«Whereas the Mk1 is always eager, always ready to play, the Mk2 is not like that»
Over the past 40 years, the Golf GTI has got faster, classier and more refined. But it has also got bigger, heavier and more complex. So which of its seven generations is the greatest Golf GTI of all?
It has always fascinated me how the cars that are broadly believed to have invented the categories in which they sit rarely, if ever, actually did.
The Land Rover was not the first off-roader, and nor was the Range Rover the first luxury off-roader. The Renault Espace was not the first MPV, and nor was any one of the BMW 2002 Turbo, Porsche 911 Turbo or Saab 99 Turbo the first turbocharged car to go on sale. And not only was the Volkswagen Golf GTI not the first hatchback, it wasn’t the first hot hatchback, either.
And yet while we struggle to remember the Simca 1100 Ti and even the Renault 5 Alpine, 40 years after it first came to the UK, the Golf GTI has become probably the second most recognised model name after the Porsche 911. ‘Iconic’ is probably one of the most overused words in the road tester’s lexicon, but if only a handful of cars on sale deserve it, the Golf surely is one of them.
There is a lovely little lie concerning why this might be: the Golf GTI succeeded because it combined the hatchback practicality everyone needed with the performance everyone wanted. Simples. Except that, were this the case, I’d now be waxing lyrical over the Autobianchi A112 Abarth and you wouldn’t be thinking ‘Auto-what?’
Truth is, the Golf did something the earlier French and Italian hot hatches did not: it worked. In an era when sporting cars were inexactly constructed, temperamental beasts prone to converting themselves in heaps of ferric oxide at the sign of bad weather, the Golf not only offered fun and practicality, it also placed them within an impregnable shell. Thirty years ago, I took my already elderly Mk1 GTI to a stag party in Scotland. The temperature sank so much overnight that by morning I was the proud owner of a Golf-shaped ice sculpture. And while my mates primed their chokes, pumped their throttles, churned their starters and cursed their cars, I just opened the door, twisted the key, heard my fuel-injected engine fire instantly and went smugly back inside for breakfast while the car defrosted itself.
So 40 years after the Golf GTI, we thought it time to revisit the genre with a mission simply to decide which is best. There have been seven generations to date, but for reasons that will become clear in a separate story (top right), we had few qualms about skipping versions three and four. Six was also left in the lorry because we felt it sufficiently close to five to add little to the debate. Which leaves those you see before you, the Mk1, Mk2, Mk5 and the newly revised version of the Mk7 to tell the story of the world’s most enduring hot hatch, and help us decide which we’d most like to take home. Happily, all are owned by Volkswagen and maintained irrespective of cost so can be counted upon to be truly representative of how these cars ought to be.
No trouble knowing where to start. The Mk1 sits there, quiet and humble yet with an aura beaming out so strong that it blinds your view of its offspring. You are drawn to it naturally and inevitably.
Inside and out, it is delightfully, deliciously simple. And small. Compared with a new Golf GTI, it is almost half a metre shorter, 16cm narrower and, most astonishing of all, half a tonne lighter. There are entire cars that weigh less than that. Our example is a late car so has a 1.8-litre single-cam motor pushing out 112bhp, 2bhp more than the 1.6 original but with a useful additional slug of mid-range torque. Such outputs might seem mere trifles today, but for family hatchbacks 40 years ago, they were a new level. And remember the weight, and lack thereof.
There’s not much scope for achieving the perfect driving position because the wheel is fixed but it’s comfortable enough and the interior logically arranged and childishly easy to use. Grab that golf ball gearlever and go.
It’s quick. I’ve estimated a conservative 0-60mph time of 8.8sec but I’ve seen plenty of claims that it’s faster, one suggesting an 8.2sec capability. But it’s the smoothness of the engine you remember most, combined with its willingness to rev. There’s more character in this engine note than in an entire showroom of turbocharged Golf motors, backed by a brilliantly swift and precise gearchange.
But it is somewhat betrayed by its handling. Purists will talk about the feel of its unassisted steering, but I remember more the terribly slow rack required to keep helm efforts under control. And although it will happily cock a rear wheel if you lift off in a corner, this is no Peugeot 205 GTi: there’s not much grip and then just as many shades of understeer as you can count. And then there are the brakes: tiny discs up front, small drums at the back and, on right-hand-drive cars, the master cylinder on the wrong side of the car. It’s a car that’s superb to drive up to around 80% effort, but thereafter it soon loses composure.
By contrast, the Mk2 is never seen with so much as a hair out of place. Like every new generation of Golf, it’s bigger than the one that went before, but the word that springs most readily to mind when describing it is ‘mature’. It is a far more complete car than the Mk1, quieter and more comfortable by far, not to mention more spacious and with a totally transformed perception of quality. And they are as solid as they feel, capable of shouldering a quarter of a million miles or …read more