Long-term test review: Volkswagen Golf GTI

22 Apr, 2015 10:30am James Disdale

Fifth report: Electrifying exhaust note has given our hot hatch added appeal

Verdict

5

Mileage: 13,997
Fuel economy: 32.7mpg

After nearly a year on the Auto Express fleet, our VW Golf GTI has finally found its voice. The classy hot hatch has performance to spare, but until now it has lacked the sort of sporty exhaust note you’d expect. There’s a clever sound generator behind the dashboard, but its purposeful growl sounds synthetic rather than soulful.

However, as the miles have rolled under the Golf’s wheels, the noise from its twin tailpipes has changed from dull to distinctive. It could be rattly baffles in the exhaust or just the effect of hundreds of heat cycles on the system’s steel, but whatever the reason, the transformation is music to my ears.

There’s now the hint of a baritone burble at idle that’s reminiscent of my trusty Mk2 GTI, while fast gearchanges deliver the same characterful flutter as versions equipped with the DSG gearbox. It’s a small thing, but this has really helped to add an extra layer of involvement to the VW’s already engaging driving experience. This new-found mechanical musicality doesn’t come at the expense of refinement, either, as the Golf is still a quiet and composed cruiser.

It’s not only the exhaust giving my ears a workout; our upgraded sound system has also been at it. Designed by Danish hi-fi specialist Dynaudio, the £535 set-up features eight speakers, a separate subwoofer, a 400W amplifier and a Digital Signal Processor.

Like most modern stereos, you can alter the sound using a number of pre-programmed settings, such as Voice, Jazz, Rock and Pop, but I prefer to leave the tone controls flat, as this results in a powerful and surprisingly immersive sound.

It’s not quite as accomplished as high-end in-car products from the likes of Meridian or Burmester, but it’s not far off and costs nearly 10 times less. My only criticism is that I can’t use the touchscreen display to access albums and playlists when my mobile phone is wirelessly connected to the stereo, which is disappointing given that the combined cost of our car’s upgraded infotainment system and hi-fi is an eye-watering £2,300. 

Elsewhere, the Golf continues to deliver fast, fun and fuss-free family transport. The 2.0-litre engine is fully run-in and relentlessly impresses with its effortless, deep-chested performance, while the roomy interior swallows everything that me and my growing family throw at it with ease. And it doesn’t matter how bad your day has been, the Golf’s classy cabin always manages to wash away your worries. 

However, the steadily increasing temperatures here in the UK have highlighted the need to replace the car’s winter tyres with something a little more suitable. In day-to-day driving, the Pirelli Sottozeros cope well, but brake hard or attack a corner with gusto, and the Volkswagen starts to squirm and slide.

I’ve got the car booked in for a swap back to summer rubber in the coming days, so the GTI’s unflappable poise and laser-guided precision will soon be restored.

Until then, I’m simply going to turn the Golf up to 11 and give my ears a treat.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: fourth report

As winter starts to bite, our VW Golf GTI hot hatch is ready for anything

Mileage: 10,748 Real-world fuel economy: 32.7mpg

It was Scottish comedian Billy Connolly who said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” And it’s the same with cars  – with a little preparation you can comfortably shrug off the worst of the wet, cold and slippery winter weather. 

So, with a forecast of months of plummeting temperatures and lashing rain, I decided to treat our VW Golf GTI to a winter wardrobe makeover. First came a change of tyres. After 10,000 miles’ hard use, the original-fit Continental Sport Contacts were looking a little thin – particularly at the front – so they were swapped for Pirelli Sottozero 3s.

At £528 for a set of four, the 225/40 18 rubber wasn’t cheap, but I’m already feeling the benefits. The Golf now shrugs off standing water, while braking stability and cornering grip are improved on greasy and frosty surfaces. It’s only when things turn mild and dry that I miss the handling precision and limpet-like grip of the summer tyres.

Effortless

Of course, there’s more to the Golf’s effortless winter abilities than a new set of tyres. When ordering the GTI this time last year I made sure that it’d be ready for every climatic eventuality. For starters I chose the £360 Winter Pack, which adds three-stage heated seats for driver and passenger, plus heated screenwasher jets. Another worthwhile addition is the £295 Climate windscreen, whose invisible, electrically conductive layer in the laminate heats up to quickly clear an icy screen and eliminate any misting. 

The one downside is that this worthwhile kit can only be specified in conjunction with the £315 Advanced telephone connection. This wirelessly connects the phone to the car’s external aerial to compensate for any signal loss caused by the special screen.

