Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - GTi
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Everyday usability, mid-range punch from turbo-petrol, sweet steering, signature GTI touches inside and out, high-quality interior and technology
Room for improvement
Quirky idle-stop system, over-sensitive adaptive cruise control, fingerprint-magnet touchscreen, compromised off-the-line traction, half-way Sport mode needed
24 Jan 2018
FOLLOWING a mid-life facelift, Volkswagen's venerable small car has levelled up from Golf 7 to Golf 7.5 status, with changes to the GTI hot hatch restricted to tweaked styling, more technology and a small power bump.
Just in time then, as the front-wheel-drive hot-hatch segment is set to seriously heat up with the arrival of the next-generation Renault Megane RS and the first-ever Hyundai i30 N over the coming months, both of which hope to disrupt the status quo.
The Golf GTI has long been considered the top of its class, so are minor cosmetic updates and no major mechanical upgrades enough to prepare it for the imminent onslaught? Or was Volkswagen right to adopt the formula of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’
Price and equipment
While the Golf GTI starts from $41,490 before on-road costs when fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox, our test car was paired to a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission that is $2500 dearer.
Standard equipment includes 18-inch Milton Keynes alloy wheels wrapped in 225/40 tyres, front foglights, an extended electronic differential lock, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and dusk-sensing headlights with dynamic cornering functionality.
Trademark GTI flourishes like a honeycomb front grille and red brake callipers are present, as are redesigned LED headlights and tail-lights, while black side skirt extensions wrap around into tweaked front and rear bumpers, with the latter encompassing larger exhaust tips than before. Other than that, this is Golf 7 through and through, and it looks pretty good to our eyes.
Inside, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, an 8.0-inch touchscreen Discover Media infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, satellite navigation, an eight-speaker sound system, LED ambient lighting, Clark tartan cloth upholstery, sports seats, Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC) and an auto-dimming rearview mirror feature.
Safety and driver assist technologies extend to seven airbags, a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, a driver fatigue detection system, multi-collision brake, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
Our test car was fitted with the Driver Assistance package, a $1600 option that adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, park assist, high beam assist and a proactive occupant protection system.
It was also finished in White Silver Metallic paint which attracts a $500 premium and looks absolutely stunning in the metal, offering a ceramic-like finish. This hue drew several positive comments during our time with the five-door GTI.
Infotainment ($2300) and Luxury ($3900) packages are available optionally but were not fitted to our test car.
The former includes a 12.3-inch Active Info Display digital instrument cluster, a 9.2-inch touchscreen Discover Pro infotainment system and a Dynaudio Excite sound system, while the latter adds Vienna leather-appointed upholstery, heated front seats and a panoramic sunroof, as well as power side mirrors and driver's seat with memory function.
When you slip into the front seats of the Golf GTI, it is hard to forget where you are. The tartan cloth upholstery, which on this occasion is of the Clark variety, is Unmistakeably GTI. It would be a shame to opt for leather trim instead.
This and other smaller touches – including honeycomb-look dashboard and door inlays, red stitching on the steering wheel and gear lever, red highlights on the instrument cluster and infotainment system, red ambient lighting and steel sports pedals – make the GTI feel more special than a regular Golf.
However, an abundance of soft-touch plastics, a frameless auto-dimming rearview mirror and a flush high-definition 8.0-inch touchscreen are welcome callbacks to this model’s solid foundations. But we could do without the creaky centre storage bin lid – it made quite an annoying sound when opened and closed.
Volkswagen deserves a pat on the back for its leather flat-bottom sports steering wheel, because it is delightful in hand. Its small ‘GTI’ badge is appreciated, too, as is reach and height adjustment.
The Discover Media infotainment system is easy to use, with relatively quick satellite navigation operation and a wide breadth of functionality. We particularly enjoyed the short- and long-term trip computers that provided clear time, distance and fuel usage statistics. They proved to be a great motivator for improved efficiency or speed.
That being said, the glass touchscreen is an absolute fingerprint-magnet and just gets filthier as motivation to clean it wanes. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support is appreciated, while connecting to Bluetooth is straightforward, if not that quick when the ignition is switched on.
