It was all going so well. The rain from the previous few days had ceased, giving the air in Cape Town a crisp freshness, my morning coffee had been particularly good and the line-up of brand-new Volkswagen Golf GTIs parked invitingly at the meeting point of the local launch promised so much.
A choice of red, white or black, the same colours as were available when the original Mk1 GTi was launched back in 1976, a top-selling DSG transmission model selected and the first directions for the launch route received, we were ready to roll.
Volkswagen has come in for some criticism for its evolutionary approach to the design language of its top-selling Golf range, particularly the past three generations. But one thing you quickly realise while driving the newest models is that many fellow motorists, enthusiasts and detractors of the VW brand know the new car when they see it. And this applies especially to the new GTI. I’m happy to report that there’s at least a new (standard) 18-inch wheel design (even if the pointy bits on the new alloys face in opposite directions depending on which side of the car you’re looking at) and I appreciate the fact that the GTI rides 15 mm lower to the ground than the standard car. The signature red nose highlight has been extended through each headlamp cluster and there’s now GTI badging posted on the front wheel flanks.
Heading north out of Cape Town, things continued to go well. For a few generations now, Volkswagen has succeeded in affording the GTI one of the most compliant ride qualities in this segment. In the seventh generation model an all-independent suspension is fitted to Volkswagen’s impressive new MQB platform, which not only allows for an overall weight saving (the new GTI is 42 kg lighter than the model it replaces) but also a longer wheelbase and wider tracks, front and rear, compared with the previous model.
Fitted with an optional R10 000 Dynamic Chassis Control, including an Individual mode that allows the driver to find their optimal combination of engine mapping, steering feel and damper firmness, the new GTI impresses on the open road. The slick six-speed DSG transmission goes about its business in a seamless, non-intrusive manner, while the well-appointed cabin is an altogether nice place to be. It’s pity that Volkswagen South Africa is not offering the funky “ode to the original” plaid cloth seats found in other markets but there is nevertheless little fault to find with the standard leather items fitted to SA-bound models. Chrome highlighting (including pedals) together with a tightly bound leather multifunction steering wheel and a standard touch-screen infotainment system add to the sense of occasion.
The seventh-generation Golf GTI is the third generation to make use of Volkswagen’s EA888 turbocharged 2,0-litre engine. Re-engineered, while including a new cylinder head that incorporates a water-cooled exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR) system, in this application there’s 162 kW on offer. More significant, especially considering the outgoing Mk6 GTI 35 edition already boasted 11 kW more than this, is a fairly substantial 70 N.m increase in torque over the previous-generation GTI (50 N.m up on the 35 edition). 350 N.m is now available at a low 1 500 r/min. Combine this with the weight savings gained by the new platform and the new car feels that much sprightlier than the model it replaces.
150-odd km of open, traffic-free Cape Winelands roads covered and the new GTI was already impressing with it all-round refinement, comfort and flexibility. It was all going so well. So what then could possibly put a damper on the day? I’ll tell you what: Stepping into the manual version after lunch was a bittersweet affair.
The sight of the golf ball-inspired gear knob mounted atop a sculpted chrome housing managed to put a damper on my day. Not because it didn’t fit perfectly to hand or shift with pinpoint precision and weighting through each of its six forward ratio gates. Not because it wasn’t matched with a similarly well-weighted clutch pedal, either, but because, for me, the whole GTI package came together when I faced the car south after the lunch stop and powered away via a well-sorted manual transmission. Call me old-fashioned but as slick as a double-clutch DSG transmission is, there can be few things in motoring as rewarding as having full control over when and how you shift through the gears to keep an engine on the boil.
Covering three of the Cape’s most challenging mountain passes on the way home only served to reinforce my disdain for the fact that VWSA forecasts to sell only one out of five new GTI models with a manual transmission. And while I realise the benefits of the more modern technology in terms of ever-increasing grid-locked travel times, having spent an afternoon carving through tight and challenging sections of twisty roads while having full control of both available engine revs and their corresponding exhaust-note responses, you do have to hope that, unlike companies such as Porsche and Audi, Volkswagen finds a place for manual transmissions in its performance lineups for the foreseeable future.
The Golf 7 GTI feels lighter on its feet than the previous model. To this end you feel more confident that the front end will stay true to course as you carry more speed into a corner than before. With the aforementioned chassis control in its sportiest setting, throttle response is heightened while the electric power-steering system gains welcome weight. While many a forum is alight with talk of a Performance Pack version of the GTI (Volkswagen AG has apparently not yet released this upgrade for “hot” regions, including South Africa), which adds 7 kW, bigger brakes and a mechanical differential, it’s difficult to fault the way the standard car, with its XDS electronic diff and two-stage ESC stability control, copes with keeping the car planted though fast changes of direction. Much like the new Ford Fiesta ST, it’s the additional low-down torque in the new GTI that adds significantly to the enthusiastic driving experience, providing a welcome shove between corner apexes.
Volkswagen South Africa has an enviable record of selling up to 50 per cent of its last four generation Golf models with GTI badges fitted to them. While this inevitably impacts on the exclusivity of this model (not helped by the fact that the last three generations have looked so similar), it doesn’t seem to worry the buying public much. That said, it stands to reason that you will be seeing a lot of the seventh, and best yet, generation Golf GTI on the roads in the coming months.
Click here for our track test of the new Golf GTI.
Model: Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol
Power: 162 kW at 5 300 r/min
Torque: 350 N.m at 1 700 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6,5 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6,4 L/100 km
CO2: 148 g/km
Top speed: 244 km/h
Price: R382 800 (manual: R368 300)
Service plan: 3 years/100 000 km
Service intervals: 15 000 km
*According to the manufacturer
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