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Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 review: power to the people

VW Golf GTI Mk1

In 1975, Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik patented a new type of puzzle. Within three years of reaching the shops, his Rubik’s Cube had sold 200 million. At the same time, another surprise success was brewing in Germany. A team of Volkswagen engineers had been working weekends on an unofficial project called ‘Sport Golf’. After some arm-twisting, managers sanctioned a run of 5,000 cars to homologate the Golf for racing. But the new model – swiftly renamed Golf GTI – was such a hit with press and public alike, production was immediately ramped up from 50 to 500 cars a day. One of motoring’s few true icons had arrived.

The Rubik’s Cube and the Golf GTI are both simple concepts. The Cube is three layers of coloured plastic, yet it has 42 quintillion possible permutations. The GTI was merely a Golf with a 110hp 1.6-litre engine from the Audi 80 GTE, stiffer suspension, cosmetic tweaks and (slightly) better brakes. Yet it was brilliant to drive, without sacrificing practicality or reliability. It captured the zeitgeist and defined a wholly new type of car: the hot hatchback.

Read more Motoring Research reviews FIRST on City AM

Today, that basic formula has hardly changed. The seventh generation Golf GTI has just been phased out (soon to be replaced by the Mk8, while the original has graduated to bona fide classic status. The car pictured here, owned by GTI enthusiast James Bullen, won the ‘Made in Germany’ class at the prestigious London Concours last summer, seeing off a BMW M1, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 and Porsche 930 Turbo LE. Exalted company indeed.

VW Golf GTI Mk1

This isn’t just any Mk1 GTI, though. One of 1,000 Campaign editions built to round-off production of Das Original, it boasts a punchier 112hp 1.8 engine, 14-inch Pirelli ‘P-slot’ alloys (with Pirelli tyres), a twin-headlamp grille, green-tinted glass and a leather steering wheel. It’s also in breathtaking, better-than-new condition. The first owner paid £6,949 in 1983, but a GTI of this calibre could cost £30,000 now. To think I once bought one for £800…

Those memories of my much-loved Mk1 soon come flooding back. Giugiaro’s ‘folded paper’ styling still looks fresh, while that red go-faster stripe – endlessly imitated – hints at excitement to come. Inside, it’s less evocative: upright, functional and slightly austere. Still, a dimpled golf-ball gear knob lightens the mood, and there’s no faulting the textbook Teutonic build quality. The unassisted steering feels heavy and the Golf’s five-speed ’box is obstinate when cold, but it immediately feels peppy and well-suited to city streets. At 3,725mm long and 1,625 wide, it’s actually smaller than a current VW Polo.

VW Golf GTI Mk1

On open roads, the featherweight 840kg Mk1 is plenty fast enough to be fun. Its fuel-injected engine punches confidently out of corners, revving beyond 6,000rpm with real verve, while a fluid, forgiving chassis helps you maintain momentum, despite the modest grip. Push hard and you can lift an inside rear wheel, or even provoke a slide, yet it never feels edgy or unpredictable like the equally iconic Peugeot 205 GTI. Then as now, Volkswagen has always played it safe.

Driven: the cars that shaped Volkswagen’s past – and future

As for the brakes – the Achilles’ heel of right-hand-drive Mk1s, due to a convoluted cross-linkage – they’re actually better than I remembered. Then again, my Golf GTI was hardly perfectly preserved like this one, and I too am erring on the side of caution. Much as I’ve relished driving James’s pride and joy, I’m quietly glad to hand it back unscathed.

Price: £8,000+

0-62mph: 8.2sec

Top speed: 114mph

Horsepower: 112

MPG combined: 36.7

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1: in pictures

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2020 Volkswagen Golf review: the benchmark is back

2020 Volkswagen Golf

Back in September, Volkswagen revealed its ID.3 electric car. The Beetle, we were told, was ID.1 – the original ‘people’s car’ and beating heart of the brand – while the subsequent Golf was ID.2. Now, as a new Golf is launched to the world, there’s a sense it’s already yesterday’s hero.

So it felt until I spent an hour with some VW engineers, at least. These guys, whose specialist subjects ranged from engines to autonomous driving tech, still take the Golf very seriously. And rightly so: since 1974, more than 35 million have been sold. Somebody, somewhere, buys a new Golf every 40 seconds.

