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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, composure, handling, grip, refinement, comfort, practicality, capability, docility when needed
Room for improvement
Some poor switch placement, no three-door option, higher entry price, normal GTIs now miss out on the optimum engine


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2 Oct 2013

HERE’S a familiar daydream scenario.

The time is now. The location is an island brimful of great roads, and you’re allowed just one new car under $50K. Which would it be?Many, understandably, would pick the brilliant Toyota 86 or Subaru BRZ.

But what if you want fun but need practicality too? Well, there’s the fab Ford Fiesta ST or Renault Megane RS 265, or, if rear-seat access matters, the five-door-only Ford Focus ST.

Great. Currently all are at the sharp edge of the hot-hatch wedge if driving prowess is the priority.

Except some people crave comfort and refinement too.

So step up, Volkswagen Golf GTI. Since 2005, the German all-rounder has redefined the hot-hatch segment, being just as much about the daily schlep as tearing along a mountain pass. That the 1976 original created the category gives it extra gravitas to boot.

Nearly 85 per cent of all buyers of the previous iteration went DSG while 90 per cent-plus plonked for five doors.

And that has long perplexed us, because our favourite GTI was the cheapest and lightest – three-doors, six-speed manual, tartan seats and no sat-nav. Surely finding a dream road and then getting lost with not-so-subtle Bay City Roller cabin trim overtones is what a hot hatch is all about.

Now there’s a seventh-gen GTI. And immediately everything isn’t all a box of kittens. Let’s get the negatives out of the way.

Entry into this Golf club costs $2500 more than before - $41,490 instead of $38,990.

Yes, there’s probably twice that amount in more standard equipment fitted, including a pair of rear doors, GPS, 18-inch alloys and adaptive dampers.

Yet the latter is necessary to soften the hard ride caused by the larger and heavier wheels, while rear doors add more weight.

Isn’t a hot hatch about lightness? VW ripped 40kg out of this model – partly by fitting a smaller fuel tank, the sneaks – so why aren’t buyers given the option of choosing the optimum GTI?If you demand it, the lighter and cheaper three-door will return to the Australian market quick-smart – it’s already been homologated for us – so keep that in mind, driving purists. Badger your dealer today!Our second problem with the newcomer is that GTIs are no longer created equally. There’s a ‘Performance’ version arriving next year with more power – if you’re able to afford it. Why isn’t the best-available engine standard? It’s yet another reminder for owners that they’re not in the optimum GTI. It’s like learning your dating the dimmer twin.

There’s one more thing too. The button that alters the chassis, engine response, steering weight and air-con output (!) is a blind reach behind the gear lever, because VW hasn’t bothered to switch it over from left-hand to right-hand drive. And in a related issue, the Tiptronic function on DSG cars is also on the incorrect side, being further away than ideal.

It’s an oversight as surprising as it is annoying, since the GTI’s interior is so superior to any previous or existing hot hatch this side of an Audi A3 that we’re struggling otherwise to avoid superlatives.

For example, the dashboard design and layout is first class, with just enough GTI-specific detailing in the instrument graphics, flat-bottomed steering wheel, and surrounding trim to add a sense of sporty/garish (you choose) occasion.

The fantastic tartan seats are the very definition of comfort and support, adding a sense of history and camp flair while aiding a driving position that is second-to-none in terms of space as well as the human/machine interface.

And there’s a quality, hushed ambience that seems to elude very rival, year in/year out – from the lush feel of the materials to the modernity of the newly installed (though not universally liked) electric handbrake.

So while there’s been progress in terms of design and presentation, there are a few glaring blots on the latest clean sheet Golf GTI, even before the ignition key is turned.

But the moment you do so, these absolutely pale into utter insignificance, for what VW’s engineers have created is a machine that’s all about giving more.

The GTI glides more effortlessly along the road, tips more instantly into a turn, slices more cleanly through every curve, remains more composed over fast crests, and then stops more emphatically when it needs to, than any of its ancestors previously have. For starters, detuned or not, the standard model’s new EA888 2.0-litre variable-valve twin-cam four-pot turbo combines astounding flexibility with outstanding turbine smoothness.

Whether in the quick-shifting DSG or buttery smooth manual (still our favourite), it will bolt away with determined haste, and keep the power coming on strongly all the way up deep into the red line.

Matched by a throaty exhaust, there’s terrific forward thrust available as the revs soar past 4000rpm, for an utterly effortless turn of speed. Wet or dry, the GTI seems to skim along the road like a maglev train on full throttle. Except for the expected coarse bitumen drone transmitted through the tyres, the experience is remarkably free of wind and suspension noise.

The electric variable-ratio steering, meanwhile, always feels urgent and direct in each of its three modes – Comfort, Normal, and Sport – with just the right amount of input response across the whole turning spectrum.

But it isn’t perfect – the electric assistance isn’t 100 per cent natural in feel, with Normal being a tad too light and Sport perhaps a smidgen too heavy.

Maybe a ‘Normport’ middle ground is what’s needed here.

Actually, ‘Sport’ adjusts the body control to the point of tautness (which is good) but also hardness in feel (which can be tiring over the rougher Tasmanian back roads we drove the GTI along).

After a few hours of this we concluded that ‘Normal’ has enough hot-hatch levels of high-speed composure without the bump-thump jarring comfort levels to be the chassis-tune sweet spot. ‘Comfort’, as you might expect, is a bit too roly-poly by hot-hatch standards for crisp cross-country blitzing.

Unfortunately there was no inner-urban driving over bad roads to test the adaptive dampers’ around-town abilities, but considering that the sheer size of the standard wheels, we’re hopeful that ‘Comfort’ will smother out the daily commute.

What the latest Golf hot hatch offers, then, is basically the same recipe as before, but with more of everything – in measurably honed and improved doses that further highlight its outstanding all-round capabilities.

We reckon a well-driven GTI will reel in the rawer RS 265 or Focus ST while eclipsing both in terms of comfort and refinement. We only wish the base three-door with smaller alloys and less superfluous gadgets were available.

Still, even as it stands, we reckon this might well be all the car you’d ever need if you were forced to choose only one for your fantasy island foray.

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