The current GTI has thoroughly earned its reputation as a brilliant, satisfying driver’s car. Under the skin, however, it’s a decade old and in the time since the MkV GTI blew the bloody door off the segment and today the competition has been anything but asleep. The Mazdaspeed3, Focus ST, and Subaru WRX offer vastly more power, while the Fiat 500 Abarth, Fiesta ST, and Mini Cooper S attack from the segment below with a driving experience that is just as involving for less money — or, in the case of the MINI, the same money and more street cred with the lay-dies.
It’s not too soon for Volkswagen to revise the car, and the Mk7 GTI is more than a simple revision. It’s a thorough re-engineering of the Golf from the ground up. This time, weight is down, power is up, and refinement is the watchword. With a formula like that, it’s virtually assured that the civilian-grade Golfs will find themselves back on top of the market, particularly in Europe where people like to pretend that the Honda Civic doesn’t exist. This will be great news to the more than five people who plan to purchase a brand-new Golf late this year or early next. The rest of us just want to hear about the GTI.
It looks… like a GTI. Are you surprised? Of course not. The basic Golf shape is now completely mandatory, and if none of the generations after the Giugiaro original have anything like that car’s impeccable proportioning, at least they all have thick C-pillars and short noses to remind you that they are, in fact, Golfs. The same-old styling hides the fact that the new “MQB” Golf is larger, more spacious, and at the same time lighter, with a weight saving of up to two hundred pounds over its predecessor.
This is particularly good news in GTI-land because the new car doesn’t come with much more power. The Euro rating of 217hp/258 lb-ft torque is likely to dip a little bit for our market, and even if it doesn’t, the figures are still pretty far south of the Focus ST. VW loyalists will point out, correctly, that VW seems to underrate the 2.0T a little bit, but this is still the weak sister of the segment.
Our Euro-spec tester came equipped with DSG. You know the drill by now: impossibly quick shifts, cool interrupted-spark noises, seamless flattering of the engine when you’re in a hurry, curiously dehumanizing experience. If you live in Chicago or are looking to set the best possible lap time before trading the car in at warranty’s end, the DSG is recommended. Everybody else should probably stick with the stick. Last year’s testing of the Jetta GLI in both three-and-two-pedal spec does nothing but add reinforcement to this idea. As with the Jetta, if you buy a manual transmission you will probably lose the ability to turn off traction control. If you’re handy with cutting and splicing, this can probably be rectified.
With each recent generation, VW seems to better understand what the GTI buyer wants. The Mk6 was arguably a bullseye hit in this regard; if so, the Mk7 splits that existing arrow like Robin Hood the fox dressed as a stork did in the animated film that most GTI owners are far too young to remember. Everything you touch feels expensive and bespoke and thoroughly interesting. The steering wheel wouldn’t be out of place in a fully-optioned Porsche 911. The seats have an all-day-comfy feel while looking thoroughly sporting. This is easily the nicest Golf yet and if it ends up costing thirty grand you won’t feel cheated when you take delivery of yours.
Once on the move, the GTI continues to rack up points. It rides better and has less unwanted NVH than the Passat SEL, particularly on challenging pavement. The steering and brakes are firm and reassuring. Wind noise is minimal. Nowadays, you get a solid helping of 3-Series with your Golf experience, and while this doesn’t quite have the milled-from-billet feel you got from a brand-new E46 ZHP or something like that, it’s not exactly economy-class.
Time to run up the mountain a bit, and in these few minutes the GTI reveals itself to be the most thoroughly perfect back-road car the company’s built in a very long time, certainly since the Corrado. Without the raw pace of the Scirocco R, it still seems to get through the sections at the same speed. Body roll and pitch are controlled at just the level to let you know that you’re making serious progress without impeding grip. The cornering limits of the GTI are difficult to find on the street without being completely irresponsible, but compared to something like a 370Z the Volkswagen’s high seat and outstanding forward visibility make getting there much easier. It grips and grips. There will apparently be a proper limited-slip differential available later on in the model run. That would be nice to have, particularly for long sections of back road where brake-based systems tend to keep heat in the brake system.
Speaking of brakes: outstanding for road work. It’s like VW fits all their cars with about the same thermal brake capacity and just lets the weight of each vehicle determine how reassuring the middle pedal is. In this relatively light and agile hatchback, it’s more than enough. On the track, you’d eventually want something with a fixed caliper. There’s a reason Renault fits the Megane RS265 with Brembos, you know.
The GTI’s excellence on twisty roads isn’t easily quantified. It’s more a simple matter of trust and predictability. The steering reliably places the car where you want it to go and if the grip underneath isn’t sure that situation is reflected accurately through feedback at the tiller. The engine is eager to rev and never feels out of breath, although the DSG assists in that regard. Even the way it rolls from max lean on one side to max lean on the other in a switchback is finely damped. Some cars fight you when it’s time to go fast. Not this one. At an open lapping day you’d be easy meat for everything from G37 sedans to New Edge Mustangs, but the GTI is meant to shine in the real world, which it does. Rapid transitions don’t upset it. Both front wheels stay planted. It’s sensitive to trail-braking but not dangerously so. Torque steer is conspicuous by its absence.
There is no readily apparent area in which this new GTI is not at least slightly superior to the Mk6. Bigger and more premium inside while weighing less? More power with reduced fuel consumption? Looks slightly more aggressive? Yes to all of it. If only the new 3-Series had been this positive of a change; the showrooms would be standing room only.
The Focus ST probably has a slight speed advantage in some situations, as does the Mazdaspeed3, but the refinement gap between the GTI and the other cars is very tangible and a short drive will settle the issue for nearly all potential buyers. Ever since the fifth generation, the boosted VW has been busy transcending the hot-hatch category its ancestors created. Think of the Ford and Mazda as the spiritual descendants of the Dodge Omni GLH, and the GTI as a sort of front-wheel-drive BMW 2002. As a Mopar loyalist, your humble author feels compelled to mention that none of these cars really have the measure of the Quaife-equipped 2004 Neon SRT-4 when it’s time to hustle at max delta-vee, but that rough little sedan, like the now-departed Cobalt SS, was really an answer to a different question.
In its seventh generation, the GTI continues to set the standard for all-around excellence in its category. As with the Marks Five and Six, it will likely continue to be the only fast hatchback in which you regularly see professors, attorneys, and other middle-aged types. If you’re even slightly less obsessed with the trapping of ostentatious consumption than, say, Khloe Kardashian, the GTI is just about all the German car (built in Mexico) you’ll ever need. It serves many masters. In bright yellow, with short springs and big wheels, it’s the darling of the rich-kid set; in black or silver with a healthy coating of dirt and parking stickers it’s perfectly suited for the forty-year-old chemical engineer or research fellow. Few manufacturers have a product this perfectly refined and resolved. As the phrase goes: the original, and still the best.