By Jonathan Crouch
The Volkswagen Golf GTI wears one of the most iconic badges around and this post-2012 Mk7 model proved to be a class act. It was bigger, quicker, better built and more efficient than its predecessor, offering a choice of three doors or five, standard or 'Performance Pack' models and manual gearbox or DSG semi-auto transmission. This car proved to be the best all-rounder from its era in the hot hatch division. But does it make sense on the used market?
Before Volkswagen dreamed up the Golf GTI, there was no such thing as a 'hot hatchback'. Today of course, the phrase has entered everyday parlance and virtually any manufacturer that has a hatchback also has a hot one - or a warm one at the very least. It was 1976 when the original version of this car was born and since then, through continual generations and with the help of countless imitators, it has brought performance, handling and fun to the masses on an unprecedented scale. The Golf GTI we look at here was the mark seven version and claimed to be the best yet at its original launch in 2012.
But did that mean 'best of breed' or 'best in class'? This car, after all, may define the hot hatch genre but prior to 2012, it had rarely been recognised as the most accomplished car in its sector. In fact, to be brutally honest, there have been some distinctly average Golf GTI models over the years, the low point reached in the Nineties with unremarkable third and fourth generation models. All that changed though, in 2005 with a completely re-developed fifth generation version that also lent its platform and most of its 2.0-litre turbo mechanicals to the slicker MK6 design that followed in 2009. For the first time since the Seventies and early Eighties, a hot Golf was a credible driver's choice once again.
By 2012 though, Volkswagen's iconic shopping rocket was beginning to be overtaken by a whole host of rivals, all of whom offered more firepower and greater technical superiority. Another big step forward was called for - and this seventh generation Golf GTI claimed to represent exactly that. Wolfsburg's hi-tech MQB platform made it lighter and more efficient, there was hi-tech suspension and steering, plus extra power up-front (220PS) along with the option of a pokier Performance Pack (boosting output to 230PS) if that wasn't enough. A rorty three-door GTI Clubsport S version with 310PS was launched in 2016. And the standard GTI was facelifted, along with the rest of the Golf range, for the 2017 model year, an update that boosted power of the standard model to 230PS and that of the 'Performance Pack' variant to 245PS. In 2018, the standard 230PS model was phased out and only the 'Performance Pack' variant remained until the end of the production cycle in 2019.
What You Get
What do you think of in terms of the small but significant distinguishing features that have always marked out a Golf GTI from its ordinary stablemates? The red stripe around the radiator grille? The black border around the rear screen? The smaller sports steering wheel, golf ball-shaped gear knob or tartan-trimmed seats? All of these things have characterised this model line for nearly forty years and back in 2012 when this MK7 Golf GTI was first launched, Volkswagen wasn't about change them. But subtle evolution was required for this seventh generation version - and that's exactly what we got.
One glance might suggest that this car isn't much different from what went before. Take another. A new MQB platform gave this model a sportier, more dynamic stance. That's down to the way that the front wheels were moved further forward, reducing the front overhang, visually lengthening the V-shaped bonnet and moving the passenger compartment a little towards the rear. The result is a gym-toned look that's particularly nice at the side, with the C-pillar design supposed to resemble the drawn string of a bow, giving the Golf a look of acceleration even when it's standing still. Confident and assertive then, without being overly showy - but then this has never been a model to champion lairy spoilers and drainpipe exhausts. Instead, you get a car that sits 15mm lower to the road than its humbler siblings, the lovely 18-inch alloy wheels with their red callipers filling the arches purposefully. As is usually the case, the three-door version looks a bit better than its five-door counterpart, the longer doors having the visual effect of lengthening and lowering the profile.
On to the detail visual changes made to the MK7 Golf GTI. At the front end, you get a red styling line that extends not only across the grille but also clean through bi-xenon light clusters that sit above three lateral high gloss black aerodynamic fins sitting either side of the honeycomb-trimmed screen that covers the lower air intake. At the side, there are red-on-chrome 'GTI' wing vents that begin the stronger of the two character profile lines, a crease that flows down the flanks into a silver centre section of smoked LED tail lights marking out a rear hatch styled to continue the understatedly purposeful theme. The roof spoiler is supposed to be larger than that found on any ordinary Golf but you wouldn't know it. More obvious are the twin chromed tailpipes that sit either side of a black diffuser.
