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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Entertaining, smooth and miserly engine
Room for improvement
A mild rather than hot hatch

Volkswagen logo28 Jun 2001

By TIM BRITTEN

PURISTS tend not to like the latest generation Volkswagen Golf GTi and, on the surface, their reasoning seems pretty sound.

For a start, it hardly measures up to the design brief that created the first GTi in the 1970s - a minimalist three-door 1.6 that was the progenitor of the 1980s hot-hatch boom.

The latest Golf GTi is less a hot hatch than a swift saloon. It is loaded with just about everything VW was able to source out of its options bin, from electric sunroof to climate control air- conditioning, from anti-lock brakes to an electronic differential lock.

It is also turbocharged although it uses a low-pressure system intended to induce mid-range torque, rather than high rpm power. The original car ran a single camshaft, carburettor engine while its disc/drum system was typical of state of the art braking.

The new GTi also features no less than five doors and, as a natural by-product of the Golf's physical expansion over the years, is actually quite large inside.

So, what we've got is a bigger, heavier, softer car, replete with luxury equipment and sprouting high technology from every pore. Not quite the wieldy, compact three-door hatch with a gutsy engine that started the whole thing about 20 years ago.

But is the latest incarnation of the Golf GTi a good thing?

Simply, the answer is yes. Forgetting expectations about what the car should or should not be, the 1999 Golf GTi is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, capable and endearing vehicle to live with.

A few moments behind the wheel is usually enough to establish the character of this new style GTi. The engine is smooth, packed with mid-range torque and capable of pushing the Golf along rapidly. VW claims the GTi is able to reach 100km/h in 8.5 seconds, which is not hanging around.

And fuel pump visits - apart from the requirement for premium unleaded - are surprisingly rare with a very impressive highway figure of 5.7 litres per 100km claimed by VW. The city figure is equally as impressive at 8.3 litres per 100km.

The GTi's suspension, tied down more firmly than the standard Golfs, is very capable. Using the same basic Audi A3-derived layout, with MacPherson struts at the front and a simple but effective torsion beam at the rear, it blends ride quality with stability and cornering poise while going about its task with relative silence.

It returns driving pleasure for sure, if not of the same quality as the earlier GTis.

Today's GTi is more a fluid, sure-footed car that eats up distances without overly disturbing passengers or even overly taxing the driver. It is forgiving, responsive and able to gather up a string of sharp corners with satisfying ease. Assisted by the substantial low-profile tyres, grip limits are high and ensure front-drive understeer is not experienced during normal press-on driving. Although the car always feels substantial, it remains sharp and responsive to the steering.

The braking, with assistance from the anti-lock system and the electronic brake force distribution, also matches the capabilities of the engine and chassis. And the electronic differential lock, basically an ABS-actuated traction control system, does a workmanlike job of controlling wheelspin - although it can be caught out at times, particularly on damp surfaces where some disturbing and surprising axle tramp can be induced.

The Recaro seats are peerless in terms of providing support in all the right places as well as holding passengers - particularly front-seat passengers - in place when the car is being thrown around.

The five-speed transmission requires some practice before gear changes become smooth but once harmony between driver and car has been achieved the GTi can be made to flow along smoothly.

And the feeling from the driver's seat is that this is not a small car rather it seems more like a mid-size European with plenty of leg, elbow and shoulder room, plus that relaxed, quiet composure not normally associated with small cars. And the glow from the violet instruments at night provides a distinct, unique atmosphere.

The only thing spoiling the illusion is a tightness about the back seat - in terms of legroom - that is probably partly due to the space taken up by those superb Recaro seats up front.

A full-size alloy spare wheel resides in the boot and the 60-40 split fold rear seat folds down to increase luggage capacity from 330 litres to a maximum of 1184 litres. Unlike the previous generation Golf, the new car is not inhibited by a substantial lateral cross beam that allowed mounting of child restraints.

No, the 1999 Volkswagen Golf GTi is not the same type of car as the original rather it has grown with its original enthusiastic buying group to become an enjoyable and capable, but less involving performance car aimed more at couples with young families than youthful singles. Best leave that to new-generation cars such as the Peugeot 206 GTI and the Proton Satria GTi.

As one of our staffers observed: "It's one for bar room chat, not back road surgery".

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