They still know how to design and engineer a decent car at Wolfsburg, as proven by Germany’s premier hot hatch.
The rental car lottery: Source of frustration, surprise and disillusionment. In the case of myself and my partner, the feeling of an outright win had eluded us so far – until I was handed the keys to the car I’d booked as ‘VW Golf Automatic or similar’, which turned our to be not just a VW Golf indeed – a first in itself. Moreover, this Golf was arguably in the model’s most appealing guise, which meant we would be crossing half of Germany in a Golf GTI Performance. Hurrah!
Typically any special edition model boasting a name like ‘Performance’ is expected to offer ‘sportier’ looks and little else. Surprisingly, in the Golf GTI’s case, the special edition model turns out to be surprisingly special, featuring not just a rather overwrought wheel design and brake callipers painted red, but also bigger brakes, a seven (rather than six-) speed double clutch gearbox, 15 more metric horsepowers, 20 more Newton metres of torque and a mechanical, rather than electric locked differential at the front axle. It also comes with the seats covered in GTI check as standard, apparently.
Even a few minutes into a bit of dull inner city driving, it becomes apparent that this GTI is a car to be taken seriously. Its exhaust note may be of the artificially roarty, but non-melodious kind (albeit not as embarassingly so as the tune Audi’s S models emit these days), but in terms of power delivery and controls, the Golf immediately feels like a true driver’s car.
Longer stretches of Autobahn driving and on country roads would confirm that the GTI’s steering – although not as mechanical in feel as the Mazda 3’s and slightly impaired by the wheel’s squared-off bottom part – is pleasantly weighted: VW’s engineers clearly didn’t mistake heft for sportiness, as their Ingolstadt counterparts are wont to do, resulting in a calibration allowing for precise inputs, with predictable weighting acting as feedback to one’s inputs. The locking differential may have played a role in this context too, as the GTI Performance never struggled for grip and generally felt more as though all wheels, rather than just the front couple were being powered.
Despite its lack of aural pleasures, the Golf’s 2.0 litre turbocharged engine played to the strengths of this kind of arrangement, offering plenty of torque at all times, without frantically running out of puff. In fact, even when driving at 180 kph, the Golf still held plenty of shove in reserve, which made for a self-assured overall driving experience.
Of course, what with the GTI being a scion of Wolfsburg, the Golf’s infotainment wasn’t exactly standard of the world – with the touchscreen monitor at the dashboard’s centre being as annoying to use it is in any other VW/VAG product. That being said, the safety assist systems that were fitted to the GTI Performance too were clearly recalibrated for this model, resulting in far less intrusive operations than with less driver-orientated models.
Even this Golf’s start/stop system was programmed in a way similar to the Mazda 3’s, which meant the driver was trusted to signal whether he or she wanted the engine switched off or not by applying more or less pressure to the brake pedal.
Generally speaking, it was rather hard to believe that a car based on the same MQB platform, using the same engine block and fitted with (more or less) the same safety assist gadgets as the thoroughly underwhelming VW Tiguan we sampled some time ago could be so utterly different in terms of usability and performance.
Clearly, the Golf GTI was designed and engineered for people who enjoy driving, whereas the Tiguan caters for those who prefer to think most of the strain of piloting an automobile has been alleviated. That the Tiguan’s engine struggled with propelling the far bigger car over the notorious Kasseler Berge stretch of Autobahn to such an extent that we got overtaken by a regular Fiat 500 at some point, whereas the GTI always held more than enough power in reserve, fits this picture too. That the GTI consumed less fuel (35.7 MPG; 7.9 l/100 km), despite being driven both at far higher speeds and in awful congestion doesn’t.
All these impressions added up to a rather fine performance on the whole, even if the GTI’s seats were nowhere near as exceptional as the Volvo V40’s. It would nevertheless seem as though Volkswagen still knows how to build a very good car after all.
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