San Francisco, Calif. – The Golf has long been VW’s bread and butter. More than 30,000,000 of them have been sold since 1974.
The first-generation Golf GTI (Mk1 or Mark 1) came a few years later, and was an instant hit upon arriving in European stores in ’76. By the time it came to Canadian showrooms in ’84 – a year after launching Stateside – the platform was well on its way to achieving cult status. Even with its short lived funny new name, the Rabbit GTI.
The GTI returns after a year-long hiatus from the market. VW Canada sold all 1,539 2013 GTI Mk6s it had been allotted, and there was no 2014 model. Its return for the 2015 model year is bittersweet. Not just for the company selling them, but for legions of V-Dub fans eager to buy them up in droves.
Has the wait been worth it? Of course. Fans won’t be disappointed. It’s no surprise the Mk7 GTI continues to be one of the top hot hatches on the planet! You were expecting anything less? Yeah right.
At the Canadian launch of Mk6 GTI in 2009, I rode shotgun with Patrick Carpentier while he and fellow racer Richard Spenard duked it out phone booth style in identical GTIs on the circuit Mont. Tremblant’s 15 turns and long straights. In a scene straight out of a postcard, the 4.36-km permanent road course sits near the base of the mountain between Lake Moore and Devil’s River. The battles in turns eight and 10 are particularly memorable because they were particularly spirited.
But, Volkswagen had something quite different planned for the launch of the all-new 2015 VW Golf GTI. Something a bit unexpected. Something more enlightening. Something awesome! Very awesome! [drum roll] It brought out all seven generations of the GTI for the media to not only gawk at, reminisce about and wax poetic over, but also to test drive and experience the mark’s heritage up close and personal.
For many V-Dub fans, this would be a religious experience. Dying and going to heaven for some. It is most certainly the first new vehicle launch I’ve arrived at and went straight for the keys to the oldest car in the parking lot. But it’s exactly what I did!
Before this day, I’d driven the more modern Mk5 and Mk6 GTIs as well as the 2013 Golf R and even the Jetta GLI, so, before even contemplating laying a finger on the Mk7, I made it my mission to drive each and every version on hand beforehand. While I wasn’t able to do it in chronological order, I did do it. Not only that, I got first crack at the original North American hot hatch, the VW Rabbit GTI Mk1. What a trip!
Certifiably the oldest car I’ve driven, this 1984 example originally sold for $7,990 in the U.S. It was acquired by Volkswagen USA and is in nice, original shape after a thorough tune-up. On looks alone, it’s got character. The 90-hp 1.8L inline four-cylinder has 60,053 original miles on it. Upon turning the key in the ignition, it buzzes to life loudly and proudly. Its current exhaust system pays (plays?) homage to the air-cooled Beetles it succeeded.
Offering a combination of fuel economy, performance and affordability to the masses, the Mk1 GTI defined the “hot hatch” genre for decades to come. Its classic three-door design encases a period correct, Ron Burgundy-esque interior complete with Craig cassette deck, crank windows, a VDO quartz clock, voltage and temperature gauge trim panel, retro golf ball shift knob and a crazy analog instrument panel that makes the Commodore 64 look good.
Weighing 912.17 kg with a five-speed close ratio manual gearbox, the Mk1 GTI does 0-97 km/h in 9.7 seconds, with a top speed of 170.6 km/h. Though a bit stiff, the brakes are power assisted. The big, honking classic ’80s rubber steering wheel is not. I’m caught a bit off guard at the first corner, a tight right-hander with a bus parked on the outside, but all is good after that. Throttle response is great, and the exhaust note is pure belly laughter.
The Rabbit GTI is the epitome of cool, a total treat to drive and a real blast from the past. It’s no wonder they command such a large and loyal following. In today’s market a Mk1 GTI in good shape that’s not butchered can cost upwards of $4,000.
A 1992 Mk2 GTI 16V is up next. Its 2.0L DOHC inline-four 16-valve engine raised the bar for the hot hatch segment, with heavily-bolstered Recaro seats, BBS mesh wheels and rear window spoiler to complement its 134 hp and 133 lb-ft of torque. The reverse gear lockout is missing on the borrowed test mule, so shifting into first is like playing Russian roulette. Still, it’s fun to drive. Moving on.
Ahh, the Mk3 GTI VR6. What a beauty! The 2.8L V6 isn’t the most powerful out there (172 hp and 173 lb-ft), but it is one of the best sounding and a Ward’s Best pick to boot. Weighing a still spry 1,275 kg, the Mk3 GTI musters 0-97 km/h in 7.1 seconds with a 209.2 km/h top speed. Also available with three or five doors and a choice of manual or automatic transmission, this 1995 model originally retailed for $22,225 USD. Today, they’re selling for between $2,000 and $3,000 depending on the mileage.
