Fleet News

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen

Review

GROUNDBREAKING when it was launched and with a cult following that turned into mass appeal, the Golf GTI is the automotive world’s equivalent of Elvis Presley.

Credited with ‘democratising Germany’s autobahns’, what was initially planned as a limited run of 5,000 units eventually, across four generations, became 1.5 million vehicles.

While the original Golf GTI boasted just 110bhp from its 1.6-litre, eight-valve engine, it weighed just 820kg – lighter than the latest Fiat Panda – and felt sharp, engaging and lithe. It was the King.

However, in later life the Golf GTI gained weight and became clumsier and even until recently, while there was a high-performance variant that was never as able as key rivals, there was also an eight-valve 2.0-litre version that offered 115bhp success largely attributable to the GTI badge.

Perhaps the same could be said of the King who, after changing the course of musical history in the 1950s, spent the late 1960s appearing on TV specials and then grew fat while performing the same old songs at concerts in Vegas during the 1970s before his untimely demise in his bathroom in 1977.

The Golf GTI was in danger of heading in the same direction, but Volkswagen’s engineers have plotted a new tangent for the fifth incarnation of the car that created the GTI moniker.

While it tips the scales at a reasonably hefty 1,336kg, it arrives with a new engine, heavily revised suspension, tweaked steering, unique styling cues and the absence of a Golf badge on the rear. The tailgate merely has the VW roundel and a GTI badge.

And there are no plans for a feeble ‘entry-level’ GTI either, although a potent pumpe duse diesel will join the range in the future, boasting 158bhp from a 2.0-litre engine.

For now, though, the GTI will use a 197bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre FSI unit already available in the Audi A3 Sportback and will soon be offered in the A4 in 2005.

Maximum torque of 207lb-ft is available from 1,800rpm to 5,000rpm and standard equipment for the £19,995 list price (for the three-door) includes dual-zone climate control, front foglights, sports seats, a trip computer, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, an automatic dimming rear-view mirror and 17-inch ‘Monza’ alloy wheels. For an extra £445 you can have 18-inch versions.

Customers can also choose a direct shift gearbox (DSG) transmission, which offers the comfort, smoothness and convenience of a conventional automatic transmission, or on manual mode (with steering wheel-mounted paddles) offers the speed and precision changes of a race car.

The suspension has stiffer springs and dampers, thicker anti-roll bars and the GTI rides 15mm lower than the standard Golf.

The UK will be the biggest market for the new GTI with about 6,000 units a year – or 10% of total Golf sales. User- choosers will be keen to have a company car that has a strong image, good looks and impressive car park cred. Fleet operators will be swayed by the impressive residual values of the Golf, helping bring down running costs.

If the original Golf GTI was the definitive hot hatchback, then the latest Golf GTI seems worthier of the badge than some of its predecessors.

Here, we are not counting cars like the Golf V5 and the R32 – the former was more of a luxury line vehicle and the latter a high-performance special with four-wheel drive.

The GTI is supposedly the performance Golf for the masses and the new model seems to be the most convincing GTI since the original.

It’s almost as if, months before he died, the King went through de-tox, lost some weight and turned in a performance that ranked alongside his best. Elvis lives.

Behind the wheel

PREVIOUS Golf GTIs have sold well despite lacking true dynamic ability, but Volkswagen seemed to want to make the point that this Golf could hold its own alongside current class benchmarks like the Honda Civic Type-R.

So at the race circuit formerly known as Paul Ricard, now part of the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Le Castellet hotel complex that is affectionately known in the industry as the ‘Bernie Inn’, the new car was available to test in torrential downpours.

With a potent engine and front-wheel drive layout it seemed to be the perfect recipe for torque steer from a standing start and horrendous understeer on the corners as the front end would want to plough ahead as the wheels struggled for grip.

Reality was rather different though. Electronics govern the GTI’s progress from the line in tricky conditions and, once underway, the car is benign and mild mannered.

