2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI revealed: the history of a hot hatch

As the new, eight-generation VW Golf GTI is unveiled, we look back at the car’s long and illustrious history.

Volkswagen has revealed the new Golf GTI. It’s the eighth generation in a long line of hot hatchbacks, going back to the genre-defining Mk1 of 1975.

Celebrated though it is, the GTI’s history is a patchy one, with nearly as many misses as hits. Will the new car be the former or the latter? We’ll find out when we drive it.

For now, let’s look back at the tyre tracks it follows in – but not before getting the headline facts on the Mk8.

Gr8 eight

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

So, the eagerly-awaited Mk8 Golf GTI. What does it bring to the table? Well, underneath it’s not all that different to the previous car. It still runs on a version of the MQB platform and it still uses the ‘EA888’ TFSI engine. It’s mainly on the outside that things have changed. New for the GTI is a full-width light bar at the front, as well as optional honeycomb fog light clusters.

Tower of power

 

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Power out of the box is 245hp, with 273lb ft of torque, although we already know this engine is good for upwards of 300hp. Expect more from a future GTI TCR variant, and possibly an Edition 45 special edition next year. A six-speed manual is standard, with the seven-speed DSG automatic optional.

Tartan treat

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Inside, it’s business as usual for GTI fans. Tartan and a golf ball gearknob join the high-tech new Golf cabin. Tech fans will enjoy the 10.25-inch digital dashboard, plus a 10-inch Discover Pro infotainment system.

Meet the ancestors

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Since the original’s arrival in 1976, the Golf GTI has cemented its reputation as the definitive hot hatchback. Now, let’s look back over the GTI’s 44 years and seven previous generations, to the genesis of the car that defined the breed.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Flying in the face of convention, the Mk1 Golf was launched after the Mk1 Scirocco, with Volkswagen keen to iron-out any potential issues before unleashing its car to conquer the world. It arrived in 1975 and would go on to become one of, if not the greatest, car of the 1970s. It also spawned a proper game-changer…

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Creating a high-performance version of an otherwise humdrum vehicle was nothing new. Witness the likes of the Ford Lotus Cortina and hot versions of the Mk1 Escort. But in the mid-1970s, the hatchback was still a relatively new development, with motorists clinging on to their more conservative saloons and estate cars. What the hatchback needed was a halo product – something like the Mk1 Golf GTI…

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

It arrived in 1976, but its appearance wasn’t guaranteed. Volkswagen wasn’t planning a performance car and, even if it had, you’d have thought the achingly-beautiful Scirocco would have been the low-hanging fruit. So it was left to a small team of engineers to develop a ‘Sport Golf’ in their spare time.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Once the concept was presented to the Volkswagen board, common sense prevailed and the ‘Sport Golf’ was given the go-ahead, with production limited to 5,000 units. The Sport name was dropped, in case the car was a flop, which would have left Volkswagen with egg on its face. Instead, the GTI badge was adopted and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Volkswagen dealers were inundated with orders and requests for test drives, meaning the plan to build a mere 5,000 units was quickly forgotten. Indeed, VW was soon receiving around 5,000 orders… a month! Volkswagen used an off-the-shelf 1.6-litre engine with Bosch fuel injection (the ‘I’ in ‘GTI’). The car was basic, but it was fun. And it also helped that the Mk1 Golf was such a well-engineered car.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

A legend was born. The rise of the hot hatch, with the Mk1 Golf GTI as its ringleader, led to the death of cars such as the MGB and Triumph Spitfire, eventually seeing off the likes of the Ford Capri and Opel Manta. It became the original classless car – as at home on the King’s Road as it was on a B-road.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Production continued until 1983, by which time the 1.6-litre engine had been replaced by a marginally more powerful 1.8-litre unit, with the new car marked out by its quad headlights. Amazing to think that Britain’s motorists had to wait until 1979 to get their hands on a right-hand-drive Golf GTI. Naturally, it was worth the wait.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Talk about a tough act to follow. The original Mk1 Golf GTI had caught the world off-guard, meaning the industry was still playing catch-up by the time the Mk2 Golf GTI arrived in 1983. This was a softer approach, but the Mk2 benefited from improved engineering and a more grown-up feel.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

The Mk2 Golf was heavier than the Mk1, with the three-door GTI tipping the scales at 920kg, compared to the 840kg of the original. But it was bigger inside and therefore more practical, helping it to win over a legion of new fans. British motorists in particular took the second coming of the Golf GTI to their hearts, which at one point accounted for around 25% of all Golf sales.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But not everybody welcomed the new, softer, larger Golf GTI. Some felt it had lost some of its focus, some of the unhinged madness of the Mk1. Many of these criticisms were answered in 1986, when Volkswagen launched the Golf GTI 16v. With a huge increase in power, the Golf felt more alive, especially at the higher reaches of the rev counter.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI – 8v or 16v

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

That said, some Golf GTI owners claimed the 16v lacked the mid-range pull and ride comfort of the 8v, leading to many healthy debates at the trendy wine bars of 80s Britain. Not that any of this mattered, because the Golf GTI was the car of choice for the yuppies and stockbrokers of London. It was the car to be seen in.

