A handy guide to every Volkswagen Golf GTI – Thank Frankel it’s Friday
I have heard it said that the shark stopped evolving many millions of years ago. It reached the hydrodynamically optimal shape for its intended lifestyle and, being therefore unimprovable, simply stopped.
And it appears that Volkswagen is rapidly approaching the same point with the Golf GTI. Ok, the interior of the new eighth generation Golf GTI revealed this week has been somewhat spruced, but if you look at its exterior or mechanical specification, you’d be forgiven for thinking Volkswagen has simply thought that the last one was as good as it needed to be, so why change it? Of course it is changed in many detail ways, and I look forward to see how this translates into the driving experience.
But for now, what about those other seven generations? Here’s my guide to which are the good, the great and the ghastly. And there’s not the space to go into convertibles, niche models and spin-offs, nor the many even higher performance Golfs that VW has produced over the years, so my comments apply to the standard GTI hatchback alone.
This, of course, is the daddy, the icon, the one considered the father of not just the Golf GTI, but the hot hatchback genre itself, even though it was nothing of the sort. So it’s tough to sit here and write that these cars were good, but not as great as their reputation would these days suggest. They were light yet well built, looked cool yet went hard, but they had soggy brakes and handling that could be sharper. The later 1.8-litre cars were best, but you pay accordingly.
Mk2 Golf GTI (produced 1983-92)
An even better built Golf GTI brought new levels of comfort and refinement to the class, but no more power and quite a lot more weight meant the car was at best no faster than its predecessor. A 16-valve cylinder head introduced alongside the eight-valve engine provided proper performance, but even that was shortly to be eclipsed by the only slightly less powerful and considerably lighter 1.9-litre Peugeot 205 GTI.
A GTI in name alone. A 2.0-litre engine with a derisory 116bhp made it a dull, slow insult to the genre relieved only in part by the arrival of a 150bhp version in 1993. But both had handling that was very little better than that of a standard Golf. If you’re wondering why they’re cheap, wonder no more. Avoid.
Mk4 Golf GTI (produced 1997-2004)
This is the model that saw the Golf hit rock bottom and then, ever so slightly, start to bounce back. By now the GTI was a mere mid-range model, positioned below the V5 and V6 4Motion cars. Early cars has 125 and 150bhp outputs from 1.8-litre engines, with a 2.0-litre base model with 115bhp arriving in 1999. That was probably the lowest point of all. But in 2002 a 180bhp version of the engine was introduced, which at least returned some brawn to the brand, even if the rest of the car was still pretty dull to drive.
The increase in power to 197bhp was welcome, but really little more a headline grabber. The real story was that it came on a new platform with multi-link independent rear suspension set up to not just provide seven shades of understeer at the first sign of a corner. You didn’t need to spec tartan upholstery to know that, at last, the Golf GTI was back.
Mk6 Golf GTI (produced 2008-2013)
The steady-as-she-goes Golf GTI. Having rediscovered how to make the car properly, VW was not about to bin a winning formula: the Mk5 had gained far more attention through the importance of the GTI sub-brand than it would ever have hoped to achieve if launched in isolation, so the Mk6 sought to trade further on that success: a bit more power, better equipment and refinement, but the same winning formula of everyday comfort and usability with always engaging handling.
Mk7 Golf GTI (produced 2013-2020)
An all new car, designed with exactly the same philosophy as the Mk6 and Mk6 (and the Mk1 and Mk2 for that matter), but on the lighter, stiffer MQB platform. The result was, to my mind, the best Golf GTI there has ever been: not the revolution that the Mk1 represented but the most able and satisfying to date, a car that ruled its class from first to last like no other before it. That is the standard to which the Mk8 must now rise above. It will take some doing.