Mercifully, the multi-function display sandwiched between two analogue dials features a digital speedometer and can feed through turn-by-turn directions when called upon. If only it was larger and less pixelated.
Packaging-wise, the GTI is the same as any other Golf, providing decent room in the front and back. Behind our 184cm driving position, a similarly sized rear passenger had around an inch of headroom and 3.5 inches of legroom. Boot capacity is 380L, which is about average for the small-car segment, but can expand to 1270L when the 60:40 split rear bench is stowed.
Engine and transmission
Powered by Volkswagen Group’s revered 2.0-litre EA888 turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, the GTI produces 169kW of power from 4500rpm to 6200rpm and 350Nm of torque from 1500rpm to 4400rpm. These outputs match that of the GTI Performance briefly sold as part of the Golf 7 range and are up 7kW over the former GTI.
As the numbers may suggest, this powerplant has a lot to offer when it is on song. Despite some initial lag, the turbo quickly spools up, providing the type of purposeful boost expected from 350 of Sir Isaac’s best. Volkswagen claims the GTI can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 6.4 seconds, which feels about right.
Naturally, the powertrain does its best work in the mid-range, feeling every bit as quick as its Golf R big brother, and begs to be driven in second and third gear during spirited stretches. And that is one of the best things about the GTI, it is powerful enough to have fun in but not too potent that you get yourself into trouble without any real effort.
The engine and exhaust noise is a bit of a mixed bag, as the GTI toes the line between real and fake. On one hand it is lively with gruff barks when upshifting under hard acceleration, which frankly are an audible treasure, albeit too rare for our liking. That being said, the mere fact that synthesised sound is present makes you second-guess the legitimacy of what you are hearing.
Nothing an after-market exhaust cannot fix, right?The idle-stop system is rather quirky, and not in a good way. When decelerating towards a standstill, the engine would often switch off around the 5km/h mark, which is not the most convenient behaviour when parking or during rolling starts. Most other models require a firm press of the brake pedal at 0km/h to activate idle-stop, which we prefer.
While the electric park brake’s auto-hold function is a favourite, it can contribute to the idle-stop woes. Due to this combination, in some situations, if the brake pedal is not depressed enough (to activate auto-hold) when at a standstill, the engine can inadvertently turn back on as the GTI begins to creep forward.
After covering 489 kilometres in our week-long test, we averaged 9.4 litres per 100km of 98 RON, which is a fair bit higher than Volkswagen’s claim of 6.6L/100km on the combined cycle test. That being said, this fuel usage should be put down to some lead-footed driving.
The GTI sends drive to its front wheels via a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission that also features sport and manual modes, with the latter controlled by either the gear lever or steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
We found ourselves selecting manual often as it allowed to us to dictate the pace, rather than letting the automatic do its own thing. Speaking of which, the transmission tends to stay in third when whipping around corners at low speed, which becomes problematic when second-gear punch is desired.
While gear changes are snappy, an occupational hazard is the DSG’s tendency to become jerky at low speed, particularly during rolling starts or when coasting into first gear.
Equipped with five driving modes – Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport and Individual – the GTI allows the driver to adjust engine, transmission, steering, suspension and exhaust settings. Oh, and let us not forget the air-conditioning and headlights, too!Admittedly, most of our time was spent in Sport mode, but its aggressive take on the engine and transmission ultimately proved tiring, despite its immense fun factor. Normal was much more sedate but lacked the involvement experienced when using the former. Individual allows you to pick your own adventure with all the elements, but the engine and transmission are either on or off, so to say. Perhaps a half-way mode? Please, Volkswagen?
Ride and handling
Riding on an independent MacPherson strut front and four-link rear sports suspension, the GTI offers a compliant but planted ride that is in line with its athletic brief. While Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC) allows the driver to adjust the dampers between Comfort, Normal and Sport settings, the difference between the first two options, in our opinion, is not that discernible. If Comfort was a tad more comfortable, then it would be great for those times when three or more occupants are in the vehicle.
