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Constant updates keep the hot hatch originator near the front of the performance car pack

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is a hot hatch that truly covers all the bases. Over four decades of history has made the seventh-generation car the most complete yet, and faster rivals can't dent its appeal.

The swift and flexible 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine is great whether you spec it with a manual or DSG automatic gearbox, while the Golf GTI also uses a chassis that manages to be comfortable, yet grips tenaciously through the corners.

Underlying everything is the original GTI promise of genuinely exciting performance in a practical, high-quality package. It’s a recipe that hasn't always succeeded in the past, but in the last few generations, the hot Golf has truly returned to form. There are quicker and more track-focused hot hatches around, but few are as complete as this hot hatch original.

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Golf GTI Performance 5dr manual

While small, fast cars were nothing new when the Volkswagen Golf GTI first arrived, it did set the template for hot hatchbacks in the decades to come. While the Golf GTI has transformed beyond recognition from the 1976 original, it's still a relevant and rewarding hot hatchback to own and drive. In many ways, it is the true all-rounder.

Volkswagen’s latest Golf GTI first went on sale in 2012, and was facelifted at the start of 2017 as part of the wider Golf range update. In 2018 the lesser-powered version of the GTI’s engine was removed due to more stringent emissions regulations so that only the “Performance” and “TCR” models now remain.

The current Golf GTI range is powered by a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine regardless of which version you go for. The cheaper Performance model produces 242bhp, while the newer GTI TCR gets 286bhp. Performance-spec GTIs come with the choice of either six-speed manual or a twin-clutch DSG, whilst the TCR is only available with a DSG.

Under the skin, the Golf GTI benefits from VW's tried and tested MQB platform to deliver rewarding handling. There is no four-wheel drive GTI – you’ll have to step up to the Golf R for that – but the basic chassis offers a good blend of handling and comfort. The GTI's suspension has been lowered by 10mm over the standard Golf, while stiffened springs and dampers and revised geometry enhance the driving experience.

All versions of the GTI feature VW's XDS electronic diff lock, which lightly applies the brake to the inside wheel when cornering to boost turn-in. There are additional options available to boost the GTI's handling further, including adaptive dampers that are part of the DCC Dynamic Chassis Control package. 

One area where the current Golf GTI overshadows the original is with the standard kit on offer. Full LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, big brakes, front and rear parking sensors and sat-nav are all included as standard, while larger wheels, leather trim and an upgraded infotainment system can be added at extra cost. But the Mk7 Golf GTI still pays homage to its ancestor, with red detailing inside and out, tartan cloth trim as standard and a Golf ball-inspired gearlever in the manual model.

The GTI isn't the only performance Golf on sale. It has formed the basis of the diesel-powered GTD and the plug-in hybrid GTE, while at the top of the range is the aforementioned four-wheel drive Golf R. Unlike these derivatives, there are just two body styles offered for the Golf GTI, either three or five doors (the GTD and Golf R can be had as estate cars, too).

Prices for the Golf GTI Performance start from around £31,000, with the DSG gearbox commanding a premium of around £1,000. The TCR version costs a little over £2,000 more than the standard GTI, while choosing the five-door body on either car will bump up the price by around £660.

Rivals for the Golf GTI have come and gone, but today there are two distinct ranks of performance hot hatchback on sale. The GTI falls into the front-wheel drive class, where it fights for sales against the Renaultsport Megane, Peugeot 308 GTi, Hyundai i30 N, MINI Cooper JCW, Vauxhall Astra VXR, Ford Focus ST, Skoda Octavia vRS and SEAT Leon Cupra, the latter two share running gear with the GTI.

It also rivals the Honda Civic Type R and BMW M140i, although these two straddle the gap between the front-drive hot hatches and more extreme hatches such as the Ford Focus RS, VW Golf R, Audi RS 3 and Mercedes-AMG A45.

Engines, performance and drive

4.8
Superb chassis set-up makes the GTI both comfortable and agile. The engine is responsive and punchy too

With the optional adaptive dampers fitted, the VW Golf GTI is a very comfortable car on all but the roughest roads. These are standard on the TCR, but on the Performance model it’s an option we really recommend. In comfort mode the car glides along so serenely that you’d never guess it features lower, stiffer suspension, while Sport mode tightens things up nicely. Even without the upgrade, however, the Golf is still one of the better-riding hot hatchbacks out there.

It doesn't seem to compromise the handling either, as the GTI once again proves that it's a brilliant all-rounder. There are rivals, like the Honda Civic Type R, that offer more pin-sharp precision or wheel-scrabbling excitement, but they're more compromised in daily driving.