The ID range and its ‘new, dynamic era in the world of e-mobility’ may be coming, but the Golf hasn’t stood still. Indeed, this is the most radical, forward-thinking version of Das Auto yet. Not that you realise it at first…

The Golf club2020 Volkswagen Golf

Arriving in Portugal, I see the Mk8 Golf lined up alongside all seven previous generations. It looks a chip off the old block. Details have changed, such as the swoopy LED headlights and spot-the-difference VW logo, but the confident creases, kinked C-pillar and hewn-from-solid silhouette are instantly familiar.

In fact, the Golf uses the same ‘MQB’ platform as the outgoing model, so its wheelbase is identical. Overall, it’s a modest 29mm longer, 10mm wider and 4mm taller. Interior space is claimed to be ‘practically unchanged’.

Like most mid-size hatchbacks, the Golf is now five-door only – the three-door had dwindled to just five percent of sales. An estate version arrives in 2020, but the MPV-shaped Golf SV won’t be replaced. The arrival of the genre-busting T-Roc Cabriolet makes a drop-top look unlikely, too.

So far, so uneventful. Still, you can hardly blame design boss Klaus Bischoff for playing safe with a best-seller. He describes the Golf “an indicator of the present” that helps “millions of people [with] feeling at home”. One can only assume his interior design team missed the memo.

Crazy Golf2020 Volkswagen Golf

Inside, the new Golf has more in common with the ID.3 than its Mk7 predecessor. Volkswagen calls it a ‘digitalised workplace’ – and while it’s brimful of showroom appeal, learning your way around does initially feel like work.

Front-and-centre is the new Innovision digital dashboard, which has few physical buttons. A 10-inch central screen is standard in the UK (other countries get an 8.25-inch version), flanked by touch-sensitive sliders for heating/cooling and audio volume. The process is rather like swiping the screen of a smartphone.

You can also use gesture control for some functions, such as waving your hand to move between menus. Plus there’s voice control with integrated Amazon Alexa: say “Hello Volkswagen” to call up a song from your playlist, turn up the heating or find a nearby petrol station.

Ambient lighting is another feature that has filtered down from loftier cars. Pick from 32 colours or choose one of five ‘moods’: Infinity, Eternity, Euphoria, Vitality and Desire. Don’t choose the latter for a first date.

Putters and drivers2020 Volkswagen Golf

If all this sounds like the result of too many macchiatos at a marketing meeting, be reassured to know the Golf’s engines are steadfastly sensible. At least until the full suite of performance models – GTI, GTI TCR, GTD, GTE and R – arrive later in 2020.

The line-up at launch comprises 1.5 TSI four-cylinder petrol (130hp or 150hp) and 2.0 TDI diesel (115hp or 150hp), with the 1.0-litre TSI three-cylinder petrol (90hp or 110hp) following soon afterwards. A 48v eTSI mild-hybrid system, which recuperates braking energy to save fuel, is available on 100hp, 130hp and 150hp petrol engines, but only with the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. Your other choice is a six-speed manual.

Details of the sportier versions are scarce, but we know the GTE plug-in hybrid will develop 245hp, a sizeable leap from 204hp in the Mk7. There won’t be a fully electric Mk8, as that box is ticked by the ID.3. However, Volkswagen has given the existing e-Golf a stay of execution until its new EV fully commences production.

As for trim levels, the structure now mirrors the German market, starting with ‘Golf’, then rising via Life and Style to top-spec R-Line. At the time of writing, UK equipment levels and prices had yet to be confirmed.

Time to tee off2020 Volkswagen Golf

My first instinct is to jump into the flawless Mk1 Golf and screech away in a cloud of hydrocarbons. However, I have a job to do, and the Mk8 awaits. Besides, it’s December and the new car has a proper heater. Heated steering wheel and seats, too.

I start in a 1.5 TSI petrol in Life trim with a manual ’box, predicted to be the best-selling version in the UK. As for the vivid Lime Yellow paint, that will be less common. More’s the pity.

As ever, the Golf feels impeccably well assembled – insert cliché about Germanic build quality here – although there are some plastics that wouldn’t pass muster in, say, a Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The unlined glovebox, which causes loose items to rattle around, also smacks of penny-pinching.

The firmly padded seats, with an optional massage function, are very comfortable, and finding a good driving position is easy. The digital dials are also clear, augmented in some models by a head-up display (which projects essential driving data, such as your speed, onto the windscreen). Peering out over the plunging bonnet, I ease out the light clutch and I’m away.

