Volkswagen Golf GTI: Hot hatch heroics
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The best news about the recently updated Volkswagen Golf GTI may not be that it has a new engine that pushes out 169kW, nor that it features the parent company’s stylishly drawn front and back ends, resplendent with restyled bumpers and LED bulb tech.
Rather, the fact that the Golf GTI remains available with a manual transmission if you really want it is both a nod to the properly involved driving experience this car has always represented through its various generational updates, as well as something of a miracle in 2017.
The current climate suggests that self-shifter gearboxes are on the out in a big way. Nothing fire-breathing from the Mercedes-Benz or Audi range offerings features a manual gearbox any more.
BMW still has its diminutive M2 sporting a clutch pedal, but you’ll have to search hard for similar fare from Jaguar or Subaru.
In fact, with only Mazda and Toyota extolling the virtues of a manual transmission (in the MX-5 and 86 respectively), Volkswagen’s Golf GTI could be the last stand by a European manufacturer for DIY cog-swapping.
Having said all that, the DSG automatic is perfectly usable, too, of course. You get six ratios (same as the manual version) as well as the inevitable – but useful – paddle shifters on the steering column to at least give you a degree of manual control. You’ll also pay a $2500 premium for the DSG ’box.
For traditionalists, most of the stuff that draws people from all walks of life towards Volkswagen’s mainstay hot hatch remain: the tartan seats, the special alloys, the snug driving position, the raspy exhaust note.
There’s a reason this car has been a perennial performer for the brand; it’s just so much more exciting and fun to drive than the competition. Although, bang for buck, at this price, there isn’t actually that much competition.
The GTI has proven so popular, in fact, that most buyers don’t consider there’s another option in the family if real performance is desired.
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The Golf R, which pushes out 228kW and 400Nm, does have a harder edge to it though it’s much more compromised towards performance, whereas the GTI can behave itself in the city and do a good job of impersonating a “normal” Golf when required.
The R announces itself with a lot more fire and brimstone. It’s also the better part of $20,000 more than the (manual) GTI.
You’ll see most GTIs battling rush-hour traffic rather than racing around circuits on track days. The model’s success may be seen by some as detrimental to its credibility (not that your local Volkswagen dealer will care either way). But a drive will cure any cynicism.
The modern Golf is actually a pretty big vehicle … for a hatchback anyway. Inside the cabin there is room enough for five and a decent boot, too.
But the GTI still manages to deliver a performance car experience. You feel as if you’re sitting lower to the ground.
Those tartan-dressed sports seats hug you in and, regardless of the transmission you’ve opted for, the steering and acceleration are both impressively responsive.
As to be expected, the latest iteration features a list of new comfort, convenience and safety specifications.
The eight-inch touchscreen in the centre console has finally caught up with the times; a proper big screen that feeds you all manner of in-car data, as well as boasting satellite navigation as standard. Front Assist and Lane Assist technologies are also standard now, as is Volkswagen’s keyless entry/start system.
Those practical elements are possibly what makes the GTI such a success, despite its sports car heritage.
You don’t need to drive the GTI like you’re racing mirror to mirror for it to feel crisp and sporty. But it will do all the things a “normal” hatchback does, without compromising on comfort.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Engine: 1984cc four-cylinder turbo petrol (169kW/350Nm)
Prices: $54,890 (Golf GTI six-speed manual), $57,390 (Golf GTI six-speed DSG auto)
Pro: Driving dynamics, heritage, it’s still a practical hatch underneath all the performance-focused kit
Con: If you want to stand out from the crowd, look for a different hot hatch