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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Even better than the GTI before – smoother, sharper, greener and more fun
Room for improvement
Firm ride on some surfaces, some road noise intrusion, very little else

27 Oct 2009

COMEBACKS. Over recent years in the automotive world, we cannot think of a more spectacular one than on the morning in late September 2004 when Volkswagen pulled the covers off the fifth-generation Golf GTI at the Paris motor show.

Purposefully more aggressive in design, yet tastefully executed inside and out, the GTI generated an instant buzz with its promise of the sun and moon.

But after two generations of flaccid and fat pretenders wearing the GTI badge, who would have expected that the Volkswagen hot hatch would go on to deliver the stars as well when we finally slid behind the wheel back in May 2005.

Fast, fun and oh-so-spirited, the Mk5 restored our faith in the Golf GTI concept, and for two years waiting lists regularly extended more than 12 months, proving that hot hatch buyers felt the same too.

When all the dust finally settled, the GTI ended up accounting for one in every four Golf sales in Australia, underlining a career of stellar proportions.

So you can imagine the performance anxiety Volkswagen must have felt preparing the sixth-generation version, just released in Australia.

Well, comebacks are about giving existing fans exactly what they expect but in a whole new way, while creating more of them along the way. And this is exactly what the Golf GTI Version 6.0 delivers – same great recipe, but with fresh presentation and some added taste.

You may know by now that the latest Golf is basically the old one wearing new clothes inside and out (except for the roof), with essentially the same running gear save for changes to the drivetrain that bring significant efficiency improvements.

So in the flesh, you seriously need a double take to distinguish new from old, because the GTI’s gate is exactly the same.

Some might find the red grille inserts (a throwback to the Mk1 GTI that Australians never saw, sadly) a tad gauche, but the honeycomb air intake and vertical fog lights do speak the hot hatch language loud and clear. As do the same alloy wheel designs as before, coupled with an appropriately lower stance, subtle side skirts, and a fat rear diffuser. All textbook stuff, but done well nevertheless.

Familiarity reigns once the solid door is open too, thanks to this decade’s de rigueur flat-bottomed steering wheel, wonderfully camp tartan-trimmed sports seats, specific GTI instrumentation, and the smartest set of dash and door spear inserts we have seen in any car this year.

And virtually nothing to criticise inside either, because the Golf’s basics are so right – great driving position, superb quality, excellent ergonomics, plenty of space for people of all shapes and sizes, and a feeling of long-lasting robustness.

On the other hand, there is nothing actually new or novel in there either, so we fear that Volkswagen’s conservative approach may soon start to date.

For now, though, all is forgotten because – perched incredibly comfortably on those lovely and luscious front seats – there is a tantalising sense of expectation as the key is in the ignition and awaiting to be turned.

And … disappointment as the engine fires up yet sonically barely registers at idle. This virtually all-new 155kW 2.0 TSI number is so quiet and refined we check to see if the GTI script on the wheel doesn’t read ‘GSI’.

Actually, we needn’t have bothered doing that, because on the move all would be revealed.

DSG dual-clutch gearbox version first: We slot it into drive, and instantly the Golf whooshes forward – a bit too fast for the driveaway we’re in – so a quick dab of the brakes is in order, and their initial sensitivity catches us unawares. Hmm …

Anyway, we’re in glorious Victorian High Country, with some of Australia’s best driving roads beckoning us, so we pull out and instantly marvel at the perfectly modulated steering effort and feel. Wonderful.

On the move, we check the speedo and are instantly horrified at the licence-threatening three-figure speed we’re doing. This thing skates along the blacktop like it’s on black ice, spurred on by the slickest-feeling DSG we have yet experienced in a Volkswagen.

On certain bitumen there is some road noise thrumming inside the cabin, and while this varies as the surfaces do, it remains ever-present.

Our car also has the optional adaptive damper control system, and the ride on the 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza tyres does err on the firm ride, with a jiggly attitude we do not recall in the previous GTI.

Selecting ‘Sport’ does make it more pronounced, so over the course of the day we decided to keep the electronic damper switch in ‘Normal’ – a move vindicated when we drive a standard GTI and realise that the regular suspension setting is just fine as it is. Save your money, we say.

Soon the road starts to ribbon along and the GTI lights up like an Australian Crawl concert circa 1983.

That nicely balanced steering becomes radar-guided-missile accurate as we storm through corner after corner, shaving apex after apex with perfect precision the Golf’s limpet-like roadholding adjusts only as the driver commands through the wheel and throttle, for fast, flat and clean progress but with just a hint of oversteer.

Yet perhaps the most astounding thing is just how fast this thing is capable of going as a result, entering and exiting each corner at speeds that would put a wicked smile on the face of a Porsche Cayman pilot.

Volkswagen makes much of its Extended Electronic Differential Lock, dubbed XDL, which does plenty to flatter the driver into thinking that he or she is a budding Sebastian Loeb, thanks to the grip-enhancing and understeer-reducing way it helps redistribute torque to the front wheels, while working in concert with the ESC and traction controls to keep it all seamlessly smooth.

We especially marvelled at the latest GTI’s sheer composure as it struck potholes and odd road cambers while barrelling up or down a mountainside. Those ultra-sensitive brakes became a boon through such twists and turns, washing off speed instantly but without drama.

And that creamy EA888 twin-cam engine also came alive too, with a stirring yet smooth soundtrack as it revved freely past 7000rpm, pulling strongly all the way.

Now all these driving elements in isolation sound great, but it is in the uniform, controlled and co-operative way that everything comes together harmoniously at speed or under duress – steering, handling, brakes and, yes, even the ride quality – that makes the GTI utterly sensational behind the wheel. Plus, the dynamics to comfort ratio is equally near-perfectly realised.

There’s another thing too.

As super-fantastic and unbeatably efficient and easy as the spookily intuitive DSG is – and there is no other hot hatch on the planet with an automatic gearbox that comes within a country mile of the Golf GTI for ability and enjoyment – we would still choose the six-speed manual and save the $2500.

Why? Because – as we found with the Porsche’s equally brilliant PDK gearbox in the 911 – the GTI is a more intimate drive when you change those fluid gears yourself.

You barely notice that you are using your left hand and foot to drive the car, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world, and the engine goes and sounds and feels as if you are more of a part of the whole shebang!

Clichés like being beyond the sum of its parts spring to mind when trying to describe how the boyracer Golf drives.

About the only issue was that in one of the sub-1000km-old test cars, the DSG defaulted to a sort of limp-home mode in Sport only (not Drive), cutting revs and keeping speeds down.

But don’t let this put you off. The GTI DSG is still unique among cars in this class, and a superlative grand tourer/mountain road shape-shifter. Still, we’d choose the cheapest three-door manual with the terrific tartan seats and smile, because this is the ultimate version of a gifted driver’s car.

So, to summarise, this is the GTI we have been in love with for the past four and a half years, but now with more athleticism, finesse, and refinement.

And even those road noise and busy ride on certain types of surfaces observations utterly pale into insignificance for all the right things this car does and is.

Yes, a Focus XR5 Turbo has more steering feel and greater performance, and the late Renault Megane RS R26 was the rawer hot hatch experience, but the Golf GTI continues to be the towering all-rounder. Now, impossibly, it’s just that tiny bit more dynamic, refined, economical, greener, faster … and better value to boot.

Comeback? Our love for the GTI since 2005 never left and now it’s a whole lot bigger than ever.

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