The car that invented the GTi segment is waving goodbye to its long-held standard bearing status, writes Iain Robertson, with its latest triple-header of power units, which are actually better in electrified form than either petrol, or diesel variants.
The latest ‘Golfate’ is an unmitigated disaster area. Throughout its history, the Golf model has been the ‘go to’ hatchback, which combined glitch-free dynamics, with unfailing dependability, and fine cabin packaging, with multi-level driver satisfying qualities. While Volkswagen has slimmed down its brand badging and expanded with great gusto into all-points electrification and digitisation, it is immensely ironic that the GTE version sits much happier with its ‘innovative’ treatment. You might presume that the inference is to ignore the fossil-fuelled variants and tap into the plug-in, where a dead helm and confusing switchgear are par for the electrified course (bearing in mind that the GTE relies on a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol boosted by a hybrid electric engine).
It is immensely sad that VW should simply chuck away its hard-earned reputation in the blind pursuit of electrification. While the new car’s profile is defiantly evolutionary, the new full-width front grille, into the ends of which are set five LEDs that provide the foglamp function, projects an image of a basking shark and lacks the frontal finesse of Golfs 1 to 7. An illuminated bar now runs across the Golfate’s snout and highlights its width, if nothing else.
Naturally, the banner headline for the new model has always been biased towards digitisation but, when that cause celebre causes driver discomfort (okay, familiarity will breed), it is almost as bad as Peugeot’s senseless ‘i-cockpit’, with its tidgey tiller and unfeasible reverse-sweep electronic dials. While accepting that VW was determined to move on the cockpit game a few important steps, messing about with ergonomics and replacing switchgear conventions with fingertip sliders is not really the right way to do it.
Yet, the new digitised cockpit in the Golf does make a visual statement, even though it is mildly dyslexic. For the first time ever, a Golf dons tombstone front seats, clad in plaid and bolstered in most of the right places, with flashes of red leatherette to signal its performance intentions, even though rear seat occupants will now feel even more hemmed in. What the hell…the Golf was always better as a two-person machine anyway.
Most disappointing is the car’s on-road behaviour. While Marks 1 to 7 were alive with steering feedback in abundance and, even with the pushbutton malleability of later versions’ adjustable chassis dynamics, superior handling, roadholding, pliancy and tremendous grip levels, Golfate misses the mark comprehensively. Devoid of sensory feel, the car displays a remoteness that is more akin to an electronic driving game than a car with a strong sporting heritage. It insists that the driver adapts to a new environment into which he has been slam-dunked with callous insouciance, after all, VW is the biggest car brand in the world and its customers will bend to its will, regardless.
Three power sources range potency from the 245bhp of the GTi and GTE to the 200bhp of the GTD. Another of VW’s charges, Bentley, would often talk of power outputs being ‘adequate’, until being forced by the EU to state the numerical heft, but 245bhp is more than adequate and is enough to whisk Golfate from 0-60mph in around 6.0s, before topping out at around 155mph. Of course, the diesel is not quite as swift but makes up its adequacy with a punchy mid-range. Ironically, it is the GTE that delivers the sweetest clout, despite a 600cc deficit, and it can run for around 40-miles in non-polluting EV mode, to score top marks as the most frugal of the trio.
If only the DSG, twin-automated-clutch transmission were slightly more willing…even though it has been enhanced (apparently) for its fresh performance role, the paddle-shifts are not exactly intuitive, can be sluggish and even a tad thumpy, whether at town speeds, or when pushed to the limit, almost as if DSG has had its day. I am also not a fan of the new large rocker switch that replaces the former lever selector. Don’t shoot me, I am only the piano-player!
The final negative rests with the exhaust tone. Apart from the various five- and six-cylinder options exercised musically by the Golf over the years, the vast majority have been propelled by four cylinder fuel-injected units that have displayed various degrees of sonorous joy, hardening the notes as the units approached their redlines. However, stung severely by the ‘Dieselgate’ debacle, larger particulate filters and even heftier exhaust catalysers have robbed any natural verve from the soundtrack that not even the noise ‘symposer’ playing through the stereo head-unit can replicate successfully. It is refined but who really wants a GTi to be refined? It is bad enough that virtually all of VW’s Golfate rivals can trounce it in a game of Car Top Trumps.
Yet, get into Golfate’s new ways and it can be rewarding. Understeer is virtually absent and, while it might not kick up a lightly laden inside rear wheel on tighter bends and direction changes, it does impart typical high-quality build inferences and delivers relaxed high-speed cruising potential of an order a class above. Modest CO2 emissions and decent MPG returns underscore a long-held Golf affordability remit in both petrol, naturally hybrid and diesel forms.
However, the joy of GTi driving has been filtered out to such an extent that it reminds me of that awkward period in the lives of both Golfs Mark 2 and 3, when GTi badging became a convenient VW marketing tool and outnumbered regular versions in model complexity. On one hand, VW is moving Golf into an electrified future, while clinging onto dichotomously some hints of its vital lineage. VW is a major player. It does have a handle on its model plans, even though it may come across as mildly confused by its 40+ years run of success.
Conclusion: The Golf GTi was the consummate classy, yet classless contender for hot hatch honours, whether funded corporately, or privately. To be frank, I advise investment in a late, low mileage Golf Mark 7 GTi, a significantly more rewarding proposition overall.