The 2.0-litre engine feels much more like a normally aspirated engine than one with a turbo, such is the smoothness of the power delivery, and the exhaust note has also been tuned to produce a sporty sounding bark.

While the electro-mechanical power steering in the standard Golf is precise, there is no communication about the relationship between the front tyres and the road surface. The GTI has much improved steering feel over the standard Golf and is genuinely delightful to drive.

In the treacherous conditions on the race track, with the electronic stabilisation programme (ESP) activated, the GTI seemed to allow its rear to step out a little before restoring order, but even with the ESP switched off, some testers believed a back-up system was operating to keep them from harm. VW’s engineers denied there was a ‘background’ ESP as offered by some manufacturers, but said the ASR (traction control) would still have been active.

On public roads the combination of a broad torque band, the kind of exhaust note that could induce goose pimples, and positive steering makes the GTI feel playful and a little mischievous.

Body roll is non- existent, but the ride is more comfortable than you would expect from a car with nearly 30 years of sporting heritage.

The six-speed manual transmission is easy to use and offers excellent cruising credentials in top gear, but the optional direct shift gearbox (DSG) offers super-slick gearchanges. I spent a significant proportion of one of the test routes with both hands firmly attached to the steering wheel using the paddles to change up and down the gears.

Another endearing feature is the checked cloth trim that seemed to be standard fare for sporty cars 25 years ago, but has been long forgotten.

Driving verdict

THE new Golf GTI does not just have a desirable badge. It is well equipped, charismatic and a delight to drive. User-choosers should form an orderly queue.

Model: GTI 2.0 T FSI
Engine: 1,984
Max power (bhp/rpm): 197/5,100
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 207/1,800
Max speed (mph): 146 (DSG: 145)
0-62mph (sec): 7.2 (DSG: 6.9)
Fuel consumption (mpg): 34.9 (DSG: 35.3)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 192 (DSG: 190)
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 55/12.1
Transmission: 6-sp man; 6-sp DSG
Service interval (miles): Variable On sale: January Prices (OTR): £19,995-£20,495 (DSG £1,325)

All shook up but impressed by legacy of the original VW star

I GET few opportunities to drive cars that pre-date the existence of Fleet News in 1978, but Volkswagen kindly provided an original Golf GTI for evaluation at the media launch of the new car.

The only real visual link between the original and the new car is a red plastic strip surrounding the grille at the front, as this 1976 model (the first right-hand drive imports began in September 1979) is smaller than the current Polo.

It stands on 13-inch wheels – the size of the front brake discs in the new car and four inches short of the standard wheels. It still feels quite robust and substantial, if lacking in a little finesse when compared with more modern cars, and the dashboard is an ergonomic nightmare.

A switch behind the steering wheel activates the headlights and the ventilation controls are of the sliding lever variety.

As well as pre-dating Fleet News, the original GTI also came before airbags, ABS, traction control and seatbelt pre-tensioners. However, after manually adjusting the single door mirror, I engaged the first of four gears on offer and set off around some country roads in the south of France.

It’s easy to forget how loud cars were back in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly the engine noise entering the cabin and wind noise at speed. The gearchange involves a long throw action and it’s a few years since I last drove a car without power steering.

But the original Golf GTI is tremendous fun. When driving it you feel like an integral part of the car – not something that could be said of the more recent versions. With tyres two inches narrower and an inch and a half taller than those on the new GTI, the old car loses grip at lower speeds than more modern cars, but seems to enjoy the challenge of twisty roads.

Although it has less sophisticated behaviour over bumpier surfaces, there is little to choose in terms of its overall composure. The old car still impresses, and it makes you realise what a revelation it was to the public back in the 1970s.

Make: Volkswagen
Model: Golf GTI 1979
Engine (cc): 1,588
Max power (bhp/rpm): 110/6,100
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 103/5,000
Max speed (mph): 113
0-62mph (sec): 9.0
Fuel consumption (mpg): 35.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): approx 190
Transmission: 4-sp man
Price (OTR): £5,010

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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