Nothing combines fun with functionality quite like the Golf GTI which has been delivering affordable thrills to enthusiasts for four decades. The legend began in the mid Seventies with a chin spoiler, red pinstripe grille and tartan upholstery marking it out from the basic Golf. Volkswagen engineer Alfons Löwenberg worked almost in secret on this sportier variant and by shoving a 1.6-litre four-pot featuring a ground-breaking K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection system into the engine bay, the hot hatch segment was born. The GTI boasted thrilling performance which up until then could only be had with traditional sportscars but the real party trick was that it didn’t lose any of the practicality which had made the Golf so popular. Now in its seventh and best generation, Volkswagen’s iconic model has been given an update for 2018, but is it still at the top of its game?
Fortunately, the improvements don’t deviate from the original appeal of the car and even though there’s more technology now (it has a redesigned infotainment system and this is the first compact car to feature gesture control) the very essence of the GTI — genuinely accessible performance and terrific handling — is still intact. Nothing hits the sweet spot between function and power like this, however, this isn’t what you’d call an ‘extensive’ refresh. In fact you need to look pretty closely to see what is new about the exterior and eventually you’ll note that it packs a more aggressive front bumper, new LED headlights and taillights, beefier twin exhaust tips and new-look 18in alloys. The difference is marginal to last year’s car but there are some big changes in the cabin.
Aside from a chunky flat-bottom multifunctional steering wheel, very nicely bolstered leather bucket seats, soft-touch materials and the usual impeccable fit and finish, our tester had the 9.2in Discover Pro infotainment system with the aforementioned gesture control functionality not to mention high-definition graphics with customizable colours. It is equipped with a proximity sensor that makes menu functions appear on the display when your hand approaches the screen. A horizontal swipe gesture of the hand moves the menu items to the left or right. You can do various things such as scroll through the main menu and change radio stations but if you thought this will stop those annoying grubby finger marks from appearing on the screen, think again. You still have to touch the display to select options and within a few minutes of doing so, that shiny new big screen will be a mess. Keep a cloth handy. It now also has a fully digitalised instrument cluster (it’s called the Active Info Display) and the 12.3in colour screen has five different information profiles and several of the semi-automated assistance systems have been updated including the Adaptive Cruise Control. It has a speed range of 0 to 210kph — earlier, it was 0 to 160kph — while the Park Assist 3.0 makes it possible to park semi-autonomously in any parking space that’s parallel or perpendicular to the carriageway. Seen it all before? Probably, but this system can also exit from parallel parking spaces. Front Assist can be a little annoying as it tends to think you’re always on the verge of a head-on collision and to warn you it sounds an alarm but the fact it can hit the brakes automatically in case you fail to means it isn’t all that bad at all. In fact, it’s good. There are loads of other safety systems such as a Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Traffic Alert, rear parking sensors and seven airbags, and although all the new tech and kit is a welcome addition, what really matters to GTI enthusiasts is its real-world performance.
The 2017 car had 220 horses but for this Mk7.5, that number climbs to 230 produced by the brilliant 2.0-litre turbocharged four with the power directed to the front via a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The DSG is always in the right gear and ever so responsive; its shift characteristics can be changed through the selectable drive modes but just leave it in Sport for maximum thrills. It has a wonderfully linear torque band and if you floor it from a dead stop it’ll hit 100kph in 6.4 seconds with the revs spinning to 6,000rpm and then finally upshifting.
The 2017 car had 220 horses but for this Mk7.5, that number climbs to 230 produced by the brilliant 2.0-litre turbocharged four...
But it’s about much more than outright pace and power, it’s the way the GTI handles that really impresses. It has a darty front-end and excellent electric power steering while the strut-type independent front suspension and a multilink independent rear means there’s hardly any body roll not even when you really gun it in the corners. The addition of front and rear sway bars sure helps and when you’re not driving around with your teeth clenched it’s able to double up as a comfortable cruiser too. In Normal mode the adjustable dampers soak up road imperfections with ease.
Overall it’s fast, it’s blessed with an excellent chassis and now it has some interesting technology and kit as well. Is this current seventh (and a half) gen GTI still at the top of its game? You bet it is.