Acceptable in the 80s

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

By the end of the 1980s, the Golf GTI had been joined by an increasing number of rivals, most notably the Peugeot 205 GTI, Ford Escort XR3i and Vauxhall Astra GTE. The Golf may not have been the best or the fastest, but it remained the most sought-after. Available in three- or five-door guise, it was the ultimate classless car.

Joyriding and car crime

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But by the early 90s, the GTI badge had lost some of its lustre. Faced with joyriding, car crime and spiralling insurance costs, the GTI name was being dropped by carmakers, but Volkswagen stood firm. Indeed, it was one of just a handful of GTIs able to ride the storm.

Volkswagen Golf G60

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

In Germany, Volkswagen launched a supercharged G60 version, developing 160hp. This output wouldn’t be bettered in a Golf GTI until 2002. Whilst not officially available in the UK, we were able to get our hands on a limited number of Golf Rallyes. This supercharged and wide-arch special was built for homologation purposes.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Bigger, safer, slower, more? No, not the debut album of 4 Non Blondes, but an adequate description of the Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Introduced in 1992 – a year after the standard Mk3 Golf – the third generation GTI was powered by a new 2.0-litre 8v engine. But 115hp was nowhere near enough to deliver the performance demanded by the fabled Golf GTI badge…

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Part of the problem was that the Mk3 Golf was developing a bit of a weight problem. Faced with ever-stringent crash test and emissions legislation, the Golf GTI had piled on the pounds during middle age. The Mk3 Golf GTI 8v is considered to be the least exciting Golf GTi, almost unfit to wear the badge.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

The Golf GTI 16v of 1993 improved matters, with power increased to 150hp and torque at a more substantial 133lb ft. The 0-60mph time dropped to 8.3 seconds, while top speed rose to a more autobahn friendly 133mph.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf VR6

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But this wasn’t the best Mk3 Golf, because this accolade was reserved for the Golf VR6. Oh sure, the VR6 was far removed from the Golf GTI recipe, majoring on luxury and lazy performance, rather than B-road thrills, but it was able to take the fight to BMW and more upmarket rivals.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf VR6

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

This flagship Golf was a rare beacon of light at the top of a range that had received its fair share of criticism. Powered by a silky-smooth 2.8-litre V6 engine, the Golf VR6 featured electric windows, sunroof, leather-trimmed steering wheel and rode on 15-inch BBS alloy wheels. It also sat 20mm lower than the standard Golf, with leather and air conditioning available as options.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI Anniversary

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Perhaps the greatest Mk3 Golf GTI is the Anniversary model, of which 1,000 units were built. Produced to mark 20 years of the Golf GTI, the Anniversary featured chequered Recaro seats, red seatbelts, half-chrome/half-leather gearknob and red-stitching for the steering wheel and gear gaiter. The exterior was enhanced by red stripes and red brake calipers.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

The Mk4 Volkswagen Golf was the result of Ferdinand Piëch’s desire the push the family hatchback further upmarket. Launched in 1997, we already had some idea what the new Golf would be like, because its platform had premiered in the Audi A3 of 1996. Indeed, the Golf was living in different times, with the Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon set to ‘borrow’ the Golf’s platform.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

This was the first Golf GTI to be turbocharged, powered, as it was, by Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 1.8T engine. But thanks to changing market forces, the Golf GTI now faced an enemy from within, in the form of the first diesel-engined GTI.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI 25th Anniversary

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

The most desirable Mk4 Golf GTI is arguably the 25th Anniversary edition, available in Reflex Silver. Features included BBS RC alloy wheels, red and black Recaro seats, factory body kit, larger brakes and lowered suspension. At the time, this 180hp Golf GTI was the most powerful and fast accelerating GTI produced to date.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But in common with the Mk3 Golf, the most desirable Mk4 Golf didn’t wear a GTI badge. The R32 was the first Golf to wear the R badge and it was first seen at the 2001 Essen Motor Show. Volkswagen had planned to use the RSI badge for its high-performance models, but stuck with the ‘R plus engine capacity’ formula. Hence, the Golf R32.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

It was powered by a 3.2-litre version of the narrow-angle V6 engine, used in the Phaeton and Touareg. Thanks to Volkswagen’s 4Motion four-wheel drive system, the R32 was kept on the straight and narrow, with a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds and top speed of 153mph amongst the headlines. All well and good, but was the GTI badge being put out to pasture?

