As Volkswagen launches the latest Golf GTI, Kevin Hackett explains why the legend continues.
New Golf GTI has endured the winds of change
There aren't many words in the automotive lexicon more overused and more inappropriately used than "icon". An icon should be instantly recognisable by even its silhouette, should have changed the world; should have been quite unlike anything else before it. Iconic designs include the Apple iPod, the Spitfire, New York's Chrysler Building and the Coke bottle; each one a design classic, but what about the world of cars?
Think about it: there can't really be more than a handful. The Volkswagen Beetle, the Porsche 911, the Range Rover, the original Mini and the Jaguar E-type readily spring to mind but there's another - a car that has become so commonplace that we sometimes forget just how influential it was, and continues to be, almost 40 years after it first arrived. It's a car that invented a whole new genre and gave us an entire subculture that's stronger than ever: the Golf GTI.
It was June 1976 when Volkswagen launched the Golf GTI: the very first hot hatch. We could wrap it all up with just that statement - I mean, does it really need to prove itself after that? But it would be doing the Golf GTI a great disservice not to look at just how it has evolved over the past 37 years.
In 1973, VW launched a sporty version of the evergreen Beetle, the "Yellow and Black Racer". As the name suggests, it had a black bonnet and rear engine lid, slightly wider than normal tyres, sports seats and a leather steering wheel - apart from which it was all standard Beetle fare. Exciting stuff, eh? Some people, including the then West German government, seemed to think so and it caused quite a stir, quickly selling out - much to the disbelief of the company that built it.
The seeds of an idea had been sown and there was a new, small car waiting in the wings that would benefit from treatment similar to that of the boy-racer Beetle. It seems so hauntingly familiar now, but in the early 1970s there was a worldwide energy crisis and suddenly there was big demand for small cars that drank less. There was an obvious market for a new, cleaner, more useable Beetle. Enter the Golf.
Contrary to what you might think, the Golf isn't named after a game played by management types wearing questionable clothing. It hails from the German word for "Gulf" and, like other contemporary VW cars, it was named after a wind - in this case, the Gulf Stream. And when the Golf was nearing its final development stages, which coincided with the appearance of that yellow and black Beetle, VW's test engineer, Alfons Löwenberg, wrote an internal memo to a few colleagues in the R&D department, suggesting the company should build a proper sports car.
The Golf's gestation had emptied VW's coffers, so it was an idea that fell on largely deaf ears but there was a small number of enthusiastic colleagues who saw potential in it. They started to meet at Löwenberg's home after hours for sandwiches and brainstorming sessions regarding what they secretly dubbed 'Sportgolf'.
They took a Scirocco prototype and lowered its suspension. With an already rock-hard chassis, a tuned engine giving a 15hp increase over standard and a huge exhaust pipe, it was described as "a roaring monster" by the team. Something a bit more subtle was called for, so a tamer version was developed. It took a long time for the top brass at VW to come round to the idea of a sporting Golf but eventually it happened and this glorious little hatchback made its debut in 1976.
The British took to the Golf GTI in a way that no other nation did, and it remains the biggest marketplace for the model to this day. It's easy to see why they fell for its charms. Subtle body modifications gave the diminutive Golf added presence and as for those three little letters, well wasn't that the masterstroke?
The original Golf GTI isn't exactly powerful by the lofty standards we expect from even the smallest cars today. But it redefined how a little hatchback should drive, with a firm emphasis on fun, which is still the overriding quality today. And here, in St Tropez, where VW is presenting the latest iteration, there's a pristine example of one, and everyone is cooing over it, itching to drive it, even for a few precious minutes. It still has the power to seduce grown men who have seen, driven and done it all.
Just 5,000 Golf GTIs were planned initially, yet since its debut almost two million have been built at VW's Wolfsburg factory. As unprecedented success stories go, this takes some beating. Some of the original model's successors haven't been that great and, although the GTI spirit made it through to the MkII, after that things got a little muddy and Mks III and IV were (and Volkswagen admits as much) disappointing. The MkV was a belter, though, and its successor was, too. The new, seventh-generation GTI, however, considerably moves the game on. At least that's what Volkswagen is saying.
