Considering just how many small hatchbacks are sold on the basis of cut-price deals and large-scale fleet contracts it may surprise you to learn that Volkswagen’s hot hatch range the Golf GTI and Golf R - account for one in every four Golfs sold in Australia.
That’s fairly phenomenal in itself, but perhaps not surprising when you consider that the Golf GTI has long been held as the benchmark for the hot hatch sub-genre, owing to the way it not only delivers corner-to-corner thrills, but also works as an everyday practical family hatchback.
Despite newer and more exotic challengers, Volkswagen has still maintained strong Golf GTI and Golf R sales, and with the newest Mark 7.5 update the brand has added in more technology from the mainstream Golf range, plus freshened styling and added a touch more power to keep the archetypal hot hatch at the top of its game.
Vehicle Style: Performance small hatch
Price: $41,490-$52,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 169kW/350Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 180kW/370Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 213kW/380Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 6sp manual, 6sp automatic, 7sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.6-7.2 l/100km
Golf buyers will soon have an even wider range of performance options to pick from, including a slightly de-specced Golf R Grid which will kick off below $50,000, an upscale Golf R Wolfsburg Edition, plus the full-time addition of the Golf R Wagon to the range.
GTI fans can pick from the regular GTI, or more powerful GTI Performance to be joined next year by a cheaper GTI Original edition, touting three doors and a few less bells and whistles for the so-called purist. Those that reach for their wallet quickly can also jump into the three-door GTI Performance Edition 1.
As before the front-wheel drive GTI delivers punchy performance with a choice of manual or automatic transmission, but the auto-only GTI Performance steps outputs up slightly and adds in a tricky front differential to better put power down.
Golf R buyers also enjoy the added grip of all-wheel drive, to go with the R’s boosted power and torque, and again a choice of auto or manual.
All run a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, starting at 169kW and 350Nm in the GTI, rising to 180kW and 370Nm in the GTI Performance, and topping out at 213kW and 380Nm in the Golf R.
Both the GTI and R can be ordered with a six-speed manual, while the auto options include a six-speed dual-clutch in the basic GTI, or a seven-speed unit in the GTI Performance and Golf R.
- Golf GTI: Front sports seats with cloth trim, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, LED ambient lighting, sports pedals, red brake calipers, leather steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto wipers and headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels
- Golf R: Leather trim, heated front seats, powered driver’s seat with memory, power-folding mirrors with satin-chrome mirror caps, black brake calipers rear privacy glass, 19-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 8.0-inch touchscreen, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible, Bluetooth connectivity, CD player, Aux, USB, and SD card inputs, eight-speaker audio - Golf R adds 9.2-inch touchscreen, gesture control, 10GB hard drive, 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster (optional on GTI)
- Cargo Volume: 380-1270 litres (GTI), 343-1233 litres (R)
Volkswagen doesn’t do ‘surprising’ when it comes to interiors, but that’s no bad thing. Instead the Golf delivers consistently well executed trims, quality materials, and a level of discerning subtlety, befitting its sensible Teutonic origins.
Of course the GTI throws in a little retro flair with tartan seat trim, but if you’re looking at a Golf R you’ll find no such frippery - just handsome but sombre black-on-black trim with a few delicate R-blue highlights.
Among the hot hatch class the sporty Golfs remain a more polished, welcoming and familiar space than what you’ll find in any other GTi, WRX, RS or ST, a difference made all the more stark by the excellent way the Golf is able to tackle the day-to-day necessities.
As a highlight of the range both GTI models can now be optioned with a new 12.3-inch digital driver’s display and 9.2-inch central infotainment screens with gesture control (standard on Golf R), bringing a touch of Audi-style technology to the interior of the humble Golf.
That humbleness also plays against the Golf GTI and R in some ways - tartan trims, flat bottomed steering wheels, and deeply bolstered sports seats aside - because if it weren’t for those sporty touches the interior of the go-fast Golf could be mistaken for any of the lesser variants.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 169kW/350Nm (GTI), 180kW/370Nm (GTI Performance), 213kW/380Nm (R)
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, six- or seven speed dual-clutch automatic, front and all wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link independent rear, adaptive dampers
- Brakes: Four wheel disc brakes, vented front, solid rear (GTI), vented rear (GTI Performance, R)
- Steering: Electric power steering
Perhaps to prove a point, the first taste of Volkswagen’s updated Golf GTI featured the perilous slog from Sydney Airport across the heaving M5, M7 and M4 motorways before breaking out to the secluded tarmac of the lower Blue Mountains.
