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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Handling, roadholding, performance, six-speed manual gearbox, refinement, smoothness, economy, great front seats, upmarket cabin ambience, Golf reputation, expected high resale values
Room for improvement
Hard ride, some road noise intrusion, steering not quite razor sharp, chintzy grille, keeps Scirocco out of Oz

4 Feb 2010

FOR the Golf GTI right now the road ahead is clear while behind lies the carcasses of half a dozen or so vanquished opponents, slain with deadly disdain like villains in a Kill Bill double bill.

At least, that’s what most of the world’s motoring press seems to think, singing the praises of the recently released sixth-generation hot hatch with rarely reached harmony.

We’re not so easily convinced, though.

Yes, at the GTI’s Australian launch late last year we were mesmerised by the Scalextric handling and roadholding brought on by a trick new diff tech dubbed XDL (Extended Electronic Differential Lock), seduced by the effortless power delivery, and wowed by the Volkswagen’s wonderfully democratic pricetag.

But we wondered if the sharp ride and constant drone over some of our most beautiful scenery (Victoria’s alpine region) would spell trouble when trundling along on our uneven urban bitumen.

And we also wanted to further analyse the GTI’s steering because we’re not convinced the hottest Golf’s helm is true to the genre in terms of ultimate feedback and feel.

So here we are, in the lightest and least lumbered version – the $38,990 GTI with three doors, six speeds, one clutch and nil options. No DSG gearbox. No electronic dampers. No leather. No sat nav. No Bluetooth. No sunroof. Not even metallic paint. Haggle and you might be able to get all this for under $40K. Marvellous.

“It’s the purest GTI,” said the man who helped hone the handling – two-time Le Man winner Hans-Joachim Stuck. He would know.

Indeed. Drive normally at regular urban speeds and the GTI immediately puts a smile on your dial as a result of the sheer tractability and smoothness of the four-pot turbo.

Trundling at 15km/h in third gear with the tacho showing just 600rpm (some 5600rpm short of the red line), this Golf pulls hard all the way past 140km/h before fourth gear is needed.

Similarly you can laze along in sixth at 50km/h with enough in reserve to not need a downward shift – although we can’t see why you’d deny yourself the fizzy exhaust note available in the lower gears.

You do need to rev it out past about 2500rpm from standstill to see some serious forward turbo thrust happening, but once beyond that the power delivery is rapid yet remarkably torque-steer free, slinging the Golf past the legal speed limit in no time at all, with both the front tyres and 2.0-litre powerplant barely raising a sweat.

The gearshift, too, is light and easy, with a likeably slick clutch action to match. The whole pedal arrangement works like second nature. Volkswagen’s certainly done its homework here.

“So far, so good,” you may say. “But you can say the same thing about a Golf 90TSI or Ford Focus LX, right?”

We certainly can, because the GTI at urban speeds is a swift yet suave operator with nicely weighted steering and strong brakes – even if the latter can feel a tad too eager initially until you get used to them.

But at normal speeds the steering on this self-proclaimed Yoda of hot hatches isn’t hungry enough to hunt out corners, coming over instead as too soft … while the ride is too sharp. It ought to be the other way around.

If everyday commuting is all the distance you will ever drive in this Golf then you are likely to feel underwhelmed by the GTI hype, like you might after assessing Barack Obama’s first year in office.

However, taking the long view – or the long winding road in the Volkswagen’s case – changes everything, because up until now neither car nor the president has yet been given a fighting chance.

Find a serpentine road and the Golf’s ability to carve through it at anti-social speeds with utter precision and control is a transformation worthy of Eliza Doolittle.

Spear up a mountain pass and you will be astounded at how quick yet composed the Volkswagen feels, blitzing along at a terrific rate of knots. This turbo engine feels like it has a massive set of lungs in which it can inhale – and quickly exhale – a gale force from.

Hit a pothole and except for a momentary hiccup the Golf will continue to tear along the chosen course as if it were magnetically drawn to the road, skimming over uneven bitumen, odd cambers and slippery surface patches with almost arrogant aplomb while feeling more planted than a JFK patsy.

“Aha!” you cry. “What about that sleepy steering?”

Like we said, at lower velocities it is tactile and eager but not Extra Sharp Vintage Cheese biting like in a Renault Clio or Focus, and this is epically disappointing because a razor-like helm is the hot hatch’s Holy Grail.

Yet – as with the rest of the car’s dynamics – the GTI giant awakens the moment you give it some stick, and everything starts to work in unison.

So the hitherto dull-at-the-straight-ahead steering is suddenly as alert as a Meerkat, tipping into corners with acrobatic balance and poise. The rear end lightens if you lift off midway through, but the grip feels never-ending and the progressive traction loss that eventually does transpire is easily retrievable via the throttle or, failing that, the remarkably subtle traction and stability aids.

