s almost as if the model has become a victim of its own success. The Mk5 GTI created a tidal wave of hype and the Mk6 followed suit, perhaps to a lesser degree despite sales remaining strong. But this time around it feels like the Mk7 GTI has quietly snuck onto Australian shores without much fanfare.
Not only did the Mk5 GTI reignite Volkswagen, especially in Australia, it reignited the hot hatch segment. Last decade you didn’t have to do too much to make people take notice. That’s not to say the Mk5 wasn’t a great car, it was, but we’re now in a more competitive market where buyers have a firm idea of what to expect from a Golf GTI. The likes of Ford and Renault, in particular know that too and provide very capable alternatives. Has the Mk7 advanced the cause enough for Volkswagen to ensure it still has a hot hatch winner on its hands?
Let’s start with the look of the new GTI. It’s straight from the GTI playbook, there’s no surprises here. Some people bemoan the fact the look of the GTI and the Golf VII in general is quite predictable. Personally, I appreciate that the Golf range has a clear evolution which can be traced all the way back to 1974 when the Golf was first introduced. Likewise, styling cues from the Mk1 GTI, first seen in 1976, can be found re-interpreted on the Mk7.
The red highlight on the grille now only found on the lower section works best when xenon headlights are optioned and the red line continues into the headlight cluster. This helps further enhance the overall effect of making the Mk7 look wider and more squat on the road. At the back more angular rear lights are the biggest difference from the Mk6.
Having worked so hard to win back GTI buyers, after losing them to complacency during the Mk3 and Mk4 era, Volkswagen clearly isn’t messing with its hot hatch recipe here.
The step inside the cabin reveals a greater leap forward with a more refined and cohesive result than the previous generation GTI. Materials appear to be slightly improved and the overall feeling is one of enhanced quality.
It’s still easy to find a comfortable seating position and in our manual equipped test car we found the pedal placement well suited to heel and toe downshifts. As an aside, we like that right hand drive Golfs still offer a dead pedal of sorts for your right foot, which makes highway cruising more comfortable than it would otherwise be.
The new GTI is packed with a raft of new standard equipment and it was the Driver Profile Selection which offered most interest for this review. It uses a revised Adaptive Chassis Control system to offer a choice of three main pre-determined settings: Comfort, Normal and Sport. These settings adjust suspension and steering tune. It will also adjust the behaviour of the DSG transmission if fitted.
In addition, there’s Eco and Individual settings as well. Eco is designed for improved fuel economy and will adjust functions such as the air conditioning to help its cause. Individual allows drivers to mix and match selections from the pre-determined settings to suit their own preferences. Want sharper steering all the time, but softer suspension for daily commuting, then here’s your chance.
All of these goodies cost money and as such the starting price for the GTI has moved beyond the $40,000 price point for the first time in recent years. That said the inclusion of standard equipment helps justify the extra cost, to the point that before turning the key the Mk7 GTI offers a noticeable improvement over its predecessor.
On the road the GTI is easy to drive and the manual ‘box had a great feel to it. Accurate and precise, it’s a shame the vast majority of GTIs will be fitted with a DSG.
It’s quickly apparent, too, that Volkswagen’s engineers have done a good job with the suspension tune. The Comfort setting allows you to cruise along without too many cares. On this setting the steering is too light for spirited driving and would be best suited to the grind of heavy traffic. Similarly, the suspension is soft and compliant but is quickly found out when the stakes are raised.
Pleasingly, when switching the profile to Normal or Sport the ride is still well composed and the new GTI will soak up bumps with ease. There’s a clear improvement here, especially when compared to the sometimes quite harsh Mk5. I couldn’t say I noticed a huge difference in ride quality between the Normal and Sport settings, but the steering was defintely sharpened up when set to Sport.
To be honest if you only had the choice between Normal and Comfort you’d find yourself with a well sorted hot hatch able to handle most driving duties. That said, when attacking twisty roads the Sport setting is the best option. It’s in the steering feel I noticed the greatest difference, where turn-in was good and quick direction changes felt best.
Once you find yourself on some fun roads the GTI will put a smile on your face with its overall composure. Again, I can’t praise the suspension tune highly enough, it offered stability when I needed it while remaining surefooted through mid-corner bumps.
The Mk7 GTI is a car you quickly feel comfortable in, I immediately felt confident to push the car to its limits and discovered a few new and pleasing GTI experiences while doing so.
There’s a liveliness to the chassis that is down to more than the car shedding a few kilos. The car moves around under heavy braking and the rear end is light and frisky at times. Normally you might consider these traits to be unfavourable but not once did I feel uncomfortable. In fact, it just urged me to push more. It’s a great experience when there’s a real willingness from both car and driver to hunt the next apex. And while enjoying this new flirty handling behaviour I was eager to nail it through corner after corner.
The more I pressed on the better the GTI was. There’s just so much grip and you can rip it into corners quite hard, that grip will carry you through corner exits as well. It’s contradictory in some ways, because the car always felt composed, but felt looser and therefore more alive at the same time. It’s actually very hard to explain the sensation in words other than to say this really is a new GTI.
Braking is, of course, over-assisted at first—a Volkswagen Group trait—but in general terms the feel through the pedal is quite good. It’s unlikely you’ll run out of brakes on public roads that’s for sure.
With 162kW this is also the most powerful GTI ever made (discounting special editions) and when you’re hunting those apexes, in third and fourth gear especially, the car has good throttle response and mid-range grunt. At other times it doesn’t feel terribly quick, although some of that is due to the expert chassis beneath you which could comfortably handle more power—bring on the Golf R, I kept thinking to myself!
For a car with only a few hundred kilometres under its belt it did perform well and was very willing to play high in the rev range. I can’t say I expect the extra 7kW offered in the Performance Pack (due in Australia from the second quarter of 2014) to provide too many extra fireworks, but it will be very interesting to see how its electronically controlled mechanical diff alters the driving experience. Certainly, the standard GTI handled most corners I threw it into quite well. Understeer only became an issue when deliberately looking for it or, at times, through longer radius bends. Overall, though, this is a very fine handling front-wheel drive car.
In conclusion the GTI is everything you expect it to be. It will live up to its well-deserved cliché of being the best all-round hot hatch in its class and, in time, you will see plenty of them on the road. As is to be expected you’ll need to wait in line if you want a car built to your spec, with the current lead time being around six months.
Continuing the clichéd summary of the GTI, it still can’t quite match the connection or raw thrills provided by a Megane RS 265, for example. However small, there is a sense of detachment at times. But if asked to choose between the two I’d still be taking the GTI every time. The really nice thing about the new GTI is that it delivers everything you expect it to—better than it has ever done—but does so with a friskiness that’s been missing from the GTI repertoire until now.
If you’re shopping for a hot hatch there are more options worth considering than there has been in the past. But, to quote Jeremy Clarkson when he tested the Mk5 GTI back in the day, if you want a hot hatch that is “all things to all men” save yourself the bother of shopping around; just buy a Golf GTI.
Thank you to Lennock Volkswagen for their assistance.