Welcome to my first experience of the Golf GTI. It’s 1993, I’m hitching a lift across Belgium and my driver, a VW mechanic, is eager to prove that gears three, four and five won’t be needed for his crack at the Brussels Ring Road lap record.
His “reassuring” words and the shriek of the elderly Mk1 Golf’s engine are all I remember. The rest of the journey is locked away in the bit of my brain where terrifying things live. I’ve scarcely set foot in Flanders since.
Time and technology are great healers, though, and perhaps a shot in the latest Golf GTI, a seventh-generation version, will trigger the healing process that will one day allow me to brave the Belgian… GAH! It still has tartan seats! And a golf ball gearknob! Nothing has changed! This isn’t therapy, this is torture. Get me out of here.
A shot of Ovaltine and a little lie-down later and I’m ready to face my demons. I discover that, upholstery apart, there’s much to differentiate new Golf from old Golf.
Even in standard guise, the 217bhp offered by the GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is twice as much as the Mk1’s naturally-aspirated 1.8-litre motor mustered. For even greater bragging rights, our car is equipped with VW’s £995 optional performance pack, which adds 10bhp.
You might think that’s a bit much for me in my delicate state, but it’s not, because, unlike the screaming GTI of old, the modern car delivers most of its power in the mid-range, so there’s absolutely no need to rev the daylights out of it to make swift progress.
Hot-hatch aficionados might find the effortless way the Golf goes about its business a bit too civilised, but the muted notes are like music to my ears. For greater aural thrills, flicking the driving mode switch to “sport” makes the twin exhausts just a little bit wufflier.
Despite carrying a 500kg weight penalty over its ancestor, the power advantage puts the modern-day Golf’s performance in another league – 0-62 takes 6.5 seconds and top speed is pegged to 155mph. The Ring Road rocket needed nine seconds to get to 62 and would have run out of puff at 110 if traffic and more liberal application of the gears had allowed. The performance pack also adds larger front brakes and ventilated rear brake discs to help you rein in that extra power.
What new and old car do share, though, is a penchant for sharp handling. Light weight and chubby tyres helped the old car breeze through the corners, but the latest Golf calls on a limited-slip differential to help it mind its road manners, plus £815-worth of adaptive chassis control that lets you fettle with the suspension. The firmest setting is fine for all but the nastiest of speed bumps.
Don’t expect to get close to VW’s claimed economy figures if you spend all day exploring the Golf’s performance potiential though – I couldn’t beat 38mpg when the handbook said I should be aiming for 47mpg.
After swishing around in a Ferrari 458 Spider for a couple of days (sorry, but I’ll be dropping it into conversation for a long time yet), I was grateful for the Mk7 Golf’s understated looks. It sits a bit lower on its springs than most other Golfs, and the 19-inch alloy wheels (a £985 upgrade from the standard 18-inch rims) give it a mildly menacing air but, for the most part, nobody bats an eyelid when you roll past, which is all right by me.
That red and grey tartan trim brightens up what would otherwise be a sober interior, as does the optional eight-inch satnav and stereo colour touchscreen. It’s a thing of wonder, as befits its near-£1,800 price tag. No USB slot though, just VW’s proprietary interface, and there’s no sign of a cable to fit my phone.
The Golf’s driving position is spot on, the controls are laid out in logical fashion, and the sculpted sports seats are supportive. Massive doors give easy access to the rear seats, where there’s plenty of space for adults, and the Golf’s square-ish rump means the boot is a generous 380 litres.
It’s all so very civilised. Consider me healed, and let’s use that expensive navigation screen to chart a course for the Low Countries.
Car VW Golf GTI Performance Pack
Price £27,120 (£30,665 as tested)
Engine 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol, 4 cyl, 228bhp, 258lb ft
Performance Max speed 155mph; 0-62mph 6.5secs
CO2 emissions 139g/km