The Golf GTI also gets variable-ratio steering, which senses the amount of lock that is being applied to the wheel and adjusts the steering accordingly. It takes some getting used to but makes the car feel very agile, stable and responsive - giving the driver a lot of confidence to push on.

Naturally, the more expensive TCR edition ups the ante with lower suspension, drilled brakes and recalibrated steering. This, in addition to a sizeable power boost, pulls the GTI closer to the Golf’s razor-sharp rivals than ever. The TCR offers impressive handling and stopping power for a car of this type, but without many of the compromises associated with the harder hot hatches. 

But the most important upgrade over older GTI models is the limited-slip differential. It’s a standard feature on both the Performance and TCR models, and allows the Golf to put its power down in tight bends much more cleanly, offering huge grip levels.

Engines

Before the introduction of more stringent WLTP emissions testing, the Golf GTI was available with a 227bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. While it was a little underpowered compared to rivals like the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS, it was still pokey, thanks to its healthy torque figure of 350Nm.

At the time, an optional ‘Performance’ edition could be specified which improved on these figures, raising power to 242bhp and torque to 370Nm. As a result, acceleration improved by a couple of tenths over the standard GTI, falling from 6.4 seconds to 6.2 seconds. Today, the Performance edition GTIs now occupy the lowest position in the range.

The TCR model, which went on sale in early 2019, has improved performance again, increasing power to 286bhp and torque to 380Nm, resulting in a 0-62mph sprint of to 5.6 seconds and a top speed of 155mph. If you opt to have the speed limiter removed, the TCR will top a whopping 162mph.

Performance edition Golf GTIs are available with either a six-speed manual, or a seven-speed DSG. Both are pretty slick, so it's a matter of personal preference which one to go for - though many prefer the extra engagement of changing gears yourself.

This is a serious issue for TCR-edition GTIs – supposedly billed as the hardest, fastest, driver’s choice – as they’re not available with a manual. Even though the DSG shifts quickly when you’re pressing on, it lacks the satisfaction of a well-timed heel-and-toe downshift that makes most of the latest hot hatches so engaging to drive.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

4
The Golf GTI proves that running a performance car needn’t break the bank

The officially quoted economy figures for the VW Golf GTI Performance are impressive for a hot hatch; it returns a best of 43.5mpg (the faster TCR is rated at 36.2mpg) and emits 148g/km of CO2. However, don’t forget those numbers are the best ones VW’s engineers are able to massage from the car on a theoretical driving cycle on the test bench – real life figures will be a lot lower, especially if you use the available performance in anything like the manner those same engineers intended.

The Golf GTD is a much better bet if you want low running costs, as it is said to return more than 60mpg in mixed motoring. It’s not as quick, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. GTE versions offer a small electric-only range, which is perfect if you have a short town-based commute.

If you can cope with the GTI’s day-to-day costs, the fixed-price servicing and VW’s large dealer network mean it shouldn’t be too expensive to keep on top of servicing and maintenance either.

Insurance groups

Thanks to the emergency city braking technology, the GTI is cheaper to insure as well - it's actually five insurance groups lower than the previous model with a group 29 rating.

Depreciation

The VW Golf GTI will likely look after your investment, but it’s not an exceptional performer on the used car market. Used car valuation experts CAP reckon all variants will be worth 49 to 50 per cent of their new cost after three years and 30,000 miles of ownership. Those figures are actually a couple of percentage points higher than the GTD models, but lower than the Golf R – which CAP reckons will be the most valued at 51 to 53 per cent.

Interior, design and technology

4.6
It’s no surprise the latest Golf GTI looks like the last… but the onboard tech is a leap forward

The Golf GTI's design is certainly evolutionary rather than revolutionary - it looks virtually identical to the previous model, but that won’t be a surprise to VW enthusiasts.

As usual, there are a number of relatively subtle design elements that set the hot model apart from the standard Golf hatchback, including a roof spoiler, GTI badging, a bodykit and a sports exhaust. But the most noticeable feature is the red stripe that runs across the grille and into the headlamps.

Subtle styling tweaks set the TCR apart from the lower-end GTI Performance. A deeper front splitter and side skirts are complimented by a more aggressive rear diffuser, a large rear wing and TCR puddle lights. Of the five exterior colours, three (red, white and the TCR-exclusive Pure Grey) are available with a contrasting black roof. Thankfully, the graphics on the side are a £555 option.