Alternatively, switching over to the Sport setting is a rewarding experience as you feel the suspension hunker down on its way to a steady diet of bitumen. As intended, the stiff ride is sportscar-like but does not play well with potholes and unsealed roads. Best left for well-sealed surfaces, we say. Given the GTI sticks to the road, bodyroll is at a minimum.
Volkswagen says it retuned several of the Golf's advanced driver-assist safety systems as part of the 7.5 update, one of which is immediately apparent and can spoil the ride. The adaptive cruise control (ACC) system has become hyper-sensitive, regularly hitting the brakes when a car in another lane is detected. It appears ACC sees in a straight line and does not follow the contour of the lane, leading to sudden braking applications that create a jerky highway cruise.
Employing electrically assisted variable-ratio power steering, this hot hatch steers seriously well. Pin-point accuracy is the name of the game, and the GTI is one of those next-level players. Just like the suspension, steering weight is adjustable via three modes. Light and effortless in Comfort, it can become meaty and focused when Sport is selected instead. Such wonderful steering makes this Golf a true point-and-shoot weapon – corners be damned.
However, off-the-line traction can be a let down in certain conditions. Yes, front-wheel-drive vehicles often have a tendency to get unstuck, such is their make-up, but the GTI can struggle to put its power down, particularly in the wet and even under half-throttle. That being said, it does recover pretty quickly.
Same goes for punching the accelerator in second gear around corners, wheel spin soon interrupts. Nothing a limited-slip differential could not improve, right? Hello, GTI Performance Edition 1, we see you and your sexy three-door body.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the front-wheel-drive Golf 7 line-up a five-star safety rating in 2013, with the 7.5 model upholding this maximum score without needing to be re-tested.
As mentioned, the small car comes standard with dual frontal, side chest and curtain airbags, as well as a driver knee airbag. A low- and high-speed autonomous emergency braking system, a manual speed limiter and secondary collision avoidance systems are also included range-wide.
All Golf GTIs come with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre new-car warranty, including three years of roadside assistance, while paint is covered by the same term.
Coverage for corrosion of the main steel body structure lasts for 12 years/unlimited kilometres.
An extended factory warranty can be purchased from Volkswagen dealerships, adding an extra two years to the standard peace-of-mind offering's length.
Service intervals for the GTI are 12 months/15,000km, with the first five services costing $2884 in total, the fourth of which is the dearest, at $1133.
Volkswagen was right on the money when it decided how to approach the Golf GTI’s mid-life facelift. Simply put, it did not require much work – its foundations were already rock solid. Casting a wand over the exterior and giving the engine a little bit more urge was more than enough.
The 2.0-litre turbo-petrol remains an absolute peach, although its dual-clutch automatic partner is not without its quirks. The GTI also sounds good, but that noise can be misleading, which is a shame.
Additionally, the signature GTI embellishments inside and out are still really cool, as they speak to the storied history of the model. We do not care what anyone says, tartan cloth is the only real option and pairs well with the high-quality interior.
Handling is also top-notch, while the ride when using the Sport setting is as advertised, but we would like a more comfortable Comfort mode and fewer traction issues.
The idle-stop and Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) systems go some way in spoiling the party at times, due to some frustrating behaviour.
Nevertheless, we say bring on 2018 – the Megane RS and i30 N will be welcome competitors. But they will have quite the task ahead of them if they want to topple the Golf GTI. Long live the king.
Ford Focus ST from $38,990 before on-road costs
With more power and a sharper price than the Golf GTI, the manual-only Focus ST is a tempting proposition. Engaging performance led by its terrific EcoBoost engine is a plus, but strange torque steer intervention and a busy ride let it down.
Skoda Octavia RS 169TSI wagon from $40,390 before on-road costs
Powered by the same engine, the Golf GTI and Skoda RS 169TSI wagon have a lot in common. The latter trumps the former in the practicality stakes while maintaining its nimble dynamics, despite literally being a class above. For what it is worth, the Skoda is more affordable, too.
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