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by Tony Whitney
The bad news is that you’ll have to wait until next Fall to buy one. The good news is that the new Volkswagen Golf GTI is so much better than the earlier models it seems like a different car altogether. That doesn’t mean that older GTIs were in any way poor efforts (I bought a new one myself once and loved it) but the new car is way ahead in terms of feel, stability and general dynamic capability, as we’ll see. six-speed manual gearbox which was a delight to use
But first, a little history. The very first of the long-running GTI series rolled off the line back in 1976 as a limited edition of just 5,000. The initial car had but 110 horsepower and a top speed of 182 km/h, but buyers were impressed to say the least and VW soon shelved its “limited production” plan. To date, VW has built no less that 1.5-million Golf GTIs and there’s no sign of the concept losing buyer interest yet.
Volkswagen, in addition to jump-starting the entire economy hatchback class, created a whole new breed of cars – the “hot hatch.” Automakers all over the world copied the original Golf and most of them at one time or another spun off a performance version – often called “GTi” in a flagrant effort to display the fact that their performance product was a VW GTI competitor. Some of these clones were highly successful, others less so. As with other products, though, there was nothing like the “original and best” so VW prospered as the years went by and many versions came and went.
There were landmarks, of course. The famed Pirelli-GTI version came in 1982 and horsepower was hiked slightly for the same year. The second-generation car arrived in 1984 and (yikes!) horsepower fell that year thanks to the introduction of an early-generation catalytic converter. There was a facelift in 1985 and the 16-valve engine debuted in 1986. The third generation Golf saw the light of day in 1991 and as the years went by, horsepower grew, along with handling prowess. There was a turbo model for 1996 and a diesel was added too.
The fourth generation Golf went on sale in 1998 and buyers could choose from two power levels and a diesel for the GTI. A VR6 V-6 GTI was launched and it generated enough torque-steer to require a ride-along chiropractor. The fifth and latest Golf series was displayed last year at European auto shows and the production GTI version took its bow in Paris a few weeks ago.
Model by model, GTIs have always had one thing in common – peppy performance, agile handling, a highly driver-oriented cockpit and a reasonable price-tag. The new version is simply the best ever and quite possibly, the best performance hatchback produced by any automaker.
I had a chance to put the new GTI through its paces back in September. Instead of a quick run around the streets and a blast up the Autobahn, I drove the car, along with Quebec colleague and friend Benoit Charette, from Volkswagen’s vast Wolfsburg plant to the Paris auto show, some 1,200 km away. The run involved some backroads and lots of very fast Autobahn and Autoroute, so the car got a pretty good shakedown. We were the very first Canadian journalists to drive the new Golf, even edging ahead of the European auto scribes.
The new car doesn’t depart dramatically from a styling theme that has endured for decades. It’s just that much more attractive and VW’s new “corporate” front-end treatment really works well. The “honeycomb” grille is blacked out and large ducts and under-bumper lighting recesses add to a very purposeful look. When you see one coming in your rear view mirror, you’ll know it’s something with a little performance on tap.
As a hatchback, it’s far more accommodating than most small sedans. We were on the road for two weeks in Europe and were thus travelling with lots of baggage, but the GTI swallowed everything with its rear seats folded down. This is exactly the reason hatchbacks are the ultimate choice when it comes to practicality in a small car.
For power, the GTI has a 2.0-litre (1,984 cc, to be precise) turbocharged four cylinder developing 200 horsepower. According to VW, this is one of few engines built anywhere that uses a powerful combination of homogenous direct fuel injection and exhaust turbo with intercooler. The result is an exceptionally satisfying powerplant with lots of torque and (being lag-free) plenty of almost instant response.
Our tester came with a six-speed manual gearbox which was a delight to use. VW transmissions have improved beyond measure in recent years and now they’re among the very best out there. On the Autobahn, it was just a joy to drop into fifth to scrub off a little speed at 230 km/h when an overtaking vehicle slowed progress and then snick the lever back into sixth and get back to high-speed cruising. At high speeds, the car is a little noisy, but not excessively so. This is, after all, a sports hatchback, not a Phaeton-like luxury cruiser.
The car will top 100 km/h in something like 7.2-seconds and top speed is given (and we confirmed this) at 235 km/h. Interestingly, fuel consumption is exactly the same as that of the original 110-horsepower 1976 car, averaging 8.0 litres/100 km. With VW’s semi-auto Direct Shift Gearbox, the car is even faster and will nudge under 7.0-secs to 100 km/h. Suspension, by the way, is 15 mm lower than that of the basic Golf, which helps lower the centre of gravity and enhance handling.
On the backroads, the car proved eminently “chuckable” as most GTI models have been over the years. Understandably, perhaps, the new model has a very supple ride and I found the steering outstandingly precise. Volkswagen has developed a new steering system for the GTI which will eventually appear on other models. It proved to by one of the best moves VW has ever made with this model. For starters, torque-steer – long a bugbear of powerful front drive cars – has just about disappeared and the car is superbly balanced. Also, the very strong side winds we experienced throughout our drive across Europe had little or no effect on the car. All too often, cars in this configuration suffer mightily when the wind gets up. When I finally made it to the congested streets of Paris, the GTI proved docile in traffic and easy to manoeuvre and park.
Naturally, the car comes with all the latest safety aids and is beautifully finished inside and out. The current Golf/Jetta range can’t be bested when it comes to fit and finish – even by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It’s a pity buyers have to wait so long after the European launch to get their new GTI, but their patience will be rewarded by a car that’s among the best performance rides at any price. And while on the subject of price, we’ll have to wait until later next year to get that too.