This was particularly galling for enthusiastic drivers, as Ford’s Focus was much better to drive even in base-model specification. By the turn of the millennium the hot hatchback was back in fashion, with challengers from the likes of Ford, Alfa Romeo, Honda, Vauxhall and Renault. VW responded, but with the six-cylinder, four-wheel drive R32.
The GTI was a mere footnote in this era, but out of darkness comes light.
The MkV Golf had to be good for Volkswagen, as profits had plunged just before its release. But the company couldn’t let the much cheaper Ford Focus off for being better to drive and cheaper to buy. Despite the huge cost, VW sanctioned investment
in a multi-link rear suspension set-up, though platform-sharing across the Volkswagen Group helped to mitigate the expenditure. Electro-mechanical power steering was an addition that helped sharpen the Golf’s steering.
Then came the GTI in late 2004. It was announced with a memorable advertising campaign featuring a Mint Royale remix of Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain, with the tagline ‘The original, updated’. It certainly seemed to live up to that billing, with interior and exterior detailing that harked backed to the MkI. It was similarly fun to drive, because with 197bhp on tap from a turbocharged, 2.0-litre engine, 0-60mph was done and dusted within seven seconds and you could carry on all the way to 146mph. The MkV Golf GTI won awards across the board for its handling, refinement, comfort and sheer shove, topping the majority of group tests it was entered into. It became a popular car with tuners too, with the turbocharged four-pot offering almost limitless options for big horsepower at low cost.
The king of the hot hatches was back, and while the current hot hatchback horsepower arms race is fought between Ford, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen itself with the R models, the GTI is still an alluring draw at a much lower price than those.
Much like the MkI, the MkVII is all the sports car you’ll ever need. Not bad for a car conceived as a limited-run special edition of 5000.
It’s the fizz that wins your heart – each time you open the throttle on an open piece of road, feel the rush of acceleration and watch the tacho needle racing for the redline. This boistrous bundle was built to put a smile on your face – again and again, and again.
Very few cars are as special as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Equally, only a handful are hardwired into your synapses quite as effectively. The German giant’s bosses might have sceptical about the prospects of a sporting Golf before they drove the original prototype in 1975, but hearts and minds changed when they gave the final product a good seeing to at the Wolfsburg test track.
At first glance, they’d have seen something subdued and subtle, with few hints to what lay beneath. Today, one of those hints, that red-pinstriped grille, has become the signature for all that’s great about the GTI. Then there’s the deep front spoiler and the wheelarch extensions.
Volkswagen wasn’t the inventor of the hot hatch or even the first to slap G, T and I on the rump of a car. But these lovely visual touches remind you how the manufacturer has made both its own.
Slide into the interior and the immediate impression is of a car that means business. It has an appealingly minimalist design – every feature has been honed with the keen driver in mind. The on-board computer, known in VW-speak as the MFA, was advanced for its time, and still very useful today. It’s the same with the gearchange indicator for saving fuel – smart, practical. The golfball gearknob has become as iconic as St Andrews,
and is still used in modern day GTIs.
The driving position is excellent. You sit high in the slim-pillared interior, and are presented with a commanding view out. Placing this hatchback on the road is a piece of cake, as a consequence. And it’s a friendly place – not a word you’d generally associate with sports cars.
Fire it up, and the engine sizzles enthusiastically, goading you into playing footsie with the throttle. Pull away, and the light clutch, positive gearchange and agreeably weighty steering fill you with confidence and joy. Even in town, you’ll find yourself wanting to slice through rush-hour like
a Parisian taxi driver.
But the fun has only just begun. Hit the B-roads, turn it up to 11, and the GTI truly wakes up. The steering feeds back the road surface in minute detail, and loads up remarkably in bends – it’s a good feeling, and there are huge amounts of grip. It’s addictively chuckable. You will love the way it tucks in as you trail off the throttle, countering any unwanted understeer – although other road users might find the way it will cock its inside rear wheel in the air in tight turns just a tad alarming.
Our Campaign model is powered by the later 1781cc engine, pushing out 112bhp and 109lb ft. This is enough punch to give this 860kg hatchback genuinely thrilling acceleration. It’s not all about revs like the earlier 1.6-litre GTI, even though it pulls cleanly to 7000rpm. There’s plenty of torque, and it hauls strongly from as low as 2500rpm – just like a large-engined small car should.
All the stories about the GTI’s poor brakes are spot on, though, which can erode some of that confidence and joy when cracking on. Coming to a halt can take a fair bit of effort on the middle pedal, even if the underlying quality of the stopping power is there.
In short, the Golf GTI deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it over the years. It is a genuine phenomenon, a gamechanging sports car. It’s also one that’s almost as good to drive now as the latest version in the line. You will be much more forgiving of the original’s few dynamic flaws, and more appreciative of the crackerjack feeling you get every time you hit the road in it.