Overall rating: 5/5
As ever, there are many more powerful hot hatches than the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but, as ever, few of them offer the same blend of highly engaging dynamics, everyday usability and utter desirability. The Mk VII reinforces that - and there's no need to spend a fortune on extras.
In the Metal:
Volkswagen hasn't strayed too far from its tried and tested GTI styling template, though the red stripe that extends into the headlights does make it more obvious, as do the black strakes on either side of the deeper front bumper. It's a shame that the bi-Xenon headlights aren't standard, as they look great too, but even so we love the overall look. Buyers can upgrade the standard 17-inch wheels to 18-inch items in a similar design or to the more extrovert 19-inch option. At the rear, an exhaust either side of the lower bumper, LED lights with a deep red finish and a body-coloured roof spoiler differentiate the GTI from other versions of the Golf.
Inside, the heavily sculpted leather steering wheel and iconic GTI 'tartan' cloth set this car apart from others as standard, and there are also stainless steel pedals and illuminated door sills. The seats hold their occupants snugly, though comfortably and overall it feels sportier than the regular Golf, without losing that car's sense of incredibly high quality.
Where to begin? How brilliant the new Golf GTI is on the road is best illustrated by the fact that, for the first 80 or so kilometres of our test route, we didn't realise that our car was fitted with the optional 'DCC' adaptive damping system. It coped with everything from a motorway to a small town with plenty of speed bumps to some of the most exciting corners to be found anywhere on the public road with aplomb. Then we discovered that it was in 'Normal' mode. Select Sport and the steering firms up (arguably unnecessarily), throttle response sharpens up to make heel-and-toe blips easier and the damping and body control ratchet up a degree or three. In this guise the GTI takes on a very different stance, with less body roll and movement under braking and a general feeling of togetherness and tautness - albeit at the expense of a little comfort.
We tested the (mostly) standard car, equipped with a deliciously mechanical six-speed manual gearbox, and not the much-hyped Performance Pack that everyone is banging on about. Hence it has 'only' 220hp. However, I defy anyone that takes the new Golf GTI for a drive down their favourite back road to come back calling the performance lacklustre. Sure, the numbers say that several hot hatches outgun it, but on the road you'd not bet against the Volkswagen.
The steering helps enormously. Like the Focus ST, it features a variable ratio rack and with only 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, turn-in is pin-sharp. Front-end grip is formidable too, even on damp mountain roads. Accelerating hard out of second gear corners the inside wheel scrabbles for grip before the ESP system reins it in, but even so progress is swift. The rear end occasionally comes into play, but most of the time it's quite planted. Despite that you can sense all four tyres doing their job as the car scythes through corners. For most the standard brakes will be sufficient, though after a particularly 'enthusiastic' piece of driving we did experience a little fade. Before that the firm pedal gave a lot of confidence to attack.
The DSG auto versus manual debate rages on and this author is firmly in the manual gearbox camp, though I do concede that the dual-clutch transmission is better than ever, and it's still an exciting car with this gearbox attached to the engine (to confirm that we took it for quick drive - in five-door format).
While the overall package is nigh on unbeatable, mixing everyday usability with proper driver engagement, the engine is still worth a mention. It produces 220hp and 350Nm of torque, which are useful outputs, but when you realise how much of the rev range that grunt is available over it begins to make sense why the Golf feels so quick. Enhancing that sensation is a more prominent induction sound than in the new car's predecessor. There's no mistaking the fact that you're driving the new GTI.
What you get for your Money:
We're tempted to give the GTI five out of five here, but the placement of several items of equipment on the options list docks it that last half a star. And the most desirable options (such as bi-Xenon lights and touch-screen satnav) are not cheap. We'd like to see climate control as standard in this model too. However, the Performance Pack, even at between €1,500 and €2,000 is a steal, and if you like driving it's a must-have - it includes an electronically controlled limited slip differential, bigger (and ventilated) brakes all-round and a 10hp boost for the engine.
We've intentionally not talked too much about the Performance Pack in this review, as that car deserves its own piece. The standard model, however, still gets 'Progressive Steering' (variable ratio) and an ESC Sport mode. Briefly pressing the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) button deactivates traction control. Hold it down for three seconds and ESC Sport is selected, allowing more time before the system intervenes.
We were prepared for the new Golf GTI to be a bit special. After all, the Mk VII hatchback in humdrum format has moved the goalposts for family cars in the class. The Golf GTI, despite its relatively modest power output, continues that theme. It's still the most complete hot hatch money can buy.