Take a seat inside and there's just enough differentiation to justify this car's heritage and substantial asking price. We've already mentioned the three features that brand aficionados will expect - the chunky three-spoke sports wheel, the tartan seat coverings and the golf ball-shaped gear knob. But this cabin is anything but a throwback, with buttons and switches precisely where you'd want to find them and everything just as it should be. The carpet that lines the storage boxes so that your keys don't scrape around on the move. The upholstered material used for the upper section of the dashboard that's lovely to the touch. The central armrest that adjusts for length and five stages of height. And a 2Zone climate control system that can even adjust itself according to the direction of the sun. It's better than a BMW from this era, every bit as good as an Audi from this period and it all means that if you were to sit in a Ford Focus ST or a Renaultsport Megane from this time after driving one of these, it'd be a bit like stepping from Harvey Nichols into Primark.
Could it be a little more showy? Perhaps, but the red stitching, the dark roof fabric, the GTI trim strips and the stainless steel pedal caps do just enough to set the performance theme. Can the same be said of the red ambience lighting? We think it a little 'Hamburg night club': you may disagree. At least Volkswagen resisted the urge to slather this cabin with carbon fibre, material that at one point was going to be used for the entire roof section - until the idea was abandoned due to the production complications it would have created at the Wolfsburg and Zwickau factories.
If you come to this seventh generation model fresh from its direct MK6 predecessor, you'll find yourself feeling slightly more comfortable at the wheel but perhaps unable to precisely reason why. Let us tell you. The brilliantly comfortable seat was shifted back for the seventh generation model, at the same time as the pedals were made a little more widely spaced and there was more adjustment possible from the leather-trimmed, flat-bottomed multi-function steering wheel, through which you view lovely instrument dials reminiscent of high-end chronometers. Start the engine and the needles swing once to the end scale position and then back. Lovely. In between the gauges is a centre display with carousel-style graphics that deliver everything from sat nav information to a lap timer.
Some of this information is also replicated on the colour infotainment touch screen that dominates the centre of the dash and will be the biggest cabin change for buyers of previous GTI models, a feature you can control merely by swiping your finger across its surface as you do on a smart 'phone. In early MK7 Golf GTI models, it was 5.8-inches in size as standard but could be upgraded to an 8-inch item if, as was mostly the case, the original buyer opted for the more sophisticated sat nav option. The 8-inch screen was standardised after the 2017 model year facelift. This display is the starting point for operation of the Driver Profile selection system that can alter the throttle mapping and engine management set-up to suit your chosen driving style. More conventionally, there's access the stereo with its DAB digital radio, the trip computer and all manner of Bluetooth telephony - enough to make your mobile device feel right at home. Especially if your car has been fitted with the 'Advanced telephone connection' option that'll enable you to link it in to the car's external aerial for improved reception. Thankfully, ventilation controls were left off the menu of screen functions, operable instead by three chunky dials below. Stabbing away at a touchscreen every time you want to change the fan speed or cabin temperature is a modern innovation most owners, we think, could do without. A bit like the electronic handbrake in fact, something you have to have here.
In the back seat, you'll most notice the improvements wrought through the introduction of the hi-tech MQB platform - and the 53mm wheelbase increase it allows. Rear legroom rose with this MK7 model by 15mm, despite the change we mentioned earlier, that of the front seats being moved further back to better suit taller drivers. Shoulder and elbow-room were both improved too and headroom's also quite adequate, despite this generation model's small reduction in exterior roof height. As usual in this class, three adults would be a little squashed here but a trio of kids will be quite happy.
Out back, there's more space for luggage than there was in the MK6 Golf GTI, the cargo bay 30-litres larger than before at 380-litres - that's 10% bigger than a Megane Renaultsport from this time and 20% bigger than a Focus ST from this period. It's easier to use too, with probably the lowest loading sill height in the class, a wide hatch aperture and a wide base on the dual-height luggage floor. There's a ski hatch too for longer items. Fold the 60/40 split rear seats down and you get useful 1270-litres - again one of the biggest spaces in the class from this era.
