VOLKSWAGEN’S GOLF GTI HAS EARNED ITS STRIPES OVER THE YEARS.
‘Icon’, ‘benchmark’, ‘legend’ - just a few of the words thrown around to describe the German hot hatch, as it has rightly crafted a reputation as the hot hatch by which others are measured.
As part of a mid-life update for the Golf range, the GTI comes in for a light going-over in 2017.
The brand's seventh-generation GTI arrived in 2013, bringing a significant increase in performance as well as a lighter, stronger platform and more polished interior. It ticked all the boxes owners could ask for, and that's before more potent versions arrived in the form of the focused GTI Performance and limited-edition GTI 40 Years.
This year's model, then, was always going to be impressive.
Vehicle Style: Small Hot Hatch
Price: Approximately $40,000 (price TBC - excludes on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 169kW/350Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl turbo-petrol | 6sp manual or 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.4 l/100km
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI builds on a solid foundation with more power, sharper styling and an updated interior that offers technology rarely seen in cars priced under $100,000.
Visual changes include sharper bumpers with revised intakes that take inspiration from the GTI 40 Years, along with larger exhaust tips, new LED tail lamps and redesigned 18-inch wheels or 19-inch items pinched from last year's anniversary model.
The result is a more focused-looking car that adds an extra dollop of aggression to a model that already offers significant aesthetic appeal.
Inside, the emotional pull continues with classic GTI touches in tartan seat trim and a golf ball-inspired gearknob.
Modern touches include a fully digital 12.3-inch widescreen driver's display, and a 9.2-inch high-definition infotainment screen with touch-less gesture control.
That Audi-sourced dash is a revelation, offering customisable views including beautifully rendered maps, in-depth trip computer info and a lap timer for track day junkies.
We can't say the same about the central infotainment screen however, with its annoying lack of a volume knob and hit-and-miss gesture control that take off an otherwise beautiful and functional element.
While you could accuse the regular Golf's cabin of being a little too demure, the GTI's red-stitched flat-bottomed steering wheel, pin-stripe ambient lighting and well-bolstered seats make the hatch feel genuinely special in a way none of its circa-$40,000 rivals can match. It's an outstanding cabin, and that's before you factor in a spot-on driving position and Volkswagen's logically laid-out control systems.
Key gadgets include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian recognition, and (optional) active cruise control with a self-driving mode that works in traffic at speeds under 60km/h.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 169kW/350Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl turbo-petrol
- Transmissions: 6sp manual or 6sp automatic
- Fuel Economy claimed: 6.4 l/100km
Performance credentials include a lift in power from 162kW to 169kW - the same as the previous-gen GTI Performance - along with grippy rubber, adaptive multi-mode suspension and a choice of six-speed manual or dual-clutch "DSG" automatic transmissions. The updated "Golf 7.5" GTI has the same 350Nm torque peak across a wide 1500-4600rpm torque band as before, lending the model outstanding in-gear flexibility as well as the ability to reach 100km/h in a respectable 6.4 seconds before going on to a top speed of 250km/h.
It feels appropriately brisk on the road, effortlessly overtaking slower traffic and powering out of bends with most of the gusto you might expect from a modern performance car. While the GTI is not the quickest car in its class, it offers broader appeal than most thanks to a character that ranges from a quiet and efficient commuter to an effervescent athlete complete with intoxicating burps on full-throttle DSG gear changes.
We tried the revised GTI in DSG and manual form, finding that the ultimate driver engagement of the three-pedal version was nicely offset by the sharper acceleration and everyday ease of use offered by a self-shifting unit that is probably the best sporting auto available for less than $45,000. That versatility lends considerable weight to the GTI's appeal - the DSG is a much more engaging proposition than the turgid CVT auto in Subaru's WRX, while key rivals such as Peugeot's 308 GTI and the Ford Focus ST do not offer an automatic option.
The Golf is also more liveable than most of its rivals, thanks in part to electronically adjustable suspension with normal, sport and comfort modes, along with a ride and handling balance that (quite rightly) prioritises comfort and stability over ultimate body control and track-day nous.
It remains a confidence-inspiring machine, one that encourages drivers to enjoy their time at the wheel. As before, it's not the most focused proposition in its class, pushing its nose wide when driven a little too enthusiastically, and occasionally axle-hopping in an attempt to get all that power down. We were disappointed to find that Volkswagen's excellent electronically-controlled limited slip differential was not fitted as standard to the new GTI, with Volkswagen choosing to reserve that piece of kit for the 180kW GTI Performance that looks set to arrive in 2018.
That's where this updated GTI starts to fall down.
TMR FIRST DRIVE VERDICT
It's not as thorough an update as it could have been - we've experienced better GTIs in the Performance and 40 Years - but Volkswagen has chosen not to inject that level of dynamic focus into its 2017 Golf GTI.
The updated styling, extra power and improved tech will no doubt bring repeat customers while helping to attract people new to the GTI theme. It feels as though the brand is resting on the GTI's reputation, as if it might be doing as little as it can to keep the car fresh in the face of competition.
It might not be an accident that Hyundai timed its local release of information surrounding its new i30 N GTI-rival on the same day Australian journalists drove Volkswagen's hot hatch. The i30's performance range promises more power, more focused hardware and more aggressive styling than Volkswagen offers, and you can bet that the new Renault Megane RS hatchback will do the same.
The Golf GTI remains an impressively capable and well-rounded car. But we can't help but feel that the world's largest car maker missed an opportunity to raise the bar for its iconic, legendary benchmark.
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