Good: gorgeous inside and out, very capable chassis, low running costs
Not so good: expensive to buy, only comes alive at licence-challenging pace
Two thousand Euro buys a lot of petrol and road tax. That's the price difference between the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI and the car tested here, its diesel-sipping alter ego, the GTD. You may be surprised to learn that, due to the enhanced efficiency of the GTI, it's the diesel model that now costs more. Makes no sense, does it? With those thoughts in mind I spent a considerable amount of time in the Golf GTD pictured here. Should Volkswagen Ireland just not bother with it and get in a few more units of the GTI instead?
Actually, no. Now, I say that at the same time as stating that I personally would have the GTI on my drive every time. But I don't need a car that covers say 20,000 kilometres a year; so fuel consumption, while on my radar, is not my biggest consideration. And the GTI is hardly the thirstiest hot hatch around in any case. Likewise, at €280 a year, its tax disc is quite affordable. The GTD's is only €90 less after all.
I'd pick the GTI, even if there was no price difference, because it feels like a hot hatch even when you're dropping the kids off at school. That doesn't mean it's uncomfortable and loud especially, as the Golf is actually a brilliant everyday car too, but it does feel special. The seats are great, the steering is alert, the engine responsive from low speed and the driving controls are bespoke to the model. Away from the confines of town, it's incredibly agile and the engine makes a suitably rousing noise as it encourages you to explore the upper reaches of the rev counter.
That's the main difference between the GTI and GTD; the latter is quiet and, sporting appearance aside, very subtle. But you soon realise that it's pretty much just as quick on a fast country road. Its 380Nm of torque endows it with effortless pace, so it never feels as exciting as the GTI, but is no slower in reality. Then again, a good hot hatch for the road should be all about driver engagement, not lap times or seconds shaved from your commute. And the GTI has that nailed.
Drive the GTD at seven tenths and you may never appreciate what it can really do. Sure it feels good at sensible speeds, with the same direct, feelsome steering as the GTI (if a fraction light), a satisfying gearchange and excellent brakes, but only when you fling it down a wet mountain road in a hurry does it reveal how fantastic it can be. It's inherently well-balanced anyway, body control is exemplary and mechanical grip from the low profile Continental tyres exceptional, but push it beyond all that and it takes the abuse in its stride, sticking to your chosen line no matter what happens mid-corner, while allowing adjustment of its attitude with the throttle all the time.
This is all thanks to the standard-fit XDS+ system, an extension of the Volkswagen Group's electronic 'limited slip differential'. I've put that in air quotes as all this does is mimic the action of a mechanical limited slip differential. When one wheel loses grip, the XDS+ system applies brakes to it, which has the effect of channelling the engine's output (via an open differential, remember) to the other wheel - i.e. that with more grip. In theory it's a great idea, but we've found in the past that it can be a little slow-witted. It's certainly not that in the GTD, even if you can feel it cutting in at times. The '+' on the end indicates that this system also can apply the brakes to individual rear wheels when deemed necessary to hold the driver's chosen line. It's fantastically effective - more so in the dry.
None of this changes my stance on the GTI vs. GTD debate. I'd still have the GTI, but I do now appreciate how good the GTD is, and if my circumstances changed to involve a long daily commute, I'd not feel too short-changed in taking the sensible option.
SEAT Leon FR TDI 184: considerably cheaper than the Golf, looks just as good and has the same engine
Skoda Octavia RS TDI: again the same engine as the Golf, and again cheaper; we prefer it in Combi estate guise
Volvo V40 D4 R-Design: not the usual suspect, which is a good thing; looks great, but not as interesting to drive as the Golf