Motoring icons. They’re the wheeled equivalent of a double-edged sword. There isn’t a car manufacturer on this planet that wouldn’t kill to have one, but the task of developing a replacement is more than a little onerous.
Porsche have turned the job of fiddling with the 911 into something of an art form, and have fettled and tweaked their once wayward hedge trimmer into the go-to everyday sports car.
Peugeot, on the other hand, have yet to produce a truly worthy successor to the original 205 GTi.
VW, and the equally iconic Golf GTI, have fallen somewhere between the two. The utter fabulousness of the Mk1 and Mk2 was side-stepped by marks three and four. The Mk5 was brilliant, while the Mk6 was a more modest progression.
Does the new Mk7 GTI allows us to pronounce with glee that most over-used motoring phrase “the GTI is back?”
From the outside, you might be forgiven for branding the Mk7 a by-the-numbers evolution of the Golf shape, but the new GTI is all about the details.
The characteristic red stripe, a GTI styling cue that traces its heritage all the way back to the Mk1, now extends across the mesh front grille and into the headlights, themselves brought bang up to date with bi-xenon units and LED running lights.
Red brake calipers peek through 18-inch alloy wheels, while chunky side skirts, a rear diffuser, twin exhausts and smoked rear lights are all that is required as GTI-specific enhancements.
It’s not what you’d call in-your-face, but then the GTI has always been understated. Restrained. Classy, even.
Step inside, and two familiar GTI staples leave you in no doubt as to where you are: a golf-ball inspired gear lever and tartan seat upholstery.
It’s what’s under the bonnet that makes the GTI what it is, and it’s here that VW have made the most changes.
Power comes from a direct-injection 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder unit developing 220PS which, on the face of it, doesn’t sound like much of an improvement on the Mk6 GTI.
What has improved, and markedly so, is torque. There’s now 350Nm of the twisty-turny stuff, up from 280Nm, and it’s available from just 1,500rpm. It’s this extra 70Nm, and where it arrives in the rev range, that makes the new Golf such a potent real-world proposition.
The 0-62mph sprint takes just 6.5 seconds, and keep your foot planted and the gear changes coming and you’ll reach a 152mph top speed. Specify the optional Performance Pack, which boosts power to 230PS, and you can shave 0.1s off that time and add 3mph to the top whack.
But it’s the in-gear acceleration figures that back-up the sensation of flexibility, with 50-70mph in 4th gear dispensed with in less than five seconds; in 6th gear, it takes less than six.
On the road, the sensation is that of having an engine that’s permanently on-song. With maximum torque arriving at 1,500rpm and lasting all the way through to 4,600rpm, the GTI is always ready to play.
It’s an agile beast, too. Spring and damper rates are well judged, even on UK roads, and the ride has just enough of an edge to remind you this is no ordinary hatchback.
The steering is light but still direct, even with its variable ratio, and the GTI responds well to a variety of driver inputs: gracefully scribing an arc through your favourite corner won’t fail to put a smile on your face, while sawing wildly at the wheel and stuffing the Golf into the nearest bend won’t lead to any great deal of discouragement. The grip levels have their limit, but when that limit arrives you’ll be presented only with gentle understeer as a reminder that the laws of physics still apply to you.
While some might argue that makes the Mk7 GTI a jack of all trades but master of none, we prefer to think of the Golf as offering something far more valuable: accessibility. A fire-spitting sports car with razor-sharp steering might be more fun on a race track, but on the public highway that degree of performance can become an unusable liability.
Specify the £980 Performance Pack and, in addition to the small power increase, the Golf will be kitted out with larger brake discs, GTI lettering on the front brake calipers, and a new electronically-controlled front differential that uses a multi-plate unit fitted between the differential case and the right driveshaft.
When the control unit detects one of the front wheels is slipping, the plates are actuated to begin locking the differential and so redistribute torque away from the spinning wheel. If necessary, up to 100% of the drive torque can be diverted. This, in effect, is a torque vectoring system, and allows the driver to apply more power in tight turns without risking the introduction of power-related understeer.
Of course, being a Golf GTI, there’s also a more serious side to its character, and that means the ability to transport bulky items to the tip (there’s 1,270 litres of boot space with the seats folded), or take your family on a trans-continental holiday. Interior space has been increased in every direction, so you’re less likely to have squashed children fighting about who sits where.
They’ll be safe, too, with a new Post-Crash Collision Braking System that automatically applies the brakes if the vehicle is involved in an accident. While this might sound like the electronic equivalent of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, the system is designed to prevent a secondary accident if the car is hit from behind, say.
More electro-safety gubbins come in the form of a pre-crash system to pre-tension seat belts and close the windows and sunroof if an accident is likely, while Front Assist warns the driver if they are too close to the vehicle in front and primes the brakes should they be required. As an extension of this system, City Emergency Braking can automatically apply the brakes at speeds below 18mph if a collision is imminent, while Automatic Distance Control provides a cruise function that maintains a set distance from the vehicle in front. Largely thanks to this plethora of safety systems, the new GTI drops five insurance groups to 29E.
Volkswagen are particularly proud of the new GTI’s environmental credentials. The Mk7 is 42kg lighter than the Mk6, and much of that reduction comes courtesy of the company’s new MQB platform. Start/stop is standard and when coupled with the six-speed manual gearbox, the official figures claim 47.1mpg on the combined cycle and 139g/km, making it a realistic proposition for everyday use.
It’s not expensive to buy, either, with prices starting from £25,845 – just £195 more than the out-going model – and we’d expect residual values to continue to be among the best in the business.
So what’s not to like? Some may crave more focus from their steeds, while others may demand a touch more drama. We’re lucky enough to live in a time when these options are available to us, but the Golf GTI continues to offer a mix of capabilities that few can match: accessible performance, everyday practicality, an understated charm, and classless appeal.
Just as a Golf GTI always should.