While the idea of spirited weekend jaunts might be aspirational goal of every hot hatch owner, the drudgery of a weekday commute is the more likely reality and in that commuter crawl the Golf GTI proves that it can operate like an appliance - simple, easy, and quite relaxed.
Get it onto a more open, flowing road though and the GTI proves it knows a thing or two about how to impress enthusiasts. Quick and agile steering, plenty of torque on tap, and the always fun exhaust gurgle that goes with every gear change.
The Golf feels planted, predictable and friendly at pace on tricky roads, clearly communicating its intent with the driver.
There’s a few demerits though. In terms of pure driving thrills the Golf GTI isn’t a wild-child like some of its newer, more focussed rivals, keeping its bum securely planted with none of the iconic hot-hatch lift-off oversteer.
At 169kW for the basic package it’s also down on power next to competitors that now start at around the 180-odd kilowatt mark and span all the way beyond 220kW. The suspension too, as all-round suitable as it may be, isn’t as finely controlled as a more dedicated setup.
But the GTI still represents an effortless, accessible and rewarding option for drivers who want to own something a bit special.
The Golf GTI isn’t Volkswagen’s ultimate expression of hot hatchery however, with the more powerful, more grippy Golf R holding that title.
Across a wide variety of conditions, from simple city driving and highway cruising to rollicking country roads with a mix of dry, slick and gravel-strewn conditions, the R showcased its added ability.
With the potential to dash from 0-100 km/h in as little as 4.8 seconds, Volkswagen rightly points out that the most powerful Golf serves up the kind of giant-slaying ability that allows it to match more focussed performance cars, like base variants of the Porsche 911.
With a larger turbocharger, the Golf R accelerates with an engaging old-fashioned rush of torque higher in the rev range than the more docile GTI. It’s still strong and tractable enough at any point to avoid hunting for the right gear in a given situation, though it is fun to paddle through the ratios or work the gearknob a little more than necessary.
Across both models it's the freedom of transmission choice that’s one of the keys to Volkswagen’s hot hatch success in Australia. Don’t want to row your own, pick the quick shifting automatic. Looking for more engagement, opt for the smooth gate and connected clutch of the manual.
The Golf R is positioned as a real cross-country express, with unflappable confidence in most circumstances and a monstrous reserve of grip and traction in reserve.
It flows with the road, bringing fluid responses through its adaptive suspension and quick steering. Our test example coped well with all but the harshest bumps in the road, tracking true on broken country roads.
Though it does most things well, there’s still a few missed opportunities - thanks to its added weight, and extra urge, the Golf R’s brakes don’t cope with extended abuse quite as well as the race-bred calipers you might find on rivals.
Thanks to its all-weather Continental tyres it also lacks the outright grip of something like the supercar-spec rubber on Ford’s Focus RS and aural engagement takes a hit thanks to a constant lifeless blare from the exhaust, only made worse by a synthesised electronic accompaniment in the cabin.
But those less-than-sporty blemishes only serve to reinforce the Golf R’s everyday sensibility, rather than positioning it as an uncompromising track-honed monster.
ANCAP Rating: 5 stars - The 2017 Volkswagen Golf scored 35.92 out of 37 possible points when tested in 2017 based on crash tests conducted by Euro NCAP.
Safety Features: All Golf models come standard with seven airbags (dual front, front seat side, full-length curtain, driver’s knee), ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, and multi-collision brake (which prevents the car rolling into another vehicle after an accident), electronic stability and traction control, and front force-limiting seatbelt pretensioners.
A rear view camera, driver fatigue detection, and high- and low-speed autonomous braking are also standard on all variants. The GTI Performance and R also add blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and lane assist with lane departure warning.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The reason Volkswagen’s performance cars are such firm favourites with Aussie customers comes as no surprise. An abundance of real-world appeal over out-and-out hardcore dedication strikes the right note for enthusiasts with a sensible side.
It stands to reason that the slightly less aggressive Golf GTI fits everyday applications best, but turns up the fun when the situation allows. For those that want to venture into more focussed territory, the Golf R has that covered too.
Of course it could be argued that with Australia’s draconian speed limits performance variants of any car aren’t sensible: Too loutish and too risky, right? That hasn’t stopped buyers from laying down their hard-earned, and with the latest interpretation of Volkswagen’s performance icons that trend show no sign of slowing.
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