Fore to the floor2020 Volkswagen Golf

The turbocharged 1.5-litre engine is no ball of fire, but it revs eagerly and propels the Golf to 62mph in 8.5 seconds and 139mph flat-out. Its Mk7 equivalent managed fuel economy of 54.3mpg and CO2 emissions of 116g/km, so expect similar figures when the Mk8 undergoes official WLTP tests soon.

Where the TSI motor really impresses is refinement; it’s turbine-smooth, isolated to the point of being almost inaudible around town. At speed, this only serves to amplify wind roar from the chunky door mirrors, although the Golf remains an able and long-legged cruiser. Countless development miles on Germany’s autobahns have clearly paid off.

The manual gearbox feels well-oiled and easy to operate. It’s likely to be around £1,400 cheaper than the DSG auto upfront, and require less maintenance longer-term. However, that’s only a concern if you keep the car beyond its three-year UK warranty (also the usual term of a PCP finance deal).

Par for the course2020 Volkswagen Golf

The VW’s chassis is also geared towards easygoing comfort. Its steering, light and accurate, filters out the fingertip feedback some drivers will crave in favour of calm control. Its suspension also strikes a good balance between absorbing bumps and resisting roll.

On a series of mountain switchbacks near Porto, the car was genuine fun: its well-weighted controls and unruffled composure helping me chase down locals in careworn Renault Clios, many of whom treated the road like a rally stage.

There are some caveats, though. All the launch cars had multi-link rear suspension, while cheaper models make do with a simpler torsion beam (also true for the Focus). P;us all were fitted with Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), which includes continuously variable dampers and four driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual.

Switching to Sport isn’t transformative, but it does add extra heft to the steering and more zing to the throttle response. Granted, the Golf isn’t as lively or engaging as a Ford Focus, but wasn’t it ever thus? The essential rightness of the recipe bodes well for the GTI and R.

Into the rough2020 Volkswagen Golf

I then swap into a 150hp diesel with an automatic transmission, also in Lime Yellow. This 2.0-litre TDI offers markedly more torque – 266lb ft at 1,750rpm, versus 184lb ft at 1,500rpm in the 150hp petrol – which is immediately apparent on the road. The instant oomph, combined with seamless shifts from the DSG ’box, make for a compelling combination.

Preferable to the petrol? Well, the TDI is certainly more vocal, although its subtle snarl is a world away from clattering diesels of old. Inevitably, it will also be more expensive to buy – probably by around £1,200 if Mk7 prices are an accurate guide.

Nonetheless, for all the bad press about diesel (much of Volkswagen’s own making, of course), it’s certainly no poor relation. The 0.3 seconds it gives away from zero to 62mph is amply compensated for by mid-range muscle. Plus, what’s not to like about more miles per gallon?

Help or handicap?2020 Volkswagen Golf

As for the Innovision cockpit, I’m not fully convinced. One thing I’ve always loved about the Golf – and I speak as a serial owner, with Mk1, Mk2, Mk4 and Mk5 models under my belt – is its no-nonsense approach to ergonomics. For its core audience, middle-aged and middle-class, the minimalist design and deference to touch controls may not be perceived as progress.

The slider for audio volume is a case in point. I found it only worked with a firm push, and I’d end up checking the screen for confirmation – thus taking my eyes off the road. Admittedly, there is a volume switch on the steering wheel, but that’s missing the point: technology should make things simpler. The same goes for the voice controls, which were hit-and-miss at best.

Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned. There is also much useful tech here. The optional matrix LED headlights, for example, are fantastic, actively dimming sections of the high beam so you don’t dazzle oncoming traffic. The new Car2X wi-fi function is clever, too; it allows the car to communicate directly with others nearby (only other Golfs at present, but the EU-standard tech is being trialled by other brands) in order to warn drivers of approaching hazards.

Hole-in-one2020 Volkswagen Golf

Brands within the Volkswagen Group seem to be steadily moving upmarket. Thus Skoda becomes more like VW, while VW edges closer to Audi. Where Bugatti goes next is anyone’s guess.

Prise those redesigned roundels off the Golf and it could easily be an Audi A3. Its interior has the requisite wow-factor and the technology sets new standards for a ‘mainstream’ hatchback. Build quality and refinement also measure up to premium rivals. Let’s just hope the Golf’s price doesn’t.

