Tuesday 16 January 2018

Why the Golf GTi has not been on my 'top-cars' list

Yet a tremendous drive lurks behind low-key looks

Volkswagen Golf GTi 5dr hatchback
Volkswagen Golf GTi 5dr hatchback
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

I'm frequently asked to name the best car(s) I've driven this year, the last 12 months, ever. It is one of the hardest things to do; it is so budget dependent and utterly subjective. And there are so many cars, I genuinely forget. I'm just no good at summoning stuff quickly anyway.

Get me into an easygoing conversation and slowly I'll begin to regurgitate memorable motors (you'd never know what I'd end up choosing). It's a pleasant way to spend an hour.

But people don't want an hour's rambling reminiscence. They expect me to rattle off several choices instantly. And even when the grey cells are in sufficient orbital alignment to momentarily facilitate the process, my responses often evoke shrugs of disbelief and disappointment.

I'd mention (in no particular order) the likes of the Audi A7 large 4dr coupé - for which I have received a tepid raised-eyebrow dismissal.

I'd mention the current Mercedes E-Class only to elicit an instant profession of undying loyalty from the owner of the 'unbeatable' BMW 5-series. I happen to love the Jaguar F-TYPE sports car. It is impractical and expensive but endlessly effervescent. Yet I've been met with stony-faced silence when I've listed it.

I love the Porsche 911 Turbo S (0- 100kmh in 2.8 seconds!!). Now in fairness, the mention of Porsche seems to prompt positivity even among those who, with real-world justification, consider the Toyota Corolla to be the best car on the road for their money ("Why don't ya write about ordinary cars for people like us?")

Then again, I never fail to be impressed with what Land Rovers can do off-road; I like the older Ferrari California... I'm beginning to warm up now, you see.

One car I don't remember mentioning, however, is the Volkswagen Golf GTi. It just hasn't sprung to mind in that initial instant of 'outstanding car' recall.

I'm sure there were times it was worth mentioning but there always seemed to be something more immediately appealing and fresh from the stables of posher Germanic bloodlines, 'British' heritage or mainstream Oriental practicality.

The GTi? It's bland to look at and expensive to buy. They can't even stay up with the power outputs of others in the Volkswagen stable.

Skoda, for example, have just brought in a 245bhp version of their Octavia RS. That's 15bhp more than this recently upgraded GTi. And the Octavia RS245 in DGS guise runs from €42,165. The 130bhp GTi I've been driving on test costs €42,627. Furthermore the GTi has a smaller cabin than the Skoda, and don't get me started on poor boot space.

Driving this most recent of GTis didn't prompt raucously urgent throbbings through the chassis or steering wheel either. Nor was there that eyes-wide-open thrust you get from the Golf R, for example.

Nor do you get to give off too many visual clues of, or kudos for, your €43,000 outlay.

My drive coincided with the entire Golf range getting 'significant' upgrades to infotainment and technology, primarily, as part of a late midlife overhaul. About time. It was losing ground to less expensive cars boasting connectivity far beyond the previous Golf's capability.

But other than the techno upgrade (and my more powerful 230bhp engine), you'd have to peer to find major physical changes on the outside. The cabin, dash and spec, admittedly, fared somewhat better.

My GTi was a mix of apparent contradictions. It tickled smoothly along like a well-behaved thoroughbred. It felt as easy at 120kmh motorway speed as it did at 50kmh on rickety roads. And I know from driving it abroad, it was equally unruffled at 170kmh.

Therein lies its appeal. I flung it hard and fast into twisty bends in the Wicklow Mountains. I pushed it hard on wobbly bog roads where bigger and costlier cars have yielded to the unsettling sequences of bump, hump and hollow. In low gear and high revs, I slung it along secondary roads of deceptive camber too.

And it never as much as flinched. I didn't spare the horses: it didn't seem to matter. It took the lot in its stride.

Now I'm sure the true petrolheads out there can pick holes in the GTi's armour as a 'hot' hatch. But I have to say that for what it is designed to do and, yes, for the money, there are few cars capable of mixing the ordinary commute with the sparkling response to a heavy right foot, hard steering, poor surfaces and harsh braking.

It was not just impressive in its ability to play a variety of roles, it could be tremendously satisfying to drive at whatever level of propulsion I choose. It's an outstanding ability you come to take for granted. Which is why I've probably overlooked it before. And, with my memory, probably will again.

FACTS & FIGURES

Volkswagen Golf GTi 5dr hatchback, 2.0TSi, DSG, 230bhp, 6.4l/100km, 148g/km; €390 road tax.

Standard spec includes: adaptive cruise control, sports suspension (body 15mm lower), 8ins 'Composition Media' radio system/touchscreen, 'Front assist', 18ins alloys, GTi sports bumpers/honeycomb grille, front sports seats (lumbar support), red brake callipers, active info display, sports multifunction steering wheel, tinted rear windows, electric/heated/folding mirrors, LED headlights/running/cornering lights, fog lights, chrome exhaust tailpipes, park distance/voice controls. Options (€1,257). Price €42,627.

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