Of course, you can still overcook the GTI with snap oversteer if you go off the gas tearing around a bend at crazy speeds with the ESP OFF light on …

But there’s no need to, as Volkswagen’s engineers have hit a fine compromise between fun and control, serving as a reminder that there’s 34 years of GTI development on the company’s CV.

After one especially spirited driving session we checked our fuel consumption figures, and too our amazement we were averaging sub-10L/100km numbers. Speaking of having your cake…

So, bravo, Wolfsburg engineers, you have created an exquisitely harmonious hot hatch.

All of our senses – from comfortable couch potato (on smoother roads) to blitzkrieg boyracer – haven’t felt quite this satiated since the sublime Porsche Cayman 2.7 – another base model BTW.

Like the latter, the GTI whets your appetite for the perfect road experience, and even after a country blast it still leaves you longing for a little more, like after you’ve devoured a favourite meal. It’s the pang that has you exploring the long way home and other clichés like that.

Mr Stuck is so right – the base version is all the GTI you need. Suddenly we’re falling over ourselves wanting more time in the Golf.

The End.

[EDITOR] “Umm … and what about the rest of the car?

[WRITER] “Whoops! Oh yeah …”

OK. Even when not in motion the GTI is alluring, thanks to those now familiar alloy wheels, squat stance, honeycomb grille, and tartan sport seats – well, the Bay City Rollers were HUGE when the first version appeared in Europe in ’76 …

Anyhow, all follow the hot hatch script to a tee … and maybe too closely, since the (obligatory flat bottomed) steering wheel’s centre hub actually reads “AIRBAG GTI”! No thanks!

Now, combined with the current Golf 6’s painstakingly designed and presented cabin architecture, the GTI manages to ooze quality and class like no other rival on earth can.

But in our eyes the red grille lipstick is a step too far into caricature – it looks like John Waters’ drawn-on pencil moustache served as inspiration. The Mk5 was visually more resolved in our eyes.

Unlike that car, however, tactility is the latest model’s key seduction ploy from the part-perforated leather-trimmed wheel with its stainless steel spoke caps, to the flocked lining forming the insides of the door bins and glovebox, nobody can help but feel as if they’re travelling in something special.

The white typeface for the instrument markings, trip computer window and up-spec audio display are the graphic equivalent to Cary Grant at his most charming the ice cool metallic inserts are like the jewellery worn by Jacqueline Onassis and the love-it-or-loathe-it ‘Jacky’ seat fabric is Rod Stewart’s music circa Atlantic Crossing – pure camp that’s somehow stood the test of time.

However, our favourite interior item is the pair of ridged door spears that tickles your skin on contact like the light brush of, well, the stubble of a Hans Solo or a Beatrice Dahl. Sensuality automated.

Meanwhile, the three-door GTI’s back seat is an interesting place from which to observe it all from.

Access is easy via front seats that tilt and slide (with memory), and once sat the attention to detail that so dazzles the duo up front continues unabated, with more plush plastics, fur-lined recesses, glidey grab handles and smooth switches. Even the roof lining has an Armani look about it.

Best of all you can lean back in the rear seat and take in the brilliantly illuminated dash and wonder how Volkswagen has somehow been allowed to out-Audi its Ingolstadt cousin in this regard.

All of these touches come together collectively as the GTI’s showroom calling card, but with a uniquely sporty stamp on what is ostensibly sensible but staid Golf interior architecture.

As with even the cheapest 90TSI, the GTI can do the whole solid build quality/spacious seating for four people (or five at a squeeze if the middle-rear passenger doesn’t mind freezing his/her knee caps – or gonads if legs are slightly akimbo – while perched on the otherwise surprisingly comfy centre position)/easy entry/perfect driving position/superb ergonomics/excellent ventilation/oodles of oddments space thing with numbing ease.

The boot is as big and as deep as you would hope from a C-segment hatchback (350 litres to 1305 litres), with the GTI obliging further with a one-in-three split-fold backrest (containing a pair of child anchorage points), in-built ski port for all those longer objects you would probably never cart around and the now essential 12-volt socket.

In the GTI, there’s no escaping the Golf DNA, resulting in a car that is as practically perfect as Mary Poppins. Constant evolution since 1974 will do that.

During the course of this test we brought along a 2009 Renault Clio RS 197 Cup – our current hot-hatch yardstick.

And we cannot deny that behind the Volkswagen’s wheel we yearned for the French car’s more connected steering, suppler ride, and superior road noise insulation.

But the Golf GTI feels more rapid as things hot up, and is just as accomplished and far more refined and accommodating overall, breaking through with a sense of roundedness that eludes all other hot hatches.

One critic quipped that the Volkswagen is the choice if you can only have one car while the more seriously honed Renault is the pick if there’s another vehicle available.

We agree. As there is nothing standing in Volkswagen’s way for the time being at least, if there can only be one $40K new car in our life right now, then the Golf GTI manual would most probably be it.

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