Much has changed, then, but the Golf still feels like the benchmark in its class. Its broad appeal and breadth of abilities make it the default ‘people’s car’ – for 45 years and counting. Don’t write this Volkswagen out of history yet.

2020 Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI: specification2020 Volkswagen Golf

Price: TBC
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power: 130hp at 5,000rpm
Torque: 184lb ft at 1,500rpm
0-62mph: 8.5 seconds
Top speed: 139mph
Fuel economy: TBC
CO2: TBC
Length/width/height: 4,284/1,789/1,456mm
Boot size: 380-1,237 litres
On sale: February 2020

2020 Volkswagen Golf: in pictures

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Volkswagen Golf R M52 review: a scorching hot hatch

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

Very soon, the eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf will be revealed to the world. So we thought it prudent to give the outgoing model a suitable send-off. 

Tuning company Mountune, under the M52 banner, has modified the Golf R hot hatch, to potentially create the best of the Mk7 breed. We visited its base of operations in Essex to learn more.

What is Mountune M52?

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

It’s a brave new world for Mountune, as the company branches out from its usual Ford fare into Volkswagens, with the help of alloy wheel brand Fifteen52. 

The goal is doing for hot Volkswagens, such as the Golf R and GTI, what Mountune does for fast Fords.

Middle-class muscle

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

For now, the Golf R only has a ‘stage one’ power upgrade, which uses software to boost power to 360hp. The car we drove also had a CFD-flowed X3 induction system, M52 sport suspension kit, upgraded brakes, Fifteen52 wheels and special ‘Clubsport’ metal shift paddles. 

The Golf R was arguably a class-leader, so M52 had its work cut out to improve an already superb car. It certainly looks the part. The new wheels sit perfectly in the Golf’s arches, lending a newly aggressive stance. The badging is subtle, although the decal won’t be to all tastes. 

You notice the new M52 Clubsport paddles instantly as you step inside, followed by the M52 floor mats.

To 360hp and beyond

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

With power bolstered by 50hp, the ‘EA888’ engine has a punchier edge. It feels more boosty, more old-school and more of a hot rod. 

There’s even some fantastically gratuitous turbo whoosh, as if you’re hustling a rally car, rather than a grocery-getter. The added intensity is a welcome addition, given the standard R, talented as it is, can feel a bit too ordinary. 

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

The M52 Golf R loses none of that everyday practicality, though. It can still settle down and deliver decent efficiency. The engine doesn’t chunter, or struggle to idle. The original feel is retained, albeit with more attitude.

Then there’s how you control what the engine is doing. The new paddles are a revelation, far nicer than the tacky plastic items of the standard car. For how good the R has always felt, this most vital of control surfaces never had the tactility it deserved. 

A delicate balance 

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

What happens when it comes to slowing down and taking a corner? The upgraded brakes are a welcome improvement over the standard items, which aren’t really ‘hyper hatch’ standard. New pads and vented discs help prevent overheating and fade, although we reckon you could overpower them on a track. 

Wrapping the aggressive five-spoke Fifteen52 ‘Chicane’ wheels are sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. It all coalesces to noticeably enhance the Golf R’s already prodigious point-to-point pace. The suspension upgrade works well, adding an extra level of tautness, without robbing the car of its refinement. 

A jack of all trades

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

Nick Thomas, Mountune’s development and component engineer, insisted that the goal with these introductory upgrades is an ‘OEM+’ feel. The good parts of an already great car enhanced, and the bits that need improvement made better.

Quick Golfs can be likened to Porsche 911s. The GTI is the GTS, the Clubsport S is the GT3 RS and the R is the Turbo. M52’s Golf R feels somewhere between a Turbo S and a GT2. More hardcore, but not offensively so. It doesn’t betray the everyday likeability of the Golf R.

Verdict: Volkswagen Golf R M52 stage one

Volkswagen Golf R M52 review

That is perhaps this M52 Golf R’s biggest achievement. It’s still the jack of all trades, with some added edge. It enhances the Golf’s inherent sense of balance and genuine ‘driver’s car’ feel. In turn, it reminds us just how big the boots are that the Mk8 must fill. 

If the new car is a mis-step, we’d be very tempted to stick with the outgoing model, with some added flavour courtesy of M52.

Specification: Volkswagen Golf R M52 stage one

M52 Golf R stage one tune: £715.50

Cost of upgrades to our car: £3,400+

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo 

Power: 360hp

Torque: 368lb ft

0-62mph: <4.0 seconds

Top speed: 155mph+

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