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.
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 hot hatch is teaching us a few lessons
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.
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.