The GTI’s interior picks up the theme from the grille, with discreet red highlights helping to create a sporty atmosphere. The flat-bottomed, three-spoked GTI steering wheel has red stitching, there are aluminium pedals and the classic golf-ball-inspired gearknob is a pretty cool touch as well. The rest of the cabin is standard Golf hatchback fare. That’s no bad thing, as it means you can expect a clear and concise design with a large centrally mounted touchscreen, and a top quality feel.

You can spec the standard GTI with leather seats, but we'd always go for the chic tartan cloth seats that come as standard. Other standard equipment on the GTI includes DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and adaptive cruise control.

Again, the TCR adds a few subtle upgrades, though it’s less ostentatious inside. All TCRs get an eight-speaker stereo and the larger Composition Media infotainment system. There’s some unique seat fabric, too.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

The standard eight-inch touchscreen in the Golf GTI is great, with a bright, vibrant and sharp display that responds much more quickly to inputs than the one found in the Peugeot 308 GTi. There’s lots of kit, too, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included as standard as part of VW’s Car-Net system, which also offers three years’ online information for traffic data, fuel prices and more.

On top of this, the GTI gets VW’s 12.3-inch Active Info Display as standard, replacing the Golf’s regular analogue dials with digital instruments. It’s highly configurable and means you can display the satellite navigation map in front of you, so you don’t have to glance down to the centre of the dash to view it.

The beauty of the set-up is how easy it is to operate, though. The menus are logically laid out and it’s quick to process your demands, making it easy to use.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

4.5
The Golf GTI once again fulfils its promise by offering genuinely practical performance

The GTI is virtually identical to the standard Golf in terms of size and packaging, so it's just as practical as the standard hatchback. The five-door model makes up about 70 per cent of all GTI sales, which makes sense as it’s the more practical body style and we think that suits the GTI’s agenda of offering practical performance much better than the three-door. You might choose the three door for style reasons, but unless you rarely use the back seats there’ll be plenty of opportunities to regret the compromise.

Whichever version you choose though, the Golf’s cabin is spacious and easily able to accommodate five adults. The car is also very well thought out from the point of view of oddment storage, with a large glovebox, big door bins and storage under the front seats.

Size

The Golf GTI is 4,268mm long, 1,790mm wide and 1,442mm tall. For comparison, a Ford Focus ST is 4,362mm long, meaning the Golf has a compact footprint.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

The rear seats are definitely large enough for most adults, and there’s plenty of head- and legroom in the rear. The transmission tunnel reduces foot space for a central passenger though. Isofix child seat mounts are standard, and access to the rear seats is excellent – unless you’ve picked the three-door.

Boot

The Golf GTI is identical to its less sporting stable-mates in the load-carrying department. It gets a solid 380-litre boot with an adjustable floor, making it a better bet for luggage than the Ford Focus ST. However if you’re looking for the ultimate load volume the GTI has less space than the Honda Civic Type R and Skoda Octavia vRS.

With the rear seats folded the Golf’s load area becomes even more practical – the floor is completely flat and the low boot lip makes it easy to get things in and out. 

Reliability and Safety

4.2
The Golf has a top five-star crash rating and performs strongly in our Driver Power survey

The Golf GTI gets the same five-star Euro NCAP rating as the standard Golf – a result that’s partly thanks to the curtain and driver's knee airbags and stability control, which are both standard. Plus, it has an autonomous emergency braking system that will automatically apply the anchors if the car senses an imminent low-speed collision.

The Golf was independently crash tested in 2012, when NCAP awarded it 94 per cent for adult occupant safety, 89 per cent for child occupant safety, 65 per cent for pedestrian safety and 71 per cent for safety assist systems. The Ford Focus tested in the same year scored 92, 82, 72 and 71 per cent. 

The VW Golf has built up an enviable reputation for reliability over the 30 odd years it’s been in production, even if the emissions scandal has tarnished the image more than a little. 

The company also scored a respectable fifth place finish in our 2018 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey. The Golf did brilliantly, too, finishing in 18th place – with particularly strong ratings for ride and handling, reliability, and safety. Just 7.5 per cent of respondents said their car had ever gone wrong.

Warranty

The Volkswagen Golf comes with a fairly unremarkable warranty offering three years of cover with a 60,000-mile limit in the third year. It’s pretty standard fare, but the Renaultsport Megane does better with four-year cover and a 100,000 mile cap. 

Servicing

Pick one of the fixed menu-priced schemes from your VW dealer and you can cover basic servicing costs from as little as £16 per month. If you want to extend cover to include consumables like spark plugs and tyres then you’ll have to pay a bit more. All prices look competitive though.

Last updated: 
24 Apr, 2019
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