Golf GTI back on form as hot hatch to beat
Latest version of old favourite looks a winner
Volkswagen's new Golf Mk7 is quite a sweet wee car, but those who are a bit more performance-inclined have been waiting for the three magic letters that make it a whole lot more entertaining - GTI.
This little badge makes all the difference on the Golf, and after a lot of kilometres and a day spent being mean to it at Taupo's world-standard racetrack, I think it's fair to say that the latest version is the most deserving of its GTI stamp than any in recent years.
It's tight, fast, dripping in tech aids and, when prompted, can feel about as untamed as you'd want it.
When the first GTI appeared all those years ago, it heralded a new era in mass-market hatches - many maintain it is the first hot hatch, although it has to share that with the Renault 5 Alpines and Gordinis. But Volkswagen can certainly take a bow for popularising the quickened shopping basket nearly 40 years ago and has been following it up ever since.
There are a couple of stumbles - the most notable being the porky and uninspired MkIV version - but the car's essence has remained largely intact, and with the new model the company has underlined its intent to keep pushing its hatchback's credibility forward.
Of course there's the little Polo GTI on the showroom floor as well, but it's the ST version of Ford's Focus, Peugeot's freshly launched GTi and Renault's fiery RS265 that are going to be the temptations for those not driven by brand loyalty.
To further complicate things, there'll be the stripper 'R' version along next year, and in March comes a further-tweaked GTI with a performance pack which will add a bit more power, better brakes and a tricky electronically controlled mechanical LSD.
Volkswagen New Zealand is banking on the sub-$60,000 GTI giving it an instant boost, and there are already enthusiast pre-orders on the books. The company has openly made some very bold predictions about its global future and seems hell bent on world domination. The situation in Europe is obviously going to put a dent in that, but with sharp pricing and high specifications it's definitely upping the ante in markets like ours.
Looking at the non-GTI Golfs and the fact that there are cars sitting under the $40,000 mark for the first time means it's serious and we'll likely be seeing more of that iconic badge on the roads - and it's not like it's been a rarity up until now. VW boss Tom Ruddenklau reckons the GTI will make up as much as 20 per cent of the company's Golf sales here.
The car has certainly followed its pattern of evolution rather than revolution, and from the outside it's an instantly recognisable form, albeit with a few new design touches like the flattened out front bumper. The 18-inch wheels let red calipers peek out to give a performance hint, and the rims themselves seem like a reimagining of the pepper-pot alloys of old.
Getting into the car, you're immediately reminded of other little touches that make up GTI's persona - the tartan seat trims and red trimmings being most obvious. For those who have owned GTIs, it's like running into a mate you haven't seen in a while. The looks are a bit more grown-up, manners are better and the clothing a bit more refined, but when push comes to shove it's just like the good old days.
Pushing off from central Auckland mid-afternoon on a Thursday gave us a solid taste of what most urban drivers are going to have to live with - bloody traffic, and lots of it. This was the perfect time to test out the car's city powers, like the eco-friendly stop/start system that turns the engine off when the car comes to a stop, and the "comfort" setting for suspension and the semi-automatic DSG transmission.
These functions are nice to have, but GTI drivers like to drive, so once the Bombay Hills were in the rear-view mirror, sport mode was engaged, stop/start deactivated, and the shifter pushed over to the left of its main track to allow gear changes through the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Feeling significantly more GTI, a fairly spirited drive to Rotorua showed very good road manners as we tackled a variety of surfaces, some excellent and some that we're all too familiar with, particularly in rural areas.
The force-fed two-litre engine puts out 162kW, which is perfectly respectable in itself, but it's the 360Nm of torque that really injects the fun into the GTI, and means nice, quick passes on the open road and very little time in the danger zone.
That amount of punch often translates to torque steer and frantic scrambles for traction, but with torque vectoring making sure any wheelspin is instantly taken out of the equation, this wasn't an issue. Even under full throttle - unless traction control was switched off, or as close to "off" as modern systems allow - grip was significantly improved over the last version. Slapping through the six-speed DSG attacking sets of corners it was surprisingly settled, with exceptional balance and stability putting it among the top players in fast front-wheel drives.
The quick backroad sprint the following morning to Taupo was similarly entertaining, although it was the promise of track time on the former A1GP-hosting circuit that was really fuelling the motivation for an early, fog-bound start.
Getting a chance to test how well the new adaptive chassis control system worked was interesting - with quick lane changes on wet surfaces revealing electronics capable of coping with emergency moves without everything turning pear-shaped. Back-to-back tests with the traction control system on and off underlined just how far safety systems have come in recent years. But the fast slaloms and even faster laps were where the GTI came into its own - the speed-sensitive steering rack being a notable improvement, balancing low-speed manoeuvrability and high-speed stability to provide exactly what GTI is about.
Of course, nothing's perfect, and the bigger brakes will be welcome next year.
The only other complaint was in the incessant recommendations to engage eco modes. I'm all for saving the planet, but if I want to drive fast with the windows down, the car reminding me that it'll use less fuel if I'd wind them up was not really appreciated. The helpful reminder to take my mobile with me as I switched the car off, however, was quite handy.