IT MAY BE BUILT atop the platform that underpinned its predecessor, but Volkswagen's latest version of the Golf GTI comes with improved performance, more refinement and a sharper aesthetic.
The MKVI Golf GTI is available in both three-door and five-door configurations, and with the choice of a six-speed manual or VW's quick-shifting six-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic.
We chose to sample the five-door fitted with the DSG. 'Our' test car also ticked the box for the optional Adaptive Chassis Control suspension package.
Painted silver and rolling on a set of the optional 18-inch 'Detroit' alloys, the tester certainly looked sharp - there is a rakish bristling menace to the new model's on-road stance.
On release, our first drive impressed both for style and dynamics. But the real question is how it would measure up after a week at the wheel and some serious work on a winding road.
It was time to re-acquaint ourselves with Volkswagen's little hammer... and let it off the leash. After all, until the Golf R arrives next quarter, the GTI carries VW's 'affordable-performance' mantle.
VW’s Golf GTI has long been a favourite among hot hatch aficionados. From the driver’s seat, it has never been hard to understand why
Obligingly, for the sixth-generation GTI, Volkswagen has turned the wick up. Power is lifted from 147kW to 155kW; torque remains a healthy 280Nm and both are channelled to the front wheels with the aid of VW’s new traction-promoting pseudo-LSD, dubbed XDL.
As a result, the MkVI GTI is undeniably quick. Once the tachometer swings past 2700rpm, the turbo starts to deliver peak boost and the GTI begins piling on speed at a startling rate.
Turbocharged engines are typically less responsive to throttle input than naturally-aspirated motors but the GTI’s 2.0 litre inline-four quickly jumps into action when the right pedal is prodded.
The full 280Nm of torque is available from just 1700rpm, endowing the GTI with an exceptionally broad powerband and boosting driveability.
That's not all there is to the GTI. The way it corners is sublime, and its balance and lateral grip is eye-widening considering the GTI’s FWD layout.
Turn-in is as precise as you'll find. It is simply a matter of choosing the line and pitching it into the corner – any corner.
In all but the tightest and fastest of turns, the Golf will resolutely stick to the chosen line, the ESP system and XDL “differential” independently braking any wheels that happen to lose traction.
Power out of the bend and the XDL system can be felt shuttling torque between the left and right wheels, maximizing traction and minimizing wheelspin. Some torque steer can be felt through the steering wheel, but you’re never in danger of having the tiller wrenched from your grip.
Opt for the clever twin-clutch DSG transmission and you need never take your hands off the (finely contoured) wheel.
While the six-speed manual is slick and precise with a well-balanced but light clutch pedal, the DSG swaps cogs in the blink of an eye for virtually seamless acceleration.
Although other Golf models offer a seven-speed DSG, the GTI’s twin-clutch transmission has six ratios. Why? The seven-speed unit simply can’t handle the torque output of the GTI’s engine.
In Drive, it functions like any automatic. There’s some judder off the line as the gearbox clumsily engages its first-gear clutch, but once rolling gearshifts are smooth.
In Sport mode, shiftpoints are moved up the rev range and the mapping favours holding lower gears to improve response.
Tip the shifter into the plus-minus gate or pull one of the wheel-mounted paddles and you’ll have full manual control over ratio selection. Gearshifts are near-instant in this mode. Downshifts are cleanly rev-matched and upshifts elicit a racy “pop” from the twin exhausts.
The brakes are grabby, but with solid pedal feel you soon adapt to them. Largely fade-free, they reliably haul up the GTI’s heft with little fuss and no noise. However the pads, like those fitted to most European cars, are extraordinarily dusty.
There are two suspensions offered for the GTI – a conventional coil-and-damper arrangement or a similar system with electronically adjustable dampers.
The standard set-up is a bit stiff for regular road use, but the optional Adaptive Chassis Control offers three settings: Normal, Comfort or Sport.
Normal mode is close to the standard non-adjustable suspension tune, but Comfort is softer, less jarring and easier to live with over pockmarked roads.
Indeed, Comfort is perhaps the better mode for a serious backroads blast, the more compliant tune soaking up bumps that would otherwise unsettle a more stiffly-damped car.
Sport, on the other hand, tightens the chassis to a degree that’s suitable for the occasional trackday sprint. However, we don’t recommend it for your daily commute.
On more sedate drives, the GTI’s ride can be a problem. It’s hard - not spine-breakingly so, but hard nonetheless – and unless you opt for the Adaptive Chassis Control system there’s not a lot that can be done about it.
The exhaust note drones during cruising too. It sounds brilliant when the engine is being put through its paces, but long highway stints listening to the engine’s monotonous buzzing can have you begging for earplugs.
There is also a fair amount of tyre noise transmitted into the cabin. This is apparent on most surfaces, even some of the better secondary roads. The tyres also squeal pretty readily; mildly-spirited traffic light getaways can have them complaining.
These are minor qualms mind you. The average hot hatch buyer would arguably be prepared to put up with such compromises (most would surely be surprised if there was no pain in living with such a capable road-rocket).
Considering the GTI is still fundamentally a very practical hatchback, the pros most definitely outweigh the cons.
The GTI is not a perfect all-rounder, but for most motorists looking for a competent performance car that doesn't cost the earth and offers at least a modicum of practicality, the GTI makes a compelling argument for itself.
Despite its improved style, it is still not the most attention-grabbing hot hatch (the Mazda3 MPS and Renaultsport Megane 225 win that competition).
The 155kW output of the GTI's 2.0 litre engine might be shaded by most of its competitors, but, and we've made the point before, not all kilowatts are created equal. The GTI has very willing ones and certainly enough of them to hustle it along a backroad at an impressive rate.
The clever DSG transmission also makes light work of spirited drives, and the way this GTI dispatches a sequence of tight corners is simply sublime. Without putting too fine a point on it, on a mountain pass it is a rocket.
Importantly, it's near-impossible to fault for fit and finish. And, given it shares its interior with the rest of the award-winnng MkVI Golf range, it offers a well-sized and logically laid-out cabin with space for five people.
Starting at $42,990 for the five-door DSG-equipped model, the GTI is priced at the high end of the hot hatch segment, with the Renaultsport Megane the only real competitor that's more expensive.
Options like the 18-inch alloys and Adaptive Chassis Control bump up the retail price by $1200 and $1500 respectively, and in our opinion the variable damper technology is a box that should be ticked.
That makes the Golf GTI one of the most expensive hot hatches around, but is it worth it? Absolutely. Every cent.