This is the hot-hatch benchmark, end of.
Say what you want about the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but there’s no denying that it is an institution as far as hot hatchbacks are concerned. While it wasn’t the first to bring performance to the family hatch package, it was most certainly responsible for popularising the segment, and to this day, the words ‘Golf’ and ‘GTI’ are synonymous and hallowed, despite the beating that the badge took in the 90s and early 00s when the revered nameplate lived through some rather disappointing attempts.
Glossing over those two generations that lost the plot, the Golf GTI has kept the hot hatch torque alight since 1975, and this facelifted ‘Mk7.5’ model doesn't disappoint on the surface. There’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine up front powering the front wheels, and the choice of either a seven-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox or a six-speed manual (with the requisite golf-ball gear knob) just as there should be, and the correct tartan seat upholstery inside.
Does it evoke memories of the Mk1? Yes. Should it? Hell yes.
“Subtle, isn’t it? The Golf GTI hasn’t endured for more than three decades by offending your mother with its outrageousness. VW says the GTI has a “more impressive stance on the road than ever before.” — Autocar UK
Volkswagen isn’t known for being too radical when it comes to design, and that restraint comes through with the Golf GTI. While some of its competitors risk going overboard, the Golf GTI comes across as mature and almost stately, which is probably why its previously-discreet front bumper has now sprouted gills on either side that makes it look like it has pork chop sideburns. Weirdly, the gills on either side are visually linked by a line that connects the two, but the bumper appears to go lower still with a little bit more body-colour beneath. It’s weird.
The lights have been tweaked significantly though, and are of the LED variety on the Golf GTI. They now feature an interesting double-C motif inside, with both elements extending the red pinstripe that originates from the VW badge at the centre of the grille. Down the side, discreet ‘GTI’ basing is the only thing that gives away this model’s potency, while the rear also gets new LED lights to give it that much more of a sparkle at night. All cars get either a 18-inch or 19-inch set of alloy wheels, with even the smaller set of alloys providing plenty of grip and confidence. The 19-inchers definitely amp up the visual appeal, and when paired with the adaptive dampers you can get with the GTI, have little effect on the ride quality.
The design of the Golf GTI is subtle overall, and that has nothing to do with the overly-aggressive suits donned by the competition. But its a subtlety that works, because it expresses its performance potential just enough to mark it out against vanilla variants without possibly offending anyone in the corporate carpark.
Engine & Drivetrain
“Performance credentials include a lift in power…” - Drive
The Volkswagen Golf GTI soldiers on with the same 2.0-litre turbo-four petrol mill from the outgoing car, though it’s been tweaked to produce 169kW of power, the same number as touted by the pre-facelift GTI Performance model, while torque remains unchanged at 350Nm. Paired to the 7-speed DSG automatic (six-speed manual also available), the GTI can hit 100km/h in just 6.4-seconds, before hurtling on to a top-speed of 250km/h.
Power goes to the front wheels exclusively, though there is a limited slip differential here to make the most of the grip that it has, effectively allowing you to go around corners like the laws of physics don’t apply. And while the six-speed manual gearbox is snickety and sharp, there’s more usability to be had with the automatic, given its relatively smooth operation at slow speeds and lighting-sharp responses when you’re gunning it. The breadth of ability in the automatic means the Volkswagen Golf GTI pulls ahead of rivals like the Peugeot 308 GTI by offering an automatic at all (the Pug is a self-shifter only), and is definitely better received than the CVT-automatic in the Subaru WRX.
“‘Easy to operate is a description that can be applied…” — WhatCar?
Volkswagen has not been known for particularly inventive and emotional cabins, and it’s much the same case with the Golf GTI. That said, they do go a little further than they usually do with the standard offering of tartan fabric seats and a dimpled golf ball-like manual gear lever, which is reminiscent of the first iteration of the famous nameplate, and maintains the practical and usable aspects of the Golf GTI recipe. That’ll probably come as welcome news to potential buyers who need their GTI to be both the weekend hoon-mobile as well as the weekday family car, which is basically what the hot Golf intends to be.
There’s plenty of adjustment in the controls and seat, while the driving position is simply spot-on for a car of this type. People of all shapes and sizes will be able to find comfort in the front seats of a Golf GTI, while the rear offers enough room for 2 adults to travel rather comfortably (even in the 3-door). All will enjoy the new 8.0-inch colour touchscreen, that’s glass-fronted and flanked by touch-sensitive shortcut buttons for easy operation. Smartphone mirroring is available here for both iOS and Android devices, while a 9.2-inch unit is available as an option.
Visibility in the Golf GTI is excellent thanks to its rather simple boxy proportions, with the view in all directions impeded little by the bodywork. The C-pillars are, admittedly, a little chunky, but that’s no issue given that all cars get all-round parking sensors as standard.
Behind the Wheel
“[The VW Golf GTI] remains, a hugely entertaining and satisfying car to punt along with a feeling of real class in the suspension department.” — Motor Mag
The Golf GTI’s party piece is certainly its driving characteristics, displaying its Jack-of-all-trades nature best. While some hot hatchbacks have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by compromising usability in the name of performance, this GTI toes the line with a deftness that we imagine has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve been doing this for the better part of the last four decades.