These additions aren’t the only winter warmers, though. For instance, the Golf’s standard adaptive bi-xenon headlamps are highly effective at cutting through the seasonal gloom, while their dedicated high-pressure washers do a great job of keeping the lenses clear of salt and other road grime.

The auto wipers are also very capable, as they rarely flail around on a bone-dry screen or fail to jump into action when the heavens open.

All this means it doesn’t matter whether I’m walking or at the wheel, I’m ready for whatever winter throws at me.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: third report

Our VW Golf GTI hot hatch is just the job for long-distance touring abroad

Mileage: 6,902
Real-world fuel economy: 32.5mpg

VW made the GTI badge famous when it stuck it to the tailgate of a hotted-up Golf in 1976, but it was Maserati that first put the famous three letters together, launching its gorgeous 3500 GTi way back in 1961. 

Yet while the sleek Sixties coupe was Italy’s first production car with fuel injection, the ‘i’ in its name actually stood for ‘internazionale’, which was a nod to its intended role as a rapid and relaxing express for crossing continents as quickly as possible. Fast forward half a century and the same job description could be used for our Golf.

You see, sharp handling and strong performance are expected from a hot hatch, but our GTI’s ability to soak up big distances without breaking sweat has come as a pleasant surprise. Like all the best grand tourers, it doesn’t matter how far you have to travel, you always emerge from the VW feeling fresh. And part of this effortless long-distance cruising ability can be put down to the car’s turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. 

With 350Nm of torque at 1,500rpm, the four-cylinder unit delivers the sort of elastic performance you’d expect from a V8, meaning you never have to change down from sixth when accelerating past slower traffic on the motorway. Simply squeeze the throttle pedal and the GTI is catapulted down the road. 

Then there’s the superb refinement. Wind noise isn’t an issue and the sporty, hard-edged growl of the engine disappears when you start to cruise, while tyre roar only becomes an issue on really coarse surfaces. In fact, there are luxurious executive saloons that kick up more of a commotion than the whisper-quiet Golf.

Yet it’s the VW’s supple ride that makes the biggest difference, and that’s largely down to the optional £815 Dynamic Chassis Control. This adaptive damper set-up isn’t exactly cheap, but it only takes a short drive to realise it’s worth splashing out on. Set the suspension to Comfort and the Golf simply irons out the worst bumps, particularly on fast A-roads and motorways. 

Volkswagen Golf GTI interior detail

So good is the ride that before long you’ll forget you’re in a hot hatch. And this is when the VW is able to pull off its greatest party trick. Imagine you’ve just flashed effortlessly through France en route to Monaco...

Before you head to the coast you decide to take a blast along the famously twisty and challenging Route Napoleon, part of which hugs the hills above the principality. Simply set the suspension to Sport, dial in the most aggressive mode on the electronic front differential and select the sharpest throttle response, and the GTI is transformed into a razor-sharp pocket rocket. 

Sure, it’s not quite as involving as a Renaultsport Megane, but that car’s rock-hard ride and buzzy motor would have left you with a migraine on the long slog south, meaning you’d rather go for a lie down than a back road blast.

Factor in the Golf’s family-friendly practicality and reasonable running costs and it’s easy to make an argument for it being the greatest all-rounder money can buy – this could just be all the car you ever need. The only problem I’ve got is choosing where to take it next.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: second report

Volkswagen Golf GTI hot hatch is teaching us a few lessons

VW Golf GTI long-termer

Mileage: 3,650 miles Real world fuel economy: 30.9mpg

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been driving for, there’s always something new to learn behind the wheel. Take our Golf GTI, for example. Not long after taking delivery of the sparkling white VW, I realised that it was going to teach me a few lessons about what to expect from a hot hatch.

You see, after a couple of decades of driving front-wheel-drive cars, I thought I’d pretty much mastered the quirks and traits of their handling. For instance, go into a corner too fast, or get on the power too early, and the nose of most front-drive cars will slide wide, meaning you’ll need to lift off the throttle until the front tyres regain their bite. 

However, thanks to its clever electronically controlled front differential, our Performance Pack Golf requires a slightly different, counter-intuitive approach. In the GTI you need to get on the gas as hard as you dare the moment you sense the front of the car starting to wash out.

Do this and a remarkable thing happens. Instead of careering headlong off the road into a hedge or ditch, the GTI actually tucks in tighter to the corner. And because the diff is actively redistributing power to boost traction and reduce understeer – rather than cutting the engine’s output as with stability control – the car is able to rocket out of the bend with barely diminished speed.

It’s a little unnerving at first, but once you trust the car will just grip and go, it soon becomes second nature. And the effect is even more pronounced on wet roads, where the VW will stick as rivals start to slide.