If I were choosing between the reflex silver 2004 Mk4 GTI 337 or the 2007 Mk5 GTI I drove, I’m picking the latter because it’s newer and, as the first GTI to break the 200-hp barrier, it’s more to my taste. Throw an intake, exhaust and chip at it and you’re up to 300 hp, easy.
The best measuring stick for the new car is, of course, the car it replaces. (That and the original Mk1.)
The Mk6 not only has 200 hp and better looks, it is the first GTI to combine that with a high-quality premium interior. But those are only a few of the traits that vaulted the Mk6 Golf GTI to 2010 AJAC Canadian Car of the Year. It also won the Sports Performance (under $50,000) category, and I can attest that it is very capable. It’s fun to drive with a great six-speed manual, and really functional with lots of space.
I’m not going out on a limb when saying the Mk7 GTI is even better. It’s bigger, faster, lighter and the four-banger is more fuel efficient. Let’s not forget more versatile thanks to more passenger and cargo volumes – now 2,647.6 and 645.6 litres, respectively, increases of 17 and 215.2 litres versus the Mk6.
The Mk7 GTI launch edition allows you to choose from normal, sport or individual driving profiles. The U.S. production model I’m driving has the performance pack installed, which adds 10 horsepower, bigger brakes and an electronically-controlled hydraulic LSD. Keep reading for more on this!
The six-speed DSG automatic with paddle shifters is the nicest version yet, and the electric-assisted direct steering provides good feedback and response in concert with the sport-tuned suspension.
A long list of standard GTI features includes noteworthy bits like an adaptive front-lighting system, electronic stability control with sport mode, rear view camera, post collision braking function and an intelligent crash response system. Once a certain severity of crash is detected, all doors are unlocked, the battery terminal is disconnected from the alternator cable, fuel supply is shut off, warning hazards are switched on and high consumption electrical components are shut off, all automatically. Even on the base model.
Canada is getting three GTI models – the 3-Door, 3-Door Autobahn and 5-Door Autobahn – with more on the way. The panoramic sunroof comes standard on the Autobahns, along with an eight-speaker infotainment system with voice control. VW’s Multimedia Device Interface comes on all three; however, you’ll need to pay extra for the right connector for your non-Apple device. A simple USB slot would make things so much easier, but there isn’t one.
The interior (and the exterior for that matter) is top notch – a comfortable place to be when road tripping near and far thanks to features like dual-zone automatic climate control and available 400-watt Fender premium audio system.
There are other hot hatches out there, with loads of them in Europe. Over here, the pickings are much slimmer, and include nameplates like the Ford Focus ST, Mazda3 Sport GT and Mini Cooper S. So too does the Mazdaspeed3 if there was one. (To be clear, Mazda has not confirmed one, but if it did...). That’s tough company by any scorecard.
While the “Performance Pack” and “DCC” adaptive chassis control are being offered as options in the U.S., “GTI Performance” will be its own trim level in Canada based on the Autobahn trim level. It will include an electronically-controlled hydraulic limited slip differential and larger brakes based on the Mk7 Golf R, but custom-designed for the GTI. The DCC system controls the dampers in real time and also allows stiffer and softer suspension modes while the extra oomph is purely tuning, and allows maximum boost to be held for a few extra hundred RPM, hence the extra 10 hp.
The Mk7 GTI is built in Puebla, Mexico while the Golf R will come from Germany as VW doesn’t yet produce AWD cars in Puebla.
While the launch edition with DSG I drove is a great car that handles well and offers high levels of technology, functionality and comfort for a decent price, I’d be more inclined to wait until the fall when first orders for the 220-hp “Performance GTI” are being taken.
First deliveries won’t happen until January or February as 2015 models, but if you’re prepared to wait that long, then you might be interested to learn the all-wheel-drive 290-hp/280 lb-ft Mk7 Golf R isn’t far behind. Scheduled to land here in the spring, the Golf R promises to raise the Mk7s performance factor considerably.
The modern Golf may be a shadow of its former self when compared to the original Mk1, but the Mk7 GTI is still the real deal, and it does stand up to the best hot hatches out there. Will it be Canada’s next car of the year? It just might be.
2015 VW Golf GTI Mk7
Base Price: $27,995 (3-Door) / $32,895 (5-Door)
Engine: 2.0L turbo inline four-cylinder
Horsepower / Torque: 210 hp / 258 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed DSG automatic
Fuel Economy Ratings (city / hwy.): 9.4 / 6.9 L/100 km
Warranty (mos / km): 48 / 80,000
Notable options: 6-speed DSG ($1,400); Technology pack – 5.8-in. touchscreen with proximity sensor, CD player and sat nav, forward collision warning system; Leather pack ($1,095) – Top sport seats in Vienna leather with red accents, 12-way power drivers seat.