What to Look For
Most Golf GTI MK7 owners we surveyed were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there have been those who have had problems you'll want to look out for. One owner reported squeaky noises coming from the suspension over speed humps. Another noted that his steering wheel made a slightly wheezy noise when going round bends slowly. There were reports of the boot juddering when closing. And fuel caps that were difficult to open, making re-fuelling a struggle. One owner reported vibration from the door cards at the front and the rear. And another reckoned that his infotainment system was choosing not to function in very cold weather - and at times, was choosing to control itself.
As for mechanical stuff, well we came across one owner who'd had a clutch go after just 4,600 miles - but that's very unusual. Another experienced faulty injectors. And another experienced a power failure related to his DSG auto gearbox. Also look out for smearing wipers, problems with the cabin air blowers and a rattle from the gearbox over speed humps. There have been a few reported issues with the DSG auto gearbox, so make sure the gearbox changes properly. Timing chains have been known to snap prematurely and cause major engine damage - yet another reason why a full service history is critical. GTI models can also suffer from quite high oil consumption, so it's important to keep an eye on the oil level, to avoid damage to the engine or timing chain.
[based on a 2017 model GTI 2.0 TSI ex VAT] An air filter will be priced in the £13 to £20 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £5 to £15 bracket. A radiator will likely cost between £95 and £115. The front brake discs we came across commonly sat in the £50 to £70 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing between £120 and £250. The rear brake discs we came across commonly sat in the £40 to £86 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing up to around £115. Front brake pads are in the £27 to £65 bracket for a set but for pricier brands, you could pay up to nearly £75. Rear pads cost in the £20-£37 bracket. A thermostat is around £19. A water pump is around £53-£73,. A radiator is around £152-£158. Wiper blades cost around £9.
On the Road
So. Just how quick does a Golf GTI really need to be? Performance-wise, this car certainly has to fit into a very tightly-defined slot. This MK7 model had to be faster than any of the conventional models in the range of course - and of course it needed to be able to duke it out with the rest of the hot hatch brigade. But it couldn't be so rapid that Volkswagen had nowhere to go with the even more focused 4WD Golf R that by 2012 had superseded the GTI as the Golf model line-up's flagship. Within these constraints, you think you know exactly what you're going to get with the GTI and yet.. well, we'll get to that in a minute.
It's certainly true that the engine stats are reasonably predictable. The original version of this car back in 2012 offered 220PS - or 230PS in 'Performance Pack' form. As part of the facelift changes in 2017, those stats were changed to 230PS and 245PS. Either way, you're looking at more than double the kind of power that was generated by the original MK1 Golf GTI we saw way back in 1976. You might think that still doesn't sound very much given that all this car's direct rivals from this period offer more - a Ford Focus ST from this era has 250PS, a Megane Renaultsport 265PS. But this Volkswagen's efficient MQB platform means that both these cars are heavier - the Ford 100kgs more portly, which is one reason why this Golf, even in 220PS form, can pretty much duplicate their performance, rest to sixty two mph occupying 6.5s en route to 152mph. Still not convinced? Then opt for the 'Performance Pack' version that as well as the power hike comes with bigger brakes and an electronically controlled locking front differential.
Whichever version you go for, you'll appreciate the 2.0-litre TSI direct injection turbocharged engine that was further refined for this 7th generation model. OK, so it doesn't have too much aural personality, either on start-up or under hard acceleration, but you can readily forgive it that for the way it goes. Like all the best turbo installations, this one actually feels like a bigger normally-aspirated powerplant. There's no lag and lunge, just a smooth and flexible surge that swells at around 2,500rpm before gradually tailing off as you edge past 4,000rpm, confirming that wringing the thing out to the redline isn't the most effective way to drive this car. Besides that, mid-range punch is what you want for overtaking and merging into fast-moving traffic flows.
So it's fast enough - but that you expected. What's more of a surprise is the ride and handling balance on offer here. We used to think Ford were the only brand with a real handle on making a sporting family corner tightly yet ride beautifully. By 2012 though, it was clear that Volkswagen had mastered the art too. Or perhaps you just better notice the dynamic step forward this Golf made in this form thanks to its standard Driver Profile Selection system, essentially the same as Audi's 'drive select' set-up. Here, the four available programmes you can select from the centre dash colour touchscreen - 'Eco', 'Sport', 'Normal' and 'Individual' - alter the throttle mapping and engine management to suit your chosen driving style - gearshift times too if you've opted for a DSG automatic model. Add the optional DCC Dynamic Chassis Control system, which enables you to tweak the suspension to suit the road and your mood, and there's a fifth 'Comfort' mode.