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Not a bit of it. The Mk5 Volkswagen Golf of 2003 represented a return to form, not just for the GTI, but for the Golf overall. Volkswagen was keen to inject some renewed driving satisfaction into the new Golf, a direct response to the cheaper and more rewarding Ford Focus.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Launched at the 2004 Paris Motor Show, the Mk5 Golf GTI was extremely well received, with many lauding it as the greatest Golf GTI since the Mk1. Its new 2.0-litre TFSI engine developed 200hp, making it the most powerful Golf GTI to date. Crucially, it was also a dynamic gem.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

The engine was mated to a six-speed gearbox and standard ESP, which were linked to a chassis equipped with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link configuration (a la Ford Focus) at the rear. It also sat 15mm lower than the standard Golf, with new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. This was the real deal.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Paying homage to the original Golf GTI, the Mk5 heralded the return of the tartan interior and red surround to the grille. Even the GTI typeface echoed that of the original. It was as though Volkswagen acknowledged it had dropped the ball. Tipping the hat in such a way could have been seen as mere window dressing, had the Golf GTI failed to deliver. Fortunately, it did anything but fail.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI Pirelli and Edition 30

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Special editions soon followed, including the Pirelli and Edition 30 (pictured), both of which were powered by the 2.0-litre TFSI engine, but this time developing 230hp.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI W12-650

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But the wildest Golf GTI has to be 2007’s GTI W12-650, which featured a mid-mounted 6.0-litre engine developing 650hp It could accelerate to 62mph in 3.7 seconds, before going on to a theoretical top speed of 201mph.

Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

By the time the Mk5 Golf GTI made way for the MK6 in 2009, the hot hatch sector had evolved into a formidable battleground. While the Golf GTI was still the best all-rounder, the likes of the Focus RS, Civic Type R and Megane R26.R had left it in the shade. Time for a change?

Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Perhaps not. For Volkswagen, being the best all-round hot hatch is where it’s at. A GTI for all people, all scenarios, for all seasons. So the Mk6 was little more than a refresh – a new lick of paint here, some extra horses there. It also benefited from a new XDS electronic diff and nicer interior. Evolution, not revolution.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Noble though the Mk6’s intention was to remain the sensible all-rounder, it left many feeling cold. The Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI came to deliver excitement, as well as dependability. Whilst looking remarkably similar to the Mk6, the MK7 was based on the MQB platform, making it an all-new Golf GTI. It was also larger, with more power squeezed from its 2.0-litre TFSI engine. You could also specify an optional performance pack, which puffed up the power to over 220hp, and added a clever differential.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Edition 40

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Golf GTI, Volkswagen launched a new Clubsport special edition. Boasting 265hp as standard, the Clubsport featured an overboost function, which upped the power to 290hp during hard acceleration in third gear and above.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Edition 40

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

But unlike the 300hp Golf R, the Clubsport’s power was channelled through the front wheels, in true GTI fashion. Prices started from £30,875 for the three-door version, increasing to £32,290 when fitted with the DSG automatic transmission.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

In common with the Mk3 and Mk4, not every sporty Mk7 Golf wore a GTI badge. Many would point to the 300hp Golf R as the default choice: the epitome of a new breed of mega-horsepower hot hatches.

Mk7 Golf GTI Clubsport S

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

Talented though the Mk7 R was – and a world away from the Mk6 R – it wasn’t the ultimate incarnation of the Mk7. The GTI Clubsport S ditched the rear seats, added buckets in the front, reduced weight by 30kg and eked out 310hp from its EA888 engine. Add Michelin Cup 2 tyres and it transformed the family man who keeps fit at the gym to a bona fide power lifter.

Ring king

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

At the time of its release, the Clubsport S took the Nurburgring front-wheel-drive lap record, posting a time of seven minutes and 49 seconds. Just 400 Clubsport S models were made, making it one of the rarest and most special Golfs ever.

Mk7.5 GTI and R

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

A facelift in 2017 added sharper lighting and, on the inside, a digital instrument cluster and improved infotainment. The R could now be optioned with a parpy Akrapovic exhaust and a bit more power. New WLTP fuel economy rules in 2018 neutered the R a little, making the R facelift with the full 310hp wallop a rare beast.

Mk7.5 TCR

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

A new nameplate for the GTI was ‘TCR’, basking in the limelight of the race series. It was the car to send off the Mk7 GTI. While not quite as hardcore as the Clubsport S, it delivered 90 percent of that car’s X-factor for GTI buyers. Some don’t like the decals, but they’re an option.

2020 Mk8 Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI history

So, here we are in 2020 with a new GTI. Will it win us over the way its predecessor did? They’re big shoes to fill, but being made of the same stuff, fundamentally on the same platform, we have high hopes for it. We wonder if Volkswagen is cooking up something special for next year, when the Golf GTI turns 45…

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Ethan Jupp
I'm Content Editor at MR. Road trips music and movies are my vices. Perennially stuck between French hot hatches and Australian muscle cars.

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