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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI and R range

Our Opinion

We like
Mk 7.5 GTI a clever improvement on Mk 7, still the best hot hatch in the class
Room for improvement
Three-door not as practical, new multimedia screens are fingerprint magnets


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15 Aug 2017


VIRTUALLY every brand in the automotive space is currently looking at how its range of hatchbacks are selling and – with the exception of industry stalwarts like Mazda, Hyundai and Toyota – are collectively sucking in air through their teeth.

The SUV crossover juggernaut roars on unabated, and no matter how good a car your hatch might be, it’s just not piquing the interest of Aussie buyers.

Well, if there’s anything we know about said Aussie buyers, it’s that waving a performance wand in a car’s general direction often makes a distinct difference.

Volkswagen’s Golf GTI has been at the pointy end of the hot hatch battle since the 1970s, and has ruled the local roost since 2005 – but it’s also feeling the pain of customers moving away from bread-and-butter five-doors towards SUVs.

Its answer? Add more performance variants!

Drive impressions

Arriving only a matter of weeks after the rest of the Golf Mk ‘7.5’ mid-life updates hit showrooms, Volkswagen’s approach to the GTI range has been a measured one when it comes to updates for this mid-life update.

The entry level GTI, for example, scores only minor exterior updates, an extra seven kilowatts of power – up to 169kW - and a slight widening of its 350Nm torque band.

Inside, there’s a new 8.0-inch touchscreen multimedia screen that’s been flush-mounted into the dash for a clean, integrated look, while some of the GTI’s driver aid systems have also been tweaked for better performance.

There’s been a change in the line north of the base GTI, however, and it’s quite a big one. Gone is the five-door Performance, replaced by the limited edition three-door Performance Edition 1, or Performance 1 for short.

Restricted to just 150 units, the Performance 1 uses the same ECU-tuned 180kW/370Nm EA888 of the previous car, as well as its bigger brakes and electronic limited slip diff. It also gets VW’s latest seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which differs from the six-speed mainly in that its internals now swim in a pressurised reservoir of oil.

The third car on show today is the Mk 7.5 range-topping Golf R which – like the GTIs – offers only minimalist external styling updates to the headlights (new dual DRLs) and tail-lights (active LED indicators), new design 19-inch rims with Continental ContiSport Contact tyres and tweaked front and rear bumpers.

It, too, gets the seven-speed DSG that debuted in last year’s Passat Alltrack, along with VW’s fifth generation 4 Motion all-wheel-drive system and the latest Active clutch-pack actuated front diff.

Without any real mechanical changes to speak of, a blast of the GTI in western NSW merely serves to get reacquainted with just what makes the GTI the benchmark of hot hatches.

The stiff and vice-free MQB platform is the first element, allowing the front strut and rear multi-link suspension to follow the road without compromise, while VW’s mechanically constant-ratio variable steering rack and big, feelsome brakes also gives the GTI an incredibly sound base from which to work.

Our manual tester – its gearshift topped with the ubiquitous VW golf ball shifter – is a simple, feelsome device that feels both eager and balanced, though road noise getting back through the floor from the tyres is quite prominent.

The 180kW Performance 1 has noticeably more vim and vigour underfoot, thanks in part to those extra percentage points of power and torque liberated via an ECU tune. The extra cog in the box also gives the three-door a longer-legged gait at highway speeds, barely turning over 1700rpm at the national limit.

Torquey turbos don’t need loads of gears, in truth, but the slightly shorter third and fourth cogs also feel nice when rowing through via the shift paddles.

Other than that, there’s not a lot of difference between the base grade and Performance 1 – according to VW, both the five-door and three-door DSG cars weigh in at 1352kg – but if you’re after a manual, you’re looking at the GTI for the time being.

As well, one of the reasons the GTI went five-door along the way is practicality. Three-door hatches are a very rare bird these days, and are the preserve of either young or young-at-heart couples without the need to transport little ones around – because getting a kid into a child seat in a three-door is a straight-up hassle.

Luggage room is the same between the two, but it’s just the access to the rear seats that cruels it for many.

And for ours, the looks of the Performance 1 aren’t actually dramatic enough to sway us towards living with the compromise. We reckon it’s the doors – they actually don’t seem all that much longer than those on the five-door, and they’re definitely not the same length as those on the 2005 Mk 5 three-door.

Not such worries with the five-door R, of course, which maintains its mantle at the top of Volkswagen’s performance tree.

It, too, has only seen a smattering of tweaks that are aimed to improve, rather than transform, the breed. Chief amongst them is the addition of the seven-speed DSG, along with a computer retune that’s resulted in a headline act of 213kW and 380Nm from a mere 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine.

Granted, the engine is a long way north in terms of internal specs when it’s compared to the base GTI, but it’s still a startling number.

It’s even more startling when you give the throttle its due, and the R gathers up its skirts and simply teleports you towards the horizon at a truly, truly impressive pace.

A groundswell of tractive force seems to coil up somewhere behind and beneath you, and you’re suddenly imagining how poorly the conversation with the neighbourhood cop is going to turn out unless you button off very quickly.

But the R’s biggest strength is its flexibility. Sure, it’s a muscle-bound hitman when the mood strikes, but thanks to a wide range of adjustment in its adaptive suspension tune, Comfort mode means just that.

The exhaust is muted, the ride is feather pillow smooth – as opposed to pillowball mount-stiff in Race mode – and the interior is as comfortable as any large sedan. The digital dash and large screen also help to lift the R from the auspices of a mere hatchback into something that’s worthy of its asking price.

Negatives? It’s hard to pinpoint things on such a brief drive, but the much-vaunted multimedia screens across all three cars are absolute magnets for smeary fingerprints, road noise is surprisingly prominent at the posted limits on country roads, while the as-mentioned rear access to the three-door is an acquired taste.

It’s going to be a very interesting 18 months for fans of VW’s galloping Golf – and it may become an onerous task when it comes to picking the GTI or R that’s just right for you.

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