We're not actually sure that the standard set-up really needs the extra cost assistance of the Dynamic Chassis Control electronics, so incredibly supple and well balanced is it but if you do choose a car whose original owner specified the DCC option and select the 'Comfort' mode, then you'll get yourself a Golf GTI that tackles urban roads with more composure than some luxury saloons we've come across. Which is nice because no matter how much of a driving enthusiast you are, it's tiresome to saddle yourself with a hot hatch that constantly, wearingly has to remind you of its red mist pretensions when you've had a long day, you just want to get home and the whole of the road network seems to be infested with infernal speed humps.
If that's a common scenario for you, then you'll probably be one of those considering a version of this car fitted with the 6-speed DSG automatic gearbox. We'd think twice before doing that. OK, so this Golf is a more sensible and mature proposition than more track-orientated rivals from this era like Renaultsport's Megane or Vauxhall's Astra VXR but it's still a package that has the potential to thrill and excite, so damping it down with auto transmission - even one as good as Volkswagen's DSG system - doesn't do it any favours. True, you can set DSG into a Sport mode to hold gears longer and there are steering wheel-mounted paddles but it's still an auto 'box - and one with a slightly irritating tendency to climb straight into sixth gear in order to save fuel.
In any case, the six-speed manual transmission is a joy to use, with a short clickety-click action that makes you want to flip up and down the 'box just for the fun of it. Another pleasant surprise is the 'Progressive' steering system, slick, fairly light, unerringly accurate and designed to reduce the amount of lock you have to put on through the corners without you noticing. True, the set-up could offer a touch more response and feedback. Along with the reduced size door mirrors, it's one of the few things we don't like about this car and the feel on offer at the helm certainly doesn't encourage you to switch off all the control systems, fling the car into a corner and see what happens. You have to learn where the limits of the front end are by gradual experimentation rather than through an intuitive connection through the wheel.
But once you have, this can be an astonishingly rapid back road brawler. Focus yourself, select 'Sport' on the Driver Profile selection system and on a typical British B road and at typical British B road speeds, the Golf GTI feels ruthlessly good, the suspension artfully tuned so as not to continually upset the car or its traction control systems. Throw a Megane Renaultsport down a fast, twisting, bumpy country lane and you'd likely emerge at the other end a bit sweaty-palmed with your adrenal glands waving the white flag. The Golf might arrive a tenth or a second or two behind but it's driver would be serene, relaxed and with enough mental capacity in hand to enjoy a play on Radio 4. And therein lies the joy of this car.
When the Golf GTI was first launched in 1976, Volkswagen wondered whether it would struggle to sell an early production run of 5,000 vehicles. By 2012, two million sales later, the issue the issue the brand faced was not whether this car would sell, but who might buy it. After all, previous to 2012, this model had mainly sold to folk who, if they were honest, would probably admit to having out-grown the shopping rocket genre it originally created. In 7th generation form, this car needed to return a little to its roots - add an old fashioned dose of fun into the mature mix. It did.
You might not know that from the figures. In all the dynamic measures that tend to matter to hot hatch drivers - 0-62mph acceleration, top speed, lap times, lateral grip, braking performance and so on - this Golf never really seriously bothers the class best. You might not be immediately arrested by the looks either, or the initial experience on the drive round the block. But persevere. Forty years of experience in creating a car of this kind has to count for something. It does.
Importantly, Wolfsburg didn't here make the mistake of developing this GTI for the track rather than the road, so bumpy British tarmac doesn't bother it. You're always confident in pushing the performance envelope in a way that few rivals can match, yet that's possible without the sweaty palms that usually characterise red mist motoring. MK5 and MK6 Golf GTI models were also accomplished in this way, but with its extra power, lighter lithe responses and brilliantly sorted suspension, this MK7 version can not only be a confident performance car but a credibly exciting one too. So yes, it should sell to folk who want a proper hot hatch experience as well as a very mature one.
The very first generation version set out to define a fundamental standard for performance that was more precise than any other compact car. So it is here. Long after the novelty of some rivals has worn off, this GTI will always feel a class act. Crucially though, in this form, it's also a very entertaining one.