Thursday, April 13, 2006

T#22: Mk V Volkswagen Golf GTi


As good as everybody says it is.

Aww, jeez. This is hardly going to be cutting edge reportage, but what the hell. I had the opportunity to spend a little time in the company of a new Golf GTi just recently, and…well, it’s pretty much a case of DO believe the hype.

This car is fantastic.

Frankly, Volkswagen got nearly everything right. After the dross that was the previous generation, the Mk V had a whole lot of slate clearing to do. The Mk IV was stodgy, numbing to drive, and blighted by engines that seemed far more suited to hauling around a minibus than a performance car – plus the build wasn’t exactly vault-like beneath the superficially quality veneer.

Indications that Wolfsburg’s engineers may have found a funny looking object at the back of the garage previously known as “the plot” came with the all singing, all dancing R32 (not enough to make my uncle part with his Subaru, but a step in the right direction at least). Is 4wd and VeeDub’s near-iconic narrow angle V6 really necessary to set the masses alight with a burning desire for that VW badge – this superstar Mk IV seemed to suggest so.

Fortunately, the Mk V turned up with a pretty big bucket and sponge, and has virtually erased all the bad memories. Some cars feel right just as soon as you twist the key in the ignition…and the new GTi is absolutely one of these. It’s such a cohesive whole, from the slinky looks to the steering feel to the punch under the bonnet, you almost want to hug it for the saving three of the most evocative letters in the automotive alphabet.

A fwd 197 bhp forced-induction four ought to come with a couple of minor “character traits” – torque-steer and turbo-lag. The GTi shows little sign of either. The steering, which is a revelation for a modern Volkswagen in terms of letting you know what’s going on, doesn’t tug, even when the inside front wheel is spinning because you’ve hotshoed it out of a junction. This is a pretty big tendency, but it doesn’t impinge on the direction of travel – only adds to the enthusiasm this car has for getting there quickly. Some have commented that there isn’t as much self-centring as they’d like, but I didn’t notice a problem here – perhaps I was too busy grinning at the rapidity with which the horizon was approaching. Bringing us to the other thing. The turbocharger.

Question for Volkswagen: are you sure it has one? There’s such linearity to the response it simply belies forced-induction belief. Next to the aforementioned plot, the engineers must have found the holy grail of engine mapping because the Golf possesses brilliantly confidence-inspiring foot-down and go response. Exiting a sideroad, overtaking in the countryside – nothing is hit-it-and-hope with this car: it’s packing a genuinely everyday-useable jolt of really wonderful juice. Enough to keep you entertained, but delivered so well you’re not likely to get too stupid with it. That just wouldn’t go with the image.

See, the GTi is definitely a smooth operator. There’s a slickness to its performance that if you can find me the fabled well-oiled machine, I’d love to make a comparison. I didn’t get to try the DSG transmission, but I expect that only adds to the illusion, making you feel even more like the central part of a sophisticated device. A vital piece, though – don’t get me wrong. It’s anything but anodyne to drive. Rather, everything is measured, precise; you know exactly what to expect when you turn the wheel or push your right foot in the direction of the carpet.

It’s this that helps avoid any overtones of hooliganism – you don’t have to drive fast in this car to appreciate the tactile engineering, and because you don’t have to wring its neck to get the power out, the Golf manages to maintain an alter-ego of civility without sacrificing its hardcore credentials. With no lag, great feel, and a reasonably cooperative traditional gearbox, the good stuff is on tap whenever you want it; you don’t feel the need to tap it all the time.

Looks great, too. I love it in white – even though others hate it, and I, as the current owner of a white car, have previously sworn never to buy another in this dirt sucking shade. The white just manages to be retro in a successful way, and goes so well with the red grill surround. The alloys are attractive to the point that the aftermarket must surely only be for those so determined to be different style is actually secondary.

Moving to the interior, I also love the seats: huggy sports types obviously, but more importantly trimmed in tartan – a respectful homage to the Mk I – and comfy. Inside, it’s really only these, the racy, shaped steering wheel, and a ride hard enough to make your grandmother disapprove, that give the hothatchery away.

The solid nature of the ride is, don’t worry, a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the grip level and tight way in which this VW changes direction. Unfortunately, even with the neat spring forward front seat design that allows relatively easy access to the rear bench for the nimble, legroom in the back isn’t massively luxurious. You’ll probably have to put up with grandma sat next to you, making it all too easy to hear her complaining.

Minor point of disapproval is the dashboard. First off, don’t bother with the Volkswagen-fit satnav – it’s fiddly and less than easy to use, something that it sadly passes onto the stereo controls integrated into it. Then there’s the design. It’s a bit…staid. I know, judging by the exterior, VW’re aiming for subtle, even aloof cool, but my God that dash is dark and angular. So much so it seems a step backwards from the Mk IV (although, the perception of quality there was certainly higher than the reality in my experience). Nothing exactly wrong with it, it’s just dull, and a car as otherwise exceptional as this one deserves much better. Same with the exhaust note – not rubbish, but it falls far short of stirring the soul.

Only other nit to pick is possibly a quirk of my own, rather than the Golf’s. The mirror mounted indicators for some reason caused me to continually think another car was signalling to turn behind me. Hardly a deal-breaker, but it nearly always made me look twice, taking my attention away from where it might be more usefully employed looking at the road. Guess I’d get used to it. ;-)

So. There you have it. The Mk V Golf GTi, as good as everyone else has said it is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the achievement. Owning one of these would make me very, very happy – so, to those of you lucky enough to be permanently positioned in the driving seat: make the most of it.


Volkswagen Golf GTi ( three door): 'recomended retail price' - to quote VW's website - £20,360.

Engine cubic capacity 2000
Fuel Consumption
Urban 25.4mpg - 11.1l/100km
Extra-urban 44.8mpg - 6.3l/100km
Combined 34.9mpg - 8.1l/100km
Engine emissions 194g/km
Engine noise levels 75.0dB
Engine maximum Speed** 146mph - 235km/h
Engine acceleration 0-62mph 7.2secs
Maximum output bhp
197
at RPM 5100
Maximum torque 207 lbs.ft / 280 Nm
at RPM 1800
Insurance group rating 17

(All specs from VW's website)


Links:

www.volkswagen.co.uk

T#21: Honda Jazz 1.4 Sport CVT-7 [internal]


Picture from desktopmachine.com. What was I saying about it not being a hooligan kind of car? But that shot does look remarkably fake...

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