Any conversation about hot hatches either starts or ends with the nameplate that established the genre in the first place: the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Now in its seventh iteration, the GTI is neither the lightest, the most powerful nor the most advanced of its ilk. So what is it that makes the GTI such an iconic car? And, more importantly, why is this Mk7 version arguably the best yet? DEON SCHOEMAN gets behind the wheel to find out.
Hot hatches started out as hairy-chested, raucous and unruly backyard specials – humble commuters and econoboxes, brutally transformed by shoe-horning bigger, more muscular power plants into cramped engine bays, bolting on bigger-bore exhausts, and squeezing larger alloys and fatter rubber into confined wheel wells.
Well, that used to be the case. Today’s performance hatchbacks are a far cry from those early, fast-and-furious machines. They’re even faster – but also much more sophisticated, harnessing cutting-edge technology to extract sports car-rivalling urge from soberly executed hatchbacks.
The reason is simple: what used to be a niche market with only specialist appeal, has grown to embrace mainstream support with attractive sales volume potential.
One could argue that Volkswagen legitimised the hot hatch phenomenon. The original Golf GTI, based on the classic, Giugiaro-penned Mk 1 design, was unleashed in 1976 with a worldwide sales target of just 5,000 units.
It boasted an 81 kW four-cylinder engine, a red-trimmed grille, a golf ball-style gearshift knob, and tartan-patterned cloth upholstery (yes, tartan: I’m still not sure where the Scottish influence fits into a German package). More importantly, it went like stink – but without compromising production car user-friendliness.
More than three decades, six generations and 1,9-million sales later, the GTI is still the hot hatch all others are measured by. And while the pretenders to the GTI throne have become increasingly adept (read more powerful, more advanced, more intense), the hot hatch icon has remained firmly in the hot seat, so to speak.
Among its chief rivals are the Opel Astra OPC, which claims to be the most muscular front-wheel drive performance hatchback in its class, and the Renault Mégane RS, which has become the hard-core hot hatch favourite. Ford’s Focus ST is another performance hatch with the GTI in its sights.
Okay, so let’s get those trump card stats out of the way first. And indeed, they prove that the Golf GTI is no longer the most powerful hot hatch.
This latest Mk7 model brings 162 kW to the performance party, which may be up on the previous GTI’s output, but well below the 184 kW of the Focus ST, the 195 kW of the Renault Mégane RS and the 206 kW of the Opel Astra OPC.
Torque comparisons are a little more favourable: the GTI and the Mégane are close at 350 Nm and 360 Nm respectively, with the Ford matching the latter. But the Astra again has the upper hand at 400 Nm.
And as far as tipping the scales are concerned, the Mégane RS is the trimmest here, at just 1,345 kg. The Golf is ever so slightly heavier than the Focus ST(1,367kg vs. 1,362kg), while the Opel is the portliest at 1,550kg.
Distill all of this into a single, meaningful comparison, and you’ll find that the GTI makes do with just 118,5 kW per tonne, while the OPC gets to 132,9 kW/ton. The Focus ST does even better at 135,1 kW/ton. But it’s the Renault Mégane RS that tops them with at a whopping 145 kW/ton – proving that power is only one part of the overall picture.
From the above, there would seem to be little reason to opt for the Golf over, let’s say, the Mégane RS. And in pure performance terms, you’d be right: the Renault is the committed petrolheads hot hatch of choice – it’s about as close to a road-legal race as you’re likely to find.
But for most of us, hell-for-leather capability can’t be the only consideration. Comfort, practicality, user-friendliness, versatility – the overall motoring experience, across a broad spectrum of applications – is what really warrants the significant dosh you’ll be spending on your hot hatch. And that’s where the Golf comes into its own.
Let’s start with the styling: the Golf 7’s design is derivative at best, nipping and tucking a shape that’s not that easy to distinguish from Golf 6, unless they happen to be parked side by side. The same could be said of the GTI, although its performance potential is allowed to subtly shine through.
The front’s sharp looks are highlighted by a deep front bumper, enlarged lower air intake, and stacked fog lamp elements on either side. The tapered, geometric headlights have clear fairings and an unwavering stare, adding to the GTI’s resolute appearance.
In profile, the polished scythe-like spokes of the 18-inch wheels are a highlight, adding some eye candy to the otherwise smooth but somewhat anodyne appearance. Even the rear, with its twin exhausts, jaunty roof spoiler and LED tail light clusters, looks almost too familiar.
Bottom line? It looks like a Golf, and the big wheels, fat exhausts, red detailing and prominent badging all confirm the GTI identity. But, at this stage, just before I’m about to drive newcomer, I’m not exactly overwhelmed.
All that changes when I step over the red-lit sill, slide into the bolstered bucket seat, and turn the key. Somehow, the cabin of this GTI feels a lot sportier, but also more intuitive, than its predecessor.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel feels grippy, the leather upholstery is upmarket, and there’s an encouraging logic to the switchgear arrangement. A large, intuitive touchscreen in the centre stack brings a host of functions to the driver’s fingertips, while the instrument binnacle sticks to analogue for speed and rev count, while also leaving space for a second digital display.
Even the aluminium-finished pedals look the racy part – and are nicely arranged allowing easy heel-and-toeing. And tactile quality levels, so often lacking in modern cars, remains a powerful, underlying theme.
However, let’s forget (at least for the moment) that this is a hot hatch, and consider it in the context of an everyday car. The interior packaging is efficient enough to ensure good, comfortable seating for four adults, with ample leg and headroom at the rear.
Remember also that this is a four-door hatch, so rear occupants get their own doors for ease of entry and access – something the Mégane and the Opel OPC can’t offer. At 380 litres, the boot isn’t huge, but certainly viable for holiday luggage. And with everything from Bluetooth to dual-zone climate control, and decent, multi-speaker sound with Bluetooth and USB, life in the GTI cabin is as comfortable and civilised as any upmarket hatch.
What you don’t see, and only start experiencing once on the move, is the GTI’s chassis and suspension. In the hot hatch context, you’d expect this car to feel taut and racy, with a closer focus on response than on compliant comfort.
The GTI is no softie. But the VW Group’s MQB platform (shared with luminaries like the Audi A3) has an ability to provide both refinement and response, talents that are often mutually exclusive.
The GTI places the emphasis on sporty rather than soft, but does so without turning the car into a teeth-rattling monster. The suspension set-up is smooth, but transparent enough to allow plenty of feedback, and so allowing almost intuitive interaction between car and driver.
The steering remains on the light side, but with decent heft, and there’s none of the vagueness or over-emphasis that generally plagues electrically assisted steering systems. The result is a car that feels agile and willing, with direct steering responses and even a tendency to oversteer under duress.
The latter is a surprising trait, given that nose-ploughing understeer is what generally sullies the road manners of powerful front-wheel drive cars. Clearly, VW’s engineers have addressed that tendency by lightening the rear, which makes for a crisper turn-in, but also means that the unwary may be caught out.
However, the GTI’s honest, direct dialogue with the driver means the rear’s lightness at the limit is always clearly announced, and soon becomes part of an overall engaging driving character.
The four-cylinder, two-litre turbocharged engine is perfectly matched to the chassis. This latest-generation EA888 unit combines improved efficiency with a useful hike in power, compared to the Mk6 GTI. The result, as already mentioned, is 162kW of max power, combined with 350Nm of torque.