Volkswagen have nearly always had a sporty variant of their Golf. Originally it was badged the GTi and its credibility will long be remembered.
The Golf GTi was Germany's answer to the Peugeot 206 GTi, and other models which epitomised the hot hatch market. Disappointingly, the Golf GTi disappeared early from the New Zealand market, its price and low sales volumes made it uncompetitive. It eventually disappeared in overseas markets as well but other variants took its place, the VR models and the RS32 certainly filled the GTi's boots.
Today, though, things are back to normal, the Golf GTi has returned and it lives up to the legend of old, providing performance motoring at not too high a price. At $49,990 it sits price competitive with Renault's Megane RS225 and is a lot less than, say, Alfa Romeo's 147 GTA at $69,990. The GTi is built with the quality and precision that VW has earned such respect for, and if you take into account that its concept isn't that far removed from Audi's A3 Sportback ($67,900) which shares the same engine and drivetrain, then it is a bargain in terms of where it sits in the market.
Powering the GTi is Audi/Volkswagen's new generation FSI, double-overhead-camshaft engine which displaces 2-litre and has power outputs of 147kW at an incredibly low 5100rpm, and 280Nm of torque all of the way from 1800rpm to peak power. Responsible for the high outputs, and the low rev band in which they are achieved, is an intercooled turbocharger which has moderate boost, the GTi isn't quite as feisty as a Lancer Evo or Impreza STi but it does have a linear flow of power which is exciting yet fluid.
Volkswagen and Audi have recently introduced a new concept in gearbox design as well. DSG is an acronym for direct shift gearbox, it is a double clutch, double shaft unit which works much like an automatic, yet is labelled manual. There are only two pedals (brake and accelerator) yet the gearbox can be felt shifting like a manual with noticeable changes. It is a six-speed unit which is a $3000 option on the GTi, ordinarily a true six-speed manual is fitted to the car, but in the test car's case the DSG system was fitted and I've really come to enjoy its benefits. Manual changes can be made either at the gearshift lever itself or with the steering wheel-mounted paddles, right to change up, left to change down.
Low gearbox ratios keep the engine excitable, it revs quickly to speed and has solid power delivery, turbo lag barely rates a mention but engine sound certainly does, it is rorty and quite intrusive and the popping sound of the turbo wastegate and heavy exhaust throb constantly reminds the driver that something special sits up front.
Acceleration is vivid. The Golf GTi has always been quick and the new doesn't disappoint. According to Volkswagen the DSG variant will reach 100kmh from a standstill in 6.9sec and they also claim a top speed of 233kmh. Through the mid-range the GTi will scamper to 120kmh from 80kmh in 5sec.
The Golf GTi is unassumingly quick, and it delivers its speed in a fashion that the driver (and passengers) are comfortable with. A close eye is best kept on the speedometer (300kmh) as it lunges to the licence-threatening area in a matter of moments.
The Volkswagen/Audi group are employing some interesting engineering principles at present. The transverse layout and DSG gearbox of the GTi (and A3 Sportback) means the 4motion/quattro drive system can't be incorporated. As such, the GTi is a front-driver only, yet, as you would expect from a car carrying a gran turismo badge, it handles brilliantly, nonetheless. The test car was sitting on optional 18in wheels ($2000) and was shod with very low profile 225/40 Bridgestone Potenza rubber. Grip is phenomenal and steering accuracy absolutely delightful. Also, the firm spring and damper rates provide body control and balance which all added together provide precision and accuracy through a corner.
The driver gets to hang on to a beautifully formed leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the feel and information gathered from what the tyres are doing in relation to the road surface is very involving. The GTi can be forced into a corner knowing that the high levels of grip and wonderful balance means entry speed and exit are high. Just at the point where understeer would seem likely, a relatively non-invasive traction and stability control system kicks in and negates wayward cornering motion.
Not surprisingly, I took the GTi up country. The fast flowing corners between the two gorges were ideal, it scorches between corners with lightning force and brakes solidly so that the next corner can be lined up smoothly and efficiently.
The GTi provided one of the year's most enjoyable evaluation runs, it has agility and speed that is a sheer delight, and that given it is only two-wheel-drive and gives away a lot of power to cars which are seen to have a far higher profile in the hot hatch category.
Interestingly, the GTi is also quite thrifty, on the long straights up to the high country a fuel usage average of 10.2 litres per 100km (28mpg) was easily achievable with instantaneous returns of 8.1l/100km (35mpg) on offer at a steady 100kmh in sixth (engine speed 2350rpm). Yes, when you use the throttle heavily and enjoy the turbo thrust, the engine does get a bit greedy.
To complement its performance and handling is a trendy, sporty-flavoured interior, a shape and style that epitomises the hot-hatch image. European Motor Distributors are only bringing the GTi here in five-door form only, a three-door is available overseas but for my money the five-door would be far more practical.
Fitment is extensive and includes dual zone climate control, fully electric operating systems, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel on tilt and reach-adjustable column, automatic wipers (also variable intermittent), automatic lights and powerful single-CD audio.
Safety is a high priority for Volkswagen and the GTi gets no fewer that eight air bags, a full overshoulder seat belt for five occupants, and ABS which is aligned to the stability control systems.
To choose between the GTi and the other hot European hatchbacks that I mentioned earlier comes down a lot to brand loyalty, but if nostalgia played any part of a purchasing decision then the Golf would certainly be the way to go.
Price: Volkswagen Golf GTi, $52,990.
Dimensions: Length, 4204mm; width, 1759mm; height, 1485mm.
Configuration: Four-cylinder transverse, front-wheel-drive, 1984cc, 147kW/5100rpm, 280Nm/1800rpm-5000rpm, six-speed direct shift gearbox.
Performance: 0-100kmh, 6.9sec; maximum speed, 233kmh.