Open gallery Close by Jim Holder 4 May 2012 Follow @Jim_Holder Share
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There are icons more enduring than the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but they are few and far between, and in the automotive world restricted to the likes of the Porsche 911, Bentley’s V8 engine and the Land Rover Defender.
But having started with a car of pure genius back in 1975 and following it up with something perhaps more impressive still, the Mk3 Golf GTI was a crushing disappointment and Mk4 only a small step in the right direction.
Icons more enduring than the Volkswagen Golf GTI are few and far betweenJim HolderEditorial director
Related Volkswagen Golf GTI 2009-2012 reviews
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The last version marked a near-miraculous return to form, breathing fresh life into a brand verging on the moribund.
What you’re looking at here is version six – and it must have presented VW with something of a dilemma. Should it aim to take another big step and produce a car perhaps as ground-breaking as the original, or would a more cautious, evolutionary approach be better advised? And that is what this Golf GTI is here to tell us.
In basic form, with a three-door body and manual gearbox, the Golf GTi costs more than the equivalent Scirocco. Question is, is it worth it?
Verdict Model tested: Rating:
Volkswagen Golf GTI 2009-2012
GoodHandlingBuild qualityRefinement and comfortBadIt’s more expensive than a SciroccoRather dull power delivery
DESIGN & STYLING
Unlike at some stages in the sometimes dark and distant past of the hot Volkswagen Golf, a substantial suite of changes is now required before it can earn its GTI badge.
But visually, VW is more keen than ever to evoke the spirit of the original, which is why aerodynamic add-ons are restricted to a small rear spoiler and diffuser, while even the side skirts are less pronounced than before.
A substantial suite of changes is now required before a Golf can earn its GTI badgeNic CackettRoad tester
Under the skin you’ll find a reworked version of VW’s 2.0-litre, direct-injection TFSI engine that raises power by 11bhp to 208bhp, although torque remains unchanged at 206lb ft from 1750-5200rpm. Arguably more significant is the reduction in CO2 from 189 to 170g/km (knocking £40 off the price of your tax disc) and a 3.4mpg improvement in fuel economy to a claimed 38.7mpg.
This engine also comes hooked up to a ‘sound generator’, an electronic device that sifts the noises coming from the engine as they pass through the exhausts, ensuring that only the ones you want to hear reach the cabin.
For the first time in markets other than Britain, the Golf GTI is now offered as a cabriolet variant. It is powered by the same engine as the hatchback GTI but the extra bracing required for the cabriolet conversion has added a lot of weight. VW claims a kerbweight of 1318kg for the GTI hatch while its figure for the cabriolet is 1533kg, a gain of 215kg.
Suspension follows the now standard class form of struts at the front and a multi-link rear end, a system that can be enhanced by choosing Adaptive Chassis Control, which also alters the steering assistance and throttle map.
The long doors of the three-door body shell are heavy but open wide to reveal a cabin that perfectly captures the right mood for a GTI. There’s nothing ostentatious here but you’ll find enough touches, from the sawn-off wheel with its red stitching past the aluminium-effect pedals to the nostalgic tartan seat upholstery, to leave you in no doubt that this is no normal Volkswagen Golf.
What has rightly been left untouched are the Golf’s inherent qualities, such as its fine driving position, first-class ergonomics and the clarity of its instrument layout. We’d prefer a slightly thinner, less padded wheel and a touch more reach adjustment for taller drivers, but these are little more than niggles.
Noise levels in the cabin are particularly lowVicky ParrottDeputy reviews editor
Look around the cabin and you’ll find that the plastics become harder and less textured the further below the eyeline you get, but that is standard procedure among cars such as this. More important are the flawlessly even and tight shutlines, the sense of solidity that’s inherent in every handle and lever, and the quality and finish of all the controls save, perhaps, the column stalks.
Less satisfactory is the amount of room in the back. Access to the rear cabin is reasonable as the front seats slide a long way forward, but knee room is notably limited once you’re in there – almost certainly due to the thickness of those otherwise excellent, heavily bolstered GTI-grade front chairs.
Head and elbow room are generous by class standards, but anyone likely to benefit from this will equally likely be penalised by the restricted leg room in the back. At least the boot, once you’ve negotiated its highish load lip, is deep, wide and sensibly proportioned, as you’d expect from a family hatch.
