Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTI Original
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Superb engine and manual transmission, lithe and playful chassis, comfortable and controlled suspension, sweet steering, practical cabin, bargain price
Room for improvement
Optional DSG lacks fluency and intuition, some imperfect cabin finish, no digital radio, road noise, limited-slip differential (LSD) a nice-to-have
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8 Feb 2018
NOBODY through the ages has complained about a traditional American burger done well. That is neither fast-food dross, nor any high-end fois gras-topped indulgent variety, but just a juicy meat patty with lots of salad plucked from any Australian beachside suburb in … oh, maybe 1976.
There is not a hint of stars-and-stripes about the Volkswagen Golf GTI Original, but this limited -edition version of the iconic German hot hatchback does take a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach with the latest Mark 7.5 generation as homage to the – you guessed it – 1976 original.
With a pricing and door-count cut, navigation and keyless auto-entry dropped, and multi-mode suspension giving way to fixed damping all for less than $40,000 driveaway, there would appear to be no flabby excess here. The important ingredients of this Berger remain – 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, manual transmission, 18-inch tyres, front-wheel drive chassis – and that is about it.
Time to tuck into something (hopefully) simple yet juicy.
It is difficult to believe that the original Golf GTI from 42 years ago measured just 3.7 metres long. Ironically in the current world now deeply rooted in urban congestion, that Mark 1 generation would have been the quickest car on the planet, or at least to the shops given that it could be squeezed into parks that would have any other hot hatchback circling the streets on the prowl.
The current Mark 7.5 generation measures 4.3m and it also weighs about 50 per cent more than its ancestor. But at least with the Golf GTI Original, the three-door body style and absence of some equipment strips kerb weight to 1304kg. Put in context, that is less than a Ford Focus ST or even warm hatches such as a Holden Astra RS, Hyundai i30 SR and Mazda3 SP25.
Approaching the Original is not like approaching the original, however.
Foglights have been lost, but there are still fancy LED headlights and (now black) alloy wheels. Open the long front door and the practicality deficit of a three-door body style would seem only apparent should a driver carry passengers often – otherwise there is enough space in the door aperture to slip a laptop bag between front seat backrest and into the rear legroom area, which is handy.
Given the three- and five-door Golfs share identical dimensions, actual legroom remains generous, and the back seat remains supremely comfortable, backed brilliantly by rear air vents (take note, Hyundai with i30 N). And with a large 380-litre boot behind, this is still practicality par excellence.
Up front, the wonderful throwback that is tartan cloth trim remains from the standard Golf GTI, as does the near-perfect seat itself, plus the delightfully thin-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel that helps contribute to an ideal driving position. Ergonomically, it does not get better than this.
While integrated navigation has been abandoned, the standard inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology would likely mean more to The Kids These Days.
In an example of less being more, too, the crisp graphics of the latest 8.0-inch touchscreen remain, but there are physical volume and track-change dials in lieu of touch-sensitive icons standard on the 9.2-inch touchscreen available on other Golfs, which are ergonomically inferior. The only issue is the lack of digital radio across the range. Why, Volkswagen, when it is available on a Skoda Fabia?Even a colour trip computer display and dual-zone climate control remain, and so beyond having to insert a key and twist it to start the engine – an anomaly in this push-button-start era – this is no poor cousin to other Golfs.
The Mark 7’s five-year-old interior design has not aged as well as the preceding Mark 6, with some ill-fitting trim where the soft-touch upper plastics meet the hardened lower variety becoming more noticeable as rivals have almost caught up to the Volkswagen’s high standard in the last half-decade.
Even with that noted, however, this is still the benchmark cabin and miles ahead of a similarly priced ($38,990) five-door Focus ST and worth the $3500 over a ($33,950) i30 SR Premium even if you do not get an auto, leather trim and sunroof here. Less is more, after all.
To drive, well, the Golf GTI Original manual is indeed like a succulent burger.
Or like a nicely warmed sourdough with honey melted over it. Or even like a peach, a juicy and tasty peach.
The Mark 6 Golf GTI never needed multi-mode adaptive suspension to shine, and since the Mark 7 launched in 2013 when it became standard for the Australian market, there has been the suspicion that it did not need it. It was good, but occasionally just when a driver perhaps thought Comfort mode was fine, it would flab about over an undulation. And in Sport it would be almost always lovely, but then would suddenly be too sharp. So then a button must be thumbed to go to Normal.
There is no need for such a defeatist cycle with this limited-edition Volkswagen. The fixed sports suspension works near-flawlessly with the sensible (by today’s standards) 18-inch tyres, constantly delivering firm discipline and perfect body control, yet always with a comfortable and rounded edge. The benchmark hot hatch suspension? It is right here.
Dip the featherweight clutch and slide the golfball-topped gearshifter in a creamy fashion into its first ratio, and everything immediately gels. The engine is torquey from low revs and spirited as it soars through its 350Nm delivered between 1500rpm and 4600rpm, to its 169kW power peak taking over soon after from 4700rpm until 6200rpm. The engine is also silky, subtly sporty, and superb.
Perhaps the steering has a fraction of lost motion right on the centre position, and it lacks true road feel – something thrown into sharp relief by the last-of-the-line Volkswagen Scirocco R recently driven, which uses the delightful old hydraulic power-assisted system of the Mark 6 Golf GTI. But without direct comparison the electro-mechanical new unit becomes smoothly responsive and direct off the centre position, remaining steadfast in its weighting and guiding a fantastically lithe chassis.
Does this Original need the limited-slip differential (LSD) from its also-three-door powered-up cousin, the limited edition Golf GTI Performance Edition 1? At times, when really grabbing the hot hatchback by the scruff of its neck, yes. But this lightened three-door has another ace up its sleeve.
It might only weigh 25kg less than the five-door, but that is all taken from the rear section of the car. Without the 19-inch grip of the performance Golfs, the 18s further help emphasise a chassis that delights in moving away from understeer and pivoting into nose-tightening, subtle lift-off oversteer. It makes a Focus ST feel portly and wayward, or by contrast a Peugeot 308 GTi seem too planted.
In essence, the Golf GTI Original is delightfully balanced and it regularly delights its driver whether a smooth point-and-shoot driving style or an aggressive throw-it-around one is adopted. And complaints are few – too much road noise on coarse-chip surfaces, some mid-corner power down issues, and the odd ill-fitting trim bit mostly round it out.
Plus, should the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic, dubbed DSG, be selected, then the slick movement between ratios in manual mode via paddleshifters will be as welcome as the lack of intuition in D or S is not. In auto it either lets revs drop too quickly as it plunges into taller gears too early, or lets revs hang incessantly in a too-low gear. Such a downgrade also asks $2500 extra.
The Golf GTI Original manual absolutely should be selected, though. What other roomy and practical hatchback, for anywhere near this similar money, can delight a driver to this degree? The answer, as was the case back in 1976, is nothing at all.
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