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Engine performance, response and driveability, efficient DSG transmission, shift buttons, agile handling, body control, sharp but balanced handling, lack of torque steer, braking performance, safety features, standard equipment, ergonomics, comfort, five-door hatchback practicality, styling, value
Room for improvement
Some road rumble, bumpy-road ride quality, hefty kerb weight, clunky handbrake, small fuel tank
11 May 2005
IF outrageous is what you're after, might we suggest you look somewhere other than the new Volkswagen Golf GTi?
If you like the feeling of being almost overwhelmed by a thunderously torque-rich engine, and seriously challenged every time you start pushing towards the limits of the chassis, then there are cars that will do that for you.
But not the new GTi.
Balance is what this practical, space-efficient, responsive and highly capable Volkswagen is all about.
For the money, it's easily possible to find more kiloWatts, more torque, and even all-wheel drive, by you'd need to search hard before finding something in which all components work together more harmoniously.
The suspension, steering and braking all neatly contain the 2.0-litre turbo engine's power and torque, and the package size is such that the Golf seems to wrap itself around you in a nicely communicative way.
That's not to say the GTi doesn't pack a powerful thump in the back, or that it cannot rip through a tight set of curves with blinding speed.
In fact, the 147kW engine, with its 280Nm of eminently useable torque between 1800rpm and 5000rpm, is the most powerful by quite a margin ever to be seen in a GTi.
And, if the automatic-manual DSG transmission is optioned, it is capable of zipping to 100km/h in a tidy 6.9 seconds - not quite WRX fast, but well on the way and easily achieved without confronting any signs of turbo lag.
It might surprise to hear that the six-speed manual version of the GTis isn't quite as quick as the DSG - it takes 7.2 seconds to reach 100km/h - but a week spent with both cars clearly demonstrates why that is so. More concerning this later.
What is really surprising about the new fast Golf is the way the suspension and front-end geometry deal so well with front-drive torque steer.
On full-bore take-offs, the VW shows its lovely balance by asking the driver to commit those sorts of problems to memory. It's only after you've done your first quick standing-start blast that you realise how torque steer was the last thing you were thinking of.
The main concern - and this is where any front-drive is always going to lag behind a rear-drive, or all-wheel drive car - is helping tyres even as wide and sticky as the GTi's 17-inch 225/45s grab traction off the line.
The GTi is a balanced car, but it's all too easy to dial in momentary wheelspin, followed by a quick pause for thought as the traction-control system and electronic differential lock step in.
Such is the torque of the GTis engine that even feeding in too much accelerator while under way in second gear will produce a steady squeal from the front tyres.
But once you get used to this, the Golf is sharp off the mark in a way that places it in front of most hot hatches.
The six-speed manual gearbox has a longish throw but shifts decisively through well-chosen ratios, while the DSG is brilliantly crisp in its upshifts, with no detectable pause as the twin-clutch system slips from gear to gear.
In fact, one of the pleasures of a DSG Golf GTi under reasonably hard acceleration is the muffled thump that comes from the already quite exquisite exhaust on each upshift. Strangely it doesn't happen in the manual, no matter how quick the upshift is.
The DSG's efficiency at transferring power is demonstrated by comparing its acceleration times and quoted fuel economy with the manual. In both cases, the manual runs second.
This indicates that the unique, twin-clutch DSG gear-shifting system in which two gears are always engaged and ratio shifts are a matter of automatically actuating the appropriate clutch, is able to do a better job than even the best driver using a manual transmission.
Upshifts happen with an incredible swiftness, while the downshifts are noticeably slurred for smooth, rev-matched transitions.
So delicious is the shifting with the DSG that it compels the driver to regularly use the manually controlled sequential function, whether it be on the centre console or the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel (left side for downshifts, right side for upshifts).
The only downside is the DSG's discomfort when reversing, particularly uphill, where the clutch engages and disengages as it vainly attempts to maintain smooth, even progress.
The long-stroke, 2.0-litre direct-injection FSI engine makes for a wonderful small-capacity turbo.
While it might be impressive for its linear power spread in normally aspirated form, a little turbo boost does wonders, adding torque as easily as turning on a tap.
Part of the reason for its unusual flexibility comes from the unusually high compression ratio - 10.5:1 is the sort of thing you expect in a normally aspirated engine and, along with the variable inlet camshaft timing (and variable-length inlet manifold) it helps the GTi respond with outstanding low rpm willingness.
Maintaining a high compression ratio doesn't do any harm to economy either.
The manual GTi quotes an average consumption figure of 8.1L/100km and the DSG is even better with a figure of 8.0L/100km (identical, incidentally, to the original 1.6-litre 1976 Golf GTi).
If there's a problem it's that the fuel tank is pretty small at 55 litres and doesn't make the most out of the engine's frugality in terms of cruising range. As you'd expect, it asks to be fed top-level premium unleaded too.
The quick Golf's chassis has been reworked to take the power. The GTi sits lower than regular Golfs by about 20mm, and the springs and shock absorbers have bee re-rated to give a decidedly firmer ride.
The wider, lower-profile 225/45R17 tyres (regular Golf FSIs use 205/55 R16 tyres) contribute to grip and firmness too.
The Golf's electro/mechanical power steering has been reprogrammed too, giving more "sporty" responses although it feels a mite slow, while the brakes (with red front and rear calipers) have also been upgraded, using 312mm ventilated discs at the front and 286mm solid discs at the rear.
Unlike other Golfs but familiar in its virtual twin, the Audi A3, the GTi also gets VW's Electronic Stabilisation Program (ESP).
And what about the all-import visuals - the design cues that tell onlookers you're driving something a little different to a regular 2.0-litre FSI?
Well, apart from the highly distinctive front-end with its almost-Audi full-frame grille dropping down into and including the spoiler, and a quite subtle roof spoiler above the rear window - plus the neat 17-inch alloy wheels - today's Golf GTi remains a quite subtle statement that will often only be identified by the well-informed.
The fact it's based on a five-door body like other Golfs emphasize its closeness, rather than its differences.
Inside, the GTi is fitted out with a set of quite seriously contoured seats (trimmed in checker-pattern "Interlagos" cloth and using active front head restraints), leather trim for the slightly downsized and chamfered-off steering wheel and the somewhat clunky handbrake, and a mixed smattering of real and fake alloy in places like the floor pedal inserts (real), shift lever (also real) and the door trims (fake).
Leather is available too, in either "Anthracite" or "Pure Beige".
The interior is otherwise pretty much what you get in other Golfs, which means there's good passenger space in front and rear, a pleasantly tasteful instrument panel with (special GTi) blue-lit gauges, and a two-way adjustable steering column.
Like top-level Golfs, the GTi adds an auto-dim internal rear-view mirror and dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning. But if you want power seat adjustment forget it, or a power sunroof, pay extra for it.
What you do get with the Golf GTi is a remarkably impressive, endearing car that is a worthy successor to the original 1976 version that really started the hot hatch thing.
If the already extended wait for delivery is any indication, tradition counts and buyers truly appreciate that what Volkswagen has here is perhaps the strongest aspirational model on its Australian fleet.
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