Noise levels in the cabin are particularly low and seem more closely related to a luxurious executive than a sporting hatch. As a result, the GTI should prove to be a comfortable, refined and relaxed companion.
ENGINES & PERFORMANCE
The Volkswagen Golf GTI has never been an overt, in-your-face kind of hatch like, say, the Honda Civic Type R, and this one is not about to change half a lifetime’s convention. As you can tell from the numbers, the performance it delivers is sizeable, but it’s also discreet. We’d hope for and expect nothing less.
We mention this only because anyone expecting an engine that will dramatically ‘come on the cam’ and thrust you at the horizon while emitting an animalistic howl is in for a big disappointment. Just like the previous GTI, the Golf prefers a less frenetic approach, applying an even spread of torque from little more than idling to little less than peak power. And when you consider that strategy still produces one of the quicker cars in the class, its merit is clear to see: it provides the same or better rewards for demonstrably less effort. A 0-60mph time of 6.7sec is highly competitive, while the 50-70mph time we achieved in sixth gear shows just how useful all that low-down torque can be, particularly as it is delivered with almost non-existent turbo lag.
The brakes too are strong, resistant to fade and easy to modulateMatt PriorEditor-at-large
And yet we could not escape the nagging feeling that this latest GTI is just a touch too po-faced in the way it accelerates. Easy and impressive though it is, there is a sense of occasion missing here and the impression left is of an engine doing a job efficiently and effectively but with no great appetite. A touch more exuberance at the top end, or even a slightly sharper exhaust note would be all that was needed to make a good engine great; as it stands, it is almost too refined.
The Edition 35 Golf GTI injects some more excitement into the package. Using a detuned version of the Golf R’s engine, it offers a 25bhp gain over the standard GTI, packing 232bhp in total. While the on-paper performance gains are minimal, with a 0-62mph time of 6.6sec and a top speed of 153mph, the power does bring a little more engagement to the GTI.
The cabriolet simply can not overcome its significant weight penalty when it comes to performance. Although its 0-62mph time of 7.3sec isn’t too far behind the hard top GTI’s, the ease of performance apparent in the hatch is lacking in the cabriolet because of the extra weight.
We liked rather than loved the transmission. All the basics are right: a good spread of ratios, short throws and a sensibly shaped lever, but the stick’s action around the gate could feel more tactile and mechanical than it does. At least the clutch is smooth and progressive, so making apparently seamless shifts is no great effort. We liked the brakes too; they’re strong, resistant to fade and easy to modulate.
RIDE & HANDLING
VW has found a close to ideal balance between the Golf GTI’s ride and handling in all normal situations, although the test car came with optional Adaptive Chassis Control which, gallingly, is standard on the cheaper Scirocco. Unlike some others systems where the differences are either too small to spot or so big that either the ride or handling becomes unacceptable, the Golf just feels pleasantly taut in Sport mode and commensurately relaxed in Comfort.
The trick differential works very well too, giving the GTI an unlikely degree of traction even at the exit of wet roundabouts, without causing more than a vestigial degree of torque steer.
The steering has a pleasing weight to it, but a shade more feel would be welcomeMatt SaundersRoad test editor
Grip levels are predictably excellent, as is the car’s composure as it flows from apex to apex. The car may be 23mm wider than the old Golf but its steadfast refusal ever to become ungainly even with the electronics disabled means that, at public road speeds, you never find yourself using a millimetre more room than you anticipated.
But again, having got the fundamentals spot on, Volkswagen has not managed to sufficiently finesse the fine nuances past the point where a car progresses from being merely fun to drive and steps into the rarefied world of the truly outstanding driving machine.
The steering has a pleasing weight to it, but a shade more feel would be welcome (and may even be available on the standard 17in wheel rims). And while understeer is very well contained, the Golf chassis is not as reactive to changes in throttle opening as we’d like, or indeed as reactive as its predecessor was. The sensation of a car grown up too far for its own good is inescapable.
Not that this will bother you as you glide along the motorway and savour the suspension’s first-class ability both to sponge away bumps yet maintain iron control over the Golf’s body movements. Around town, too, as long as you accept the inevitable residual firmness of its sporting suspension settings, the GTI’s ride is beyond serious reproach.
As you would expect, the Golf GTI cabriolet suffers slightly in the handling stakes due to its lower rigidity. There is some scuttle shake with the roof lowered and there is occasional kickback through the steering, but the cabriolet retains a good deal of the hatchback’s ability.
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