Yet what’s really impressive is that, unlike models with a more primitive mechanical limited-slip differential, the GTI feels as docile to drive as a standard Golf when you want to take it easy. The steering is light and precise, plus there’s no wayward tugging from the front wheels when you accelerate over bumpy surfaces. 

When it’s not performing physics-defying cornering tricks, the Golf’s abilities as an all-rounder continue to impress. There’s enough space for my growing family of four, refinement is excellent and the upmarket cabin is a step up from most mainstream hatchbacks. 

It’s not been perfect, though. A rattle from the gearbox was eventually diagnosed as a broken flywheel. The replacement was fitted under warranty, although the car was off the road for a week or so while a new clutch was sourced. There was nothing wrong with the old one, but the dealer decided to change it as a precaution.

Still, while this fault initially shook my faith in the GTI’s reliability, the car hasn’t missed a beat since. Plus, while the car was being repaired, the technicians also adjusted the gear linkage, with the result that the six-speed box’s occasionally notchy shift action is now snappy and precise.

Over the coming months we’ll see if the Golf has anything else to teach me. I’m certainly hoping so, because lessons were never this much fun at school.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: first report

The iconic Volkswagen Golf GTI hot-hatch is handling the weight of expectation well

Mileage: 1,351 miles
Real world fuel economy: 28.9mpg

Ever since the Volkswagen Golf GTI made its hot hatch class-defining debut nearly 40 years ago, the weight of expectation that greets every new generation is almost unbearable. Yet unlike my pathetic attempts to lift just a few kilos, the rapid Volkswagen can easily shoulder the burden of four decades of hot hatch history.

This latest seventh-generation model of Volkswagen's iconic Golf GTI is the fastest, most refined and practical version yet. And with a solid gold image and classy interior, it’s also dripping with premium appeal.

However, there’s an argument that Volkswagen's relentless push upmarket has diluted the Golf’s fun-loving appeal and previously unbeatable performance per pound ratio.

There’s certainly no escaping the fact the Golf is more expensive than its rivals, with the standard five-door weighing in at around £27,000. And our car is even pricier thanks to the addition of the £995 Performance Pack.

This is a costly upgrade, but it boosts power by 10bhp to 227bhp, and adds a clever, electronically controlled limited-slip differential and bigger brakes. This kit looks modest on paper, but it transforms the way the Golf drives.

Our car has covered little more than 1,000 miles, but the rorty-sounding turbocharged 2.0-litre engine already feels more eager than the standard GTI’s, while the special diff reduces understeer and boosts traction. It’s not the only optional extra that enhances the driving experience either, because we’ve also added the £815 adaptive dampers.

In Sport mode, this system stiffens the suspension significantly, helping to improve body control over bumps and reduce roll in corners. In combination with the Performance Pack, the sophisticated suspension helps deliver the driver involvement that’s missing from the ‘normal’ GTI. Yet the Golf’s best party trick is its ability to combine these driving thrills with everyday usability.

Set the dampers to Comfort and it rides almost as softly as a luxury saloon, plus the cabin is well insulated from wind and road noise. And as with all versions of the Volkswagen Golf, the GTI is roomy and versatile inside – although the tartan seat trim, golf ball gearlever 
and red stitching on the steering wheel are constant reminders that you’re in something a little bit special.

The 380-litre boot can’t match my previous Skoda Octavia (with which the Golf GTI shares Volkswagen's lightweight MQB chassis) for space, but there’s still enough room for my young son’s pram and all the luggage you’d need for a week’s holiday.

Sadly though, there are some question marks hanging over the Volkswagen Golf GTI. While our car feels beautifully built, a recurring gearbox rattle (issue 1,317) has already forced a trip to the dealer. And despite gentle running in, the fuel return of 
28.9mpg is a little disappointing.

Despite these issues, the Golf GTI is already living up to the promise of its legendary badge. In fact, it’s so good that every time I climb behind the wheel I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.

Click for our full Volkswagen Golf GTI review

Insurance quote (below) provided by the AA for a 42-year-old living in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

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Premium luxury in GTI form. Poor mans 135i

Key specs

  • Model: Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance Pack
  • On fleet since: April 2014
  • Price new: £27,980
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 227bhp
  • CO2/tax: 139g/km/£130
  • Options: Discover Navigation Pro (£1,765), Dynaudio sound system (£535), Climate windscreen (£295), Dynamic Chassis Control (£815), Winter Pack (£360), Advanced telephone connection (£315), Pure White paint (£255)
  • Mileage/mpg: 13,997/32.7mpg
  • Any problems?: Flywheel replaced under warranty