In an effort to keep the lineage clear, the latest GTI has been blessed with certain design cues that link it to the original: a vivid red line that underscores the small radiator grille and continues into the lamp housings is a nice touch, as is the tartan cloth applied to the seat inserts and the black outline to the rear window. The manual transmission example comes with a dimpled gear shifter that looks and feels like a black golf ball, just like the first one, and that is pretty much where all similarities end. The new car is absolutely laden with tech, which surely goes against the GTI grain, doesn't it? Could it even hope to be as much fun as the original?
To understand the differences, there's only one thing for it. I need to experience the old timer, recall what it's like without the application of rose-tinted spectacles, before getting to grips with the new one. Let's just remove the performance aspect for a moment because, with a 2.0L, turbocharged lump under the MkVII's bonnet, it wouldn't be a fair contest. Let's go, instead, for driver involvement and the amount of smiles-per-mile that are delivered when behind the wheel. This is where the original stands a fighting chance. Sitting inside the MkI, it's obvious that the experience will be completely different. It's basic, spartan, old-fashioned yet beautifully made and there's a sense of space and simplicity missing from almost every new car on sale today. Twist the key and the 1.6L lump fires into a gruff idle, much nicer-sounding than the latest model's FSI unit, which can tend to sound like a diesel at standstill. Blip the throttle and the sonic pleasures simply increase but engage first and set off for the horizon and its age becomes immediately apparent. No power assistance for the steering makes for hard work at low speeds but there is a fortunate trade-off once you're travelling fast enough: communication and that elusive driver involvement thing.
The old GTI is light, which is another quality sorely missed in today's crop of gadget and safety equipment-laden motors. Its lightness makes it nimble and the car connects with you in a way that nothing new this side of a Lotus Elise can touch. Throw it into a tight corner and the thing turns in with a smattering of understeer and a pretty dramatic lean, compared to modern GTIs. It's terrific fun and you don't need to be driving at breakneck speed to get proper thrills behind the wheel. This hot hatch is socially responsible.
When it comes to trying out the new one, I go for a manual because I'm well versed with the DSG option. It's fitted to my own Scirocco, which is basically a MkVI GTI with a different bodyshell. I've also gone for the "Performance" pack, which is a first for the Golf GTI, and that means an extra 10hp over the standard, 220hp model (it's worth pointing out that the original had exactly half that at its disposal).
That might not seem like much but it's immediately apparent that those extra horses make a difference. Floor the throttle and this Golf pins you into your seat with a dramatic sense of urgency and a pleasing, purposeful growl. But it's when it comes to cornering that the new Golf shines and, despite its electronic safety systems, can't help but bring a stupid grin to your face.
The GTI Performance is blessed with an electronic front differential and has a torque vectoring system, much like that fitted to modern Porsches. The resulting drive experience is quite stunning. It never feels like you're in a nanny-state controlled experiment; it simply corrects your errors and gets on with the job in hand by hauling you out of ridiculously fast cornering manoeuvres without telling you off. The amount of grip on offer is unfathomable, making for extremely quick and safe progress on even the most twisting and challenging roads. With sheer drops to one side of the mountain passes that make up my drive route, I should be taking things at a much steadier pace but this Golf refuses to step out of line and yes, it's probably more fun than I'd be having on the same roads in a much more powerful supercar.
It must be extremely difficult to re-interpret a legend and the original Golf GTI is just that - a bona fide legend. Cars can no longer be as simple as they once were, due to customer demands, legislation, emissions controls and aerodynamics; those days are over. But here Volkswagen has taken that poisoned chalice and dragged the Golf GTI kicking and screaming into 2013. Where the original was the embodiment of simplicity, the new one offers the kind of technology normally found on big executive cruisers, yet it's still fun to drive, meaning the spirit of the first is still alive and kicking.
First and foremost, the Golf GTI is a sports car. But it's one that Volkswagen has designed to be used every single day, and it's a case of "mission accomplished". All the car you'll ever need? Not many fit the bill but the new GTI definitely does, with its flawless combination of power, performance, exciting handling, practicality and solid build quality. The recipe is still right and the Golf GTI still sits as king of the hot hatch world.
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