Golf GTI (MK7/7.5)
Capable, fast, and dependable, but is it the car you want to own?
After pulling all the right levers and finding a comfortable seating position behind a somewhat chintzy steering wheel that doesn't quite fit the functional-looking dashboard behind it I'm welcomed by a non-event start-up. That isn't to say the GTI is lifeless on this rather cold morning start and it settles into a small burble at the rear but the engine couldn't fool anyone into believing it is more than four cylinders with stratified injection. Where the GTI does begin to make you question what is beneath the bonnet is on the open road, torque and horsepower are stunning well mapped by Volkswagen (yes you can go and extract another forty or so horsepower with an engine remap by a tuner) and on corner exit, the GTI offers a subtle blend of punchy torque and keen acceleration until you pass between the 5 and 6 on the rev counter. Pushing past this isn't much of a reward and so a gearchange, a manual in this particular car, is the next order of business. Slow things down for a moment to pass through a small village or town and the Golf plays a trick on you. Gone is the hot hatch character of just a moment ago and instead, you are now in a reliable and comfortable box to transport yourself in. This dual personality is doubtlessly why so many of these things left Volkswagen forecourts throughout the MK7 and MK7.5 life span. No doubt some keen lease and finance deals helped as well.
ignore numbers, the torque kick and horsepower peak are suited to emotive driving
All of this poses a question, where is the GTI compromised, there must be a point that its jack of all trades character is overstretched and leaves you wanting. Taking a deliberately poor road surface is the soft target to go for. A regular Golf can afford suspension travel that won't be on offer in the GTI, added to this the bigger wheels and we should find the first red mark. Certainly along a poor stretch that has been left in disrepair by a near-bankrupt city council does make you bump a little, but it isn't unacceptable. In fact, having driven several of this car's direct rivals along this same stretch it is almost impressive.
Spend another £10,000 on a more premium offering with some form of an adjustable suspension and you will get a better ride on the poorest of road surfaces, but that is an unfair comparison and one that could be leveled at any car until you are suggestion a Fiat Panda is shoddy because it doesn't ride like a Bentley. We could go into great detail about the primary ride and secondary ride characteristics but it would be overkill and just be us trying to criticise the GTI. So what about pushing hard on some better roads?
The conditions seem to make the most difference, on a wet day you can go as quickly as would be responsible, and even the heartiest enthusiast will be on the limit of their talent driving to find the limit of the car in on a damp road. The chassis isn't perfect and being that it is so widely spread across the VW family there are some occasions when you start to think you would have more fun elsewhere, namely something rear-driven like a previous generation BMW M140i, but your talent will almost certainly be humbled quicker than in the Golf if you begin to push a little too much. In the dry, the limiting factor for the GTI is the power, and that is a good thing. Not once on test did I desire more speed, all it would have achieved was a higher number on the speedo and in doing so earlier lift-off. Another reason why the GTI is probably a slightly better pick for those that enjoy the pleasure of driving above all else. An R will be faster and more capable, but the margins aren't gigantic and you will spend more time worrying about your license in the R when wanting to really enjoy it. This again speaks to the tuning element, you could desire more power, or you could just spend more time pushing the pedal harder, it depends on how you derive your enjoyment. Steering feel is where the GTI feels a little comprised, having owned a MK5 GTI this MK7 is just a little lost in translation, do I need a little more turn in, or just a whisker, in the MK7 it is hard to know, perhaps living with one would help, but having spent a long time with this cars cousin, the Leon FR, I am none the wiser.
In summary, the car is as quick as you will likely want it to be, ignore numbers, the torque kick and horsepower peak are suited to emotive driving and will demand something of you. Those that want easy power and less time being able to really drive their car should spend a bit more on an R or Audi S3. The suspension is acceptable on poor roads (more a reflection of the roads than the car) and near the front of the class on smooth tarmac. The interior though is only lifted by a couple of touches and a steering wheel that is trying too hard, not to mention tartan seats if you have the cloth option. Other hot hatches feel more exciting to sit in but will show compromises before the Golf. It would be easy at this point to say it is a great all-rounder, with a decent-sized boot, and good space in the rear for children or for shorter drives with adults, but instead we'll consider the rivals.
Would you have a wider grin in a Hyundai I30N, yes, there is more theatre when being enthusiastic, but the Golf is ahead of it as something to live with. The Focus ST doesn't have the character it once did and although it is a slightly more interesting place to sit with big bolsters hugging you and a little more growl on startup, the Golf just does the job better when measuring every metric. The Civic Type R is a better driver's car but would show its compromises on a poor road surface and when asked to just sit and be quiet in a village traffic jam. The Leon Cupra would be the most direct competition, more power, more exciting styling, but similiar character in the corners and on the road. The power advantage would likely only be noticeable in ideal condition on a straight road, along a twisty section the power just overwhelms the front wheels where the Golf is already getting going making up for the horsepower deficit.
The MK8 Golf has been in showrooms for a little while now but the new interior is doing little but arousing the tech lovers, and the driving dynamics have little between them, as aspects since the underpinnings remain largely unchanged. The MK7 and MK7.5 (in particular the 7.5) are better buys. Get a lightly used one and you'll enjoy it, just don't expect it to offer fireworks, the GTI is subtle speed, for excitement look to Japan and Korea.
A note from Miles.
Whilst spending some time with a 1989 Porsche 911 we were stopped for photography when a dog walker passed us. After catching his breath from the run he had just been doing, the brightly clad clothing a dead giveaway, he said 'i used to have one of those' with a wide grin. A short chat about the car began and he admitted he loved the it but just couldn't quite justify getting one again. Their prices have risen and he currently had a two-year-old Golf GTI, it was all the car he could want. A few choice extras included radar cruise control for long journeys and heated everything for cold morning starts. We agreed the GTI was a great allrounder and he admitted that having bought one for the first time five years prior, he had replaced it with another GTI and was almost certain that his next car would again be a GTI. That's the thing about these cars, they are very good and broad in their abilities, not the pinnacle in any aspect but damn close in many important ones. What a time to be a car enthusiast.