Sometimes the most effective methods of improvement lie not in huge overnight changes, but in many tiny steps over time. Volkswagen will tell you.
With its new Mk7.5 Golf GTI upon us, the changes are very much subtle – incrementally in the right direction – evolving rather than revolutionising what has been a successful and much-loved product.
While for Mk7.5 the sheet metal remains untouched, front and rear bars, lights and grille are freshened up, while the red GTI you see here on test, included additional features like new wheels, extra brightwork and four little red winglets underlining the headlights – the latter the most generous clue for the trainspotters.
The mechanical changes are just as understated. The venerable 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-4 picks up an extra 7kW to 169kW, matching the current GTI Performance in both output and acceleration (0-100km/h in 6.4sec). The GTI Performance, equipped with the electro-mechanical limited-slip differential, now produces 180kW and shares 350Nm with the lower-spec model.
The new Mk7.5 Golf GTI is expected to be released in Australia by August, which will include three-door variants and similar pricing despite more specification. Today's test car is a five-door manual with 19-inch wheels, adaptive dampers, intelligent lighting, the all-in infotainment pack and just about every driver assistance system imaginable.
It also includes the new, very Audi-Virtual-Cockpit-like digital instrument cluster and revamped colour centre touchscreen. As we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen, the cockpit oozes quality.
Soft-touch surfaces abound, the metal accents are actually metal and the tactile controls feel solid. The cloth seats look and feel good, the helm is thankfully still more steering wheel than game console, the ergonomics continue to be more intuitive than confusing.
Pressing the starter button activates two sources of sound: initially, it’s artificial engine noise through the stereo versus the real thing, but after a fingertip correction into Sport mode, the powerplant beats the amplifier.
Heading out on the Spanish backroads of our test route, the dampers are locked into Comfort mode and the other elements left in Sport. Although there is an ESP button, you can only deactivate traction control and not stability control, which means you’ll get take-off wheelspin, but lift-off oversteer is a unfortunately a much harder task with the fun police curtailing proceedings.
Then again, nail-biting excitement and overwhelming emotion have never really been a part of the Golf scorecard. Like its predecessor, the latest 169kW GTI isn’t an aggressive street racer, but more a relaxed GT-style hatch with long legs and plenty of low-end grunt. The Golf GTI no longer needs to prove anything. Its livery is tastefully tailored, its stance is understated yet confident.
Even at 4000rpm, the acoustics within the cabin are hushed – there’s no suspension rumble, tyre roar or driveline nasties. The only thing you’ll be hearing – and luckily – are the dense and delicately staggered tonalities of Volkswagen’s finest petrol engine.
Equipped with the sports suspension and the so-called progressive power steering, the new GTI comes well prepared for the tight and twisty mountain roads along the way. You never need sixth gear on this roller-coaster terrain, but first is a must where hairpins climb like spiral straircases through the rock formations.
With the exception of short straights and occasional switchbacks, this is mainly second- and third-gear stuff. Good to know, then, that this Golf picks up the torque thread at a low 1500rpm, spanning its lofty 350Nm peak all the way to 4600rpm.
It does not come as a surprise that the six-speed manual changes ratios as rapidly as the optional DSG transmission. It’s a quick and slick gearbox, precise and well staggered, complemented by a light and progressive clutch. Although redlined at 6500rpm, there is no real need to push the single-turbo 16-valver beyond its wide sweet spot.
At 6.4sec to 100km/h, overtaking is as effortless as ever. Plant it in fifth, and 80-120km/h takes just six seconds – more than 1.5sec quicker than the 30Nm more torquey Golf GTD diesel (which isn't coming to Australia).
As expected, and across some scenic roads on the southern edge of Balearic Island, the Mk7.5 is a pleasantly controlled, unexcited, reduced experience. It’s still the kind of hot hatch that frowns upon and refrains from grand gestures, so turn in smoothly, select a taller gear, open up the steering early and feed in the torque diligently.
The reward is a captivating blend of cornering grip and exit speed, a high level of composure, immaculate body control, not much understeer and plenty of feedback. You always know exactly where you are with this Golf, be it one tenth under or over the limit and it shines through the second-gear twisties.
Overdriving the GTI upsets the handling balance by inducing excess understeer and sends the ASR/ESP into a frenzy. It’s much better to keep this hot hatch on a long leash, give torque preference over power and to maintain a steady flow. After all, despite all the performance pretensions, this is still a very grown up GTI.
While it may have grown and put on weight over the years – the original Golf GTI was 880kg in 1974, this one's 1324kg – it’s learnt new tricks, is now masterfully homogeneous and still so much fun to drive.
In a way, the 169kW Mk7.5 GTI feels more like a detuned Golf R without four-wheel drive – the cruiser version of the range-topping bruiser. Having said that, there is of course again room for a sharper Performance version and for a 220kW-plus track-bred Clubsport.
Overt sportiness is no longer the prime ambition of this high-visibility Golf with its plaid upholstery and ‘aha’ red striping. Instead, this is now the most refined and effortless hot hatch on the market. No contender can match the epic Golf for its sweet ride-handling mix and the rare combination of laid-back competence and absolute commitment.
Turn it how you like, but there still is no better all-rounder than the GTI. It’s improved its par, by tiny steps over time – and calls out its rivals to yet again lift their game.
THE SPECS - No handicaps here.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Engine: 1984cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbocharger
Bore/Stroke: 82.5 x 92.8mm
Power: 169kW @ 4700-6200rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1500-4600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Suspension (F): A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension (R): multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Tracks: 1538/1516mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes (F): 312mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers
Brakes (R): 300mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 18.0 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre Sizes: 225/40 R18 (f/r)
Tyre: Bridgestone Potenza
Price as Tested: $40,990 (TBC)
Pros: Feisty engine; sorted dynamics; practical
Cons: Non-killable ESP; conservative chassis tune
Star Rating: 4.5/5