Let me save you the suspense. The new VW Golf GTI is a cracking drive.
The previous Mk IV GTI had obviously attended a few too many lessons at the Elvis Presley school of growing old disgracefully. But, for 2005, Volkswagen sent their Seventies icon off to the gym, and called in Trinny and Susannah for a bit of a makeover.
The result, is a powerful, practical, understated but classless reincarnation of the original GTI concept, brought bang up to date with the prerequisite number of pneumatic bosoms and electronic gadgety-pokery.
VW have shunned the current trend for bling, and have kept styling tweaks for the GTI simple. There’s a new, deeper front grille not unlike Audi’s new single-frame schnoz, although it’s filled here with a honeycomb design and ringed by a thin, red line that echoes back to the ’70s original. The ride height has been reduced by 15mm, while subtle twin chromed exhausts at the rear provide a hint that this Golf may be just a little bit different. Subtlety is the name of the game.
Under the bonnet, there’s a 2.0-litre four-cylinder FSI petrol engine boosted by a turbocharger and intercooler. The key to this unit’s appeal is the power delivery. Maximum power is 200PS (197bhp) at 5,100rpm and 207lb/ft of torque which, remarkably, is available from 1,800rpm right round to 5,100rpm. This broad range of torque leads to a virtual absence of turbo lag, so, while it may not be the last word in horsepower, it’s certainly the most accessible.
The FSI direct injection technology, which follows a principle similar to VW’s high-pressure TDI PD system, helps the Golf GTI achieve a respectable 35.3 mpg on the combined cycle when coupled with the Direct Shift Gearbox.
It’s the same DSG system that’s been available in other VW and Audi products for a while. It features two wet clutches – one controls the odd gears and reverse, the other the even gears – and operates as two gearboxes in one. While driving in, say, third gear, fourth is selected but is held disengaged by the second clutch. When the time comes to shift up, the first clutch disengages while the second clutch engages, leading to an almost seamless up-shift that completes in less than four-hundredths of a second.
The system is operated by a dedicated computer that makes decisions based on the current driving conditions. In simple terms, if the system detects that the driver is slowing down, it will pre-select a lower gear. If the driver is accelerating, the computer will pre-select a higher gear. By analysing various inputs, the DSG system aims to always have the ideal next gear ready to swap in.
As the gear changes execute far quicker than can be achieved by any conventional transmission, a DSG-equipped GTI is quicker to 60mph than its six-speed manual counterpart – 6.9 seconds versus 7.2.
The driver can instigate gear changes using either the sequential + and – positions on the gear lever, or by using the optional steering wheel-mounted paddles.
I never tired of banging up and down through the gears, with each new ratio engaging with a Ducati-like urgency. The exhaust note, which for much of the time remains reminiscent of the boominess of the old Mk II, emits a little fart on each gear change that adds to the experience.
There’s a fully automatic mode, too, ideal for a Monday morning commute. For the most part, it made intelligent choices about when to change gear and into which ratio, although I managed to catch it out a few times using kick-down, leading to a slight delay.
Control freaks will probably still insist on opting for the conventional six-speeder, but the DSG to our mind simply makes the engine’s power even more accessible. Even in manual mode, the system will change up at the redline. While that may sound like a hindrance on paper, when you first come to mash the pedal into the depths of the footwell to overtake a slow-moving pensioner on your favourite back road, you’ll soon appreciate it as you realise just how quickly the rev limiter arrives.
The DSG and 2.0-litre FSI combination gives such a broad spread of capability you have to wonder how the previous generation of GTIs managed without. Evolving from bumbling village idiot to Grand Prix driving god takes nothing more than a flex of your right ankle. There’s no turbo lag, and no delay while you fumble with cogs and clutches.
Luckily, the GTI’s revised Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) is on hand to keep things in check. It’s less intrusive than before, and is quite happy to let you squeal away from traffic lights in adolescent exuberance, while it busies itself with the task of keeping the nose pointing in the intended direction.
It does a fine job of disguising the fact that the engine’s power is channelled only through the front wheels, too. Torque steer is superbly controlled and, while lift-off oversteer is available mid-bend, it’s kept on a short leash by the ESP, without ruining the driver’s opportunity to steer the car on the throttle.
The new electro-mechanical power steering is a definite improvement upon the previous set up. It’s communicative in the sense that you’re never in any doubt as to what the front wheels are up to, but it talks to you in a subdued voice.
The Mk V Golf benefits from a particularly stiff bodyshell, and cocking an outside rear wheel, a long-standing Golf trait, is still possible in this new model. The ride is definitely firm, but is no harder than you might expect and shouldn’t be too wearing on a long journey.
The benefit of that stiff body is excellent handling. The 225/45 R17 tyres offer superb grip, rendering the optional 18″ upgrade unnecessary and pointless. Powering through even wet corners sees the GTI tenaciously hang on to your chosen line, with the ESP aiding and abetting only when necessary. With the engine’s near-constant stream of power and the DSG ‘box’s urgency with the cog-swapping, time spent on a track becomes a never-ending adrenaline surge, from one corner to the next.
It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a car for 10 years.
However, there is a ‘but’.
You see, as a driving experience, the new Golf GTI is quite possibly unbeatable. But as an ownership experience, there’s a developing sense that VW have taken their collective eyes off the quality ball. A few too many customer satisfaction surveys list VW in the below average reaches of the league table, and some of the plastics in the new Golf’s interior aren’t the quality items we’d expect. Our test car suffered from a distracting degree of wind-noise from around the driver’s door, too.
Elsewhere in the interior, there’s a choice of leather seats or, our favourite, retro striped Interlagos cloth. There’s plenty of adjustment on the driver’s seat, although the steering wheel doesn’t have enough downward travel, making VW’s decision to fit a flat-bottomed wheel a little curious. Cabin space is generous, otherwise.
The Golf GTI starts at £19,995 for the three-door, with the five-door costing a further £500. For that, you get ABS, ESP, 17″ Monza alloys, electric windows, electric mirrors, tyre pressure monitoring, climate control, rain sensing wipers, automatic headlights and multifunction computer.
We added the DSG transmission (£1,325), six disc changer mounted in the front armrest (£395), rear parking sensor (£295) and cruise control (£270), bringing the total to £22,280. Leather upholstery adds a further £1,645. Order now (February) for July delivery.
We expect residuals to be nothing short of class-leading, with the trade predicting 64% retained value after 3 years/36,000 miles, and servicing should be perfectly affordable. Offset that against high insurance (group 17) and, in comparison to some competitors such as the Honda Civic Type-R, the high purchase price.
Our reservations regarding quality aside, the new GTI is undoubtedly the best motoring fun you can buy for twenty grand.
The Golf GTI, then, is back.
An unbeatable driving experience for the money. Superb power plant, with quite incredible spread of torque. DSG transmission the one to have, in our opinion. Opt for Candy White and Interlagos cloth for the full retro experience, but leave the options list alone. Some cheap-feeling materials detract from an otherwise inspiring package.