The suspension is both forgiving and supportive, allowing small to mid-sized bumps and undulations to leave the cabin undisturbed while also offering plenty of body control and precision when you’re gunning it. The steering wheel, with a variable-ratio system, offers unnerving levels of directness and feel, something that’s often lost in machines like these. It’s an impressive drivers car for sure, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never driven one.
But where the Mk7.5 (or actually, the Mk7) pushes past the competition is how the car behaves when your blood isn't racing. Go for the ‘adaptive chassis control’ (or adaptive dampers to you and I), and you’ll find that even on the bigger 19-inch alloys, little can upset the Golf GTI when you’re just cruising along trying to get home. In ‘Comfort’ mode, the car settles into a truly effortless affair, with smooth progress to be enjoyed at all speeds. Refinement is excellent here too, with little in the way of wind and tyre roar, though bigger wheels will naturally introduce more of the latter.
While the 6-speed manual gearbox might seem appealing, we actually prefer the double-clutch automatic given its greater breadth of ability across various driving conditions. Also, it makes an awesome noise when you downshift, which is always a welcome thing.
Safety & Technology
“The standard GTI doesn't get all the driver aid toys as standard…” — CarsGuide
The Volkswagen Golf GTI, despite its excellent driving characteristics, is still a family car at heart. As such, it comes with seven airbags, AEB (full AEB too, not limited to just city speeds), and a high-strength steel construction that have all worked together to ensure the GTI is deserving of a five-star ANAP rating. The safety credentials can be improved upon further by adding an optional package that throws in intelligent cruise control and blind spot warning, though that’s a $1600 option.
Kit on the GTI is pretty great too, with LED headlights, DRLs and taillights, a reversing camera, keyless entry and go, satellite navigation, Drive Select feature, and dual-zone climate control all coming as standard. More kit can be specified, naturally, but they all come at a cost. The best option to go for is definitely the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, because it really helps give the Golf GTI the most usable presentation there is.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI wasn’t the first hot-hatch on the scene back in the 1970s, but its resolved presentation and excellent practicality meant that the petrolhead in the family didn’t have to compromise on account of the growing brood. And today, the Golf GTI remains as impressive as ever, with exceptional levels of fun to be had behind the wheel on the weekends and plenty of space and refinement that can be enjoyed whenever. The Golf GTI is the consummate hot hatch, and its smart, inoffensive design just outlines that further.
Where some of its competitors appear to have corrupted the recipe somewhat with brittle rides and questionable levels of refinement, the Volkswagen GTI just keeps setting the pace in the segment, with only competitors like the Peugeot 308 GTI and Renault Megane RS offering any real headache to the conquering German. The combination of impressive standard kit, interesting optional packages, and a wide breadth of ability means there’s no question as to why the Golf GTI is referred to as the mac-daddy of hot hatchbacks. This is a car that deserves the respect it has, and then some.
If you’re wanting for a more focused experience and willing to sacrifice a little in terms of day-to-day usability, perhaps something with a RenaultSport badge would be more up your alley. But if you want your hot hatch to have a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality to it, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the right hot-hatch for you.
Motoring – 79/100 – “With more power and more luxury, the Mk7.5 VW Golf GTI retains its crown as the ultimate everyday performance car.”
CarsGuide – 8.1/10 – “It’s still the hot hatchback to beat, no matter where you look.”
Drive – 8.0/10 – “It’s no surprise one in four Australian Golf customers plumps for a performance model as few cars offer this blend of performance, polish and tech for a relatively affordable price. The GTI’s real world appeal resonates clearly with Aussie drivers, even if it isn’t the fastest machine around a German racetrack.”
Motor Mag – 4.5/5.0 – “It’s measured and intelligent, but it can still show a clean pair of heels to pretty much anything with a hatchback layout and a price tag south of $55,000. Which is, of course, the other way of determining that not a whole lot has changed. But since the rest of the hot-hatch world is still playing catch-up, that’s a luxury only a car as resolved as the Golf GTI can afford.”
Practical Motoring – 4.0/5.0 – “Marginally tweaked for the new Golf gen 7.5, the performance Golfs are a little quicker but remain very much what they were before. And what the GTI itself has been for over 40 years: an unmatched combo of everyday practicality, subtle design, pleasing quality – with a flipside of cobweb-clearing performance and exhilaration.”
Autocar UK – 4.0/5.0 – “Do not think that the new Golf GTI is some kind of thinly-disguised road-racer with the ride quality of a skateboard and the handling of a nervy competition car. It is perfect for every day of the week. If Volkswagen made the Golf a bit more visually appealing, and a little more interesting at its limits, then it could give it the additional joie de vivre it needs to be a real thriller. That is where the limited edition Golf GTI Clubsport S came in, but it was the Golf that the GTI moniker deserved and how Volkswagen should of made the standard car in the first place.”
TopGear UK – 4.0/5.0 – “As a more reserved, mature all-rounder – one of the modern Goldilocks cars – it’s still right up there, and newcomers like the upcoming Renaultsport Megane underestimate the humble GTI at their peril. Just don’t overdo the tech spec, unless you’ve got the patience of a brain surgeon and the moves of a dance prodigy.”
WhatCar? — 4.5/5.0 — “The VW Golf GTI is a superb hot hatch that’s also extremely easy to live with. It’s expensive, but worth the money.”