IT’S a sign of progress that there’s more choice in the hot-hatch market than ever before. Diesel power is now considered a worthy alternative to the traditional petrol motors which have long dominated the marketplace, while the theoretical 200bhp barrier was blown wide open some time ago.
While some rivals have come and gone only to have come back again, Volkswagen has been a stalwart of the hot-hatch market with its Golf GTI. And while you can have a tax and wallet-friendly diesel GTD variant, there’s something about the petrol model that will always be the one you buy with your heart.
Seventh time around and the Golf GTI remains a visually conservative choice in a market full of brash and be-spoilered opposition. The car’s squat stance is the obvious giveaway, but save for the GTI badging and oh-so subtle bodykit, this is not a car that announces its arrival with a foghorn.
That approach has always been part of the Golf’s appeal, and for buyers seeking an element of discretion when they choose to drive briskly, this is something of a plus point for Volkswagen’s hot hatch.
There’s nothing conservative about the car’s performance potential, however. Evolution has seen power outputs rise across the board, although it’s what you do with the extra horses that matters the most. Volkswagen’s weapon of choice remains the faithful 2.0-litre, four-cylinder format, although in seventh-generation guise, output is a more than adequate 217bhp. Opt for VW’s own Performance Pack and you gain another 10bhp plus bigger brakes and a limited slip differential – a first for the Golf GTI.
As you’d expect, the GTI delivers a smooth and refined driving experience if all you want to do is get from A to B with the minimum of fuss. Naturally the car is capable of a brisk, fuss-free pace, and that’s the great thing about the Golf GTI. Unlike some others, the GTI is a vice-free machine that doesn’t irritate or force you to drive around its many quirks. If you want a smooth, well-damped experience, the car will deliver, much like every other Golf.
Things get interesting when you up the pace, with the Golf capable of delivering a confidence-inspiring drive that will flatter the novice and encourage the keen driver to push harder.
In non Performance Pack trim, the car is forgiving yet entertaining enough to justify the price tag. The engine’s elastic nature ensures that there’s always plenty in reserve for that overtaking opportunity, while it never feels like it’ll run out of puff.
Exploring the ragged edges of the driving envelope isn’t how you get the best from the Golf. It’s been designed from the outset to be a composed and refined car. That said, the bigger brakes and trick diff of the Performance Pack do make a tangible difference and further sharpen responses and, in the case of the latter, allow you to put the power down earlier in the corners.
Aside from being rapid, slick is a good way to describe the driving experience. The Golf does a great job of coping with a wide variety of road surfaces, while the main controls are well damped and offer just enough weight and accuracy. Opt for VW’s polished direct-shift DSG transmission over the default manual and you’ve got the best of both worlds: a smooth auto-like delivery plus the full-on flappy-paddle deal when you need it.
For all this Golf’s new technology, some things never change. The car’s cabin might be more spacious than before, but the presence of the tartan cloth seats and a golf ball gearknob prove that Volkswagen is very much in touch with its heritage. And while the cabin decor might look like it’s been lifted from a MK2 GTI, you get all the mod cons such as air-con, DAB radio, adaptive cruise control, Bluetooth plus the option of leather and a comprehensive sat-nav system.
A Golf GTD might be kinder to your wallet but VW’s diesel warm hatch will never match the real McCoy for thrills on the road. The GTI boasts an agility and eagerness to please the driver that the GTD simply can’t match. As a package with the potential to excite and pamper in equal measure, the Golf GTI remains a tough act to follow.
Car: Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0 TSI 5dr
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo petrol developing 217bhp
Performance: Max speed 152mph, 0-62mph 6.5 seconds
CO2 emissions: 139g/km