The Golf GTI is back - bold, unambiguous and, by the the looks of the spec, equipped to take on the leading fast hatches. It's about time. There were four sporty Golfs in the mk4 line-up and none of them hit the nail on the head; not the limp 115bhp GTI, soul-less 150bhp 1.8T GTI, loping 170bhp V5 or the four-wheel-drive 237bhp V6 R32. The R32 was the pick of the bunch but a rather complex, heavy and expensive solution to making an entertaining Golf. The mk5 GTI is refreshingly focused, with front-wheel drive and a torquey, 197bhp 2-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine that should be a good match for the car's bulk. Volkswagen claims a top speed of 145mph and 0-62mph in 7.2sec. Finished in blood red, with generous honeycomb-pattern front grilles, black sills and darkened rear glass, the GTI looks the part, especially when it looms in the rear-view mirror. It's a measure of the Golf's ever-growing shadow that the tasty five-hole alloys fitted to our test car look small - at 17in diameter, they're not. Bigger 18s with even lower profile tyres will be offered for just £455, which looks mighty tempting, but you might want to stay your options-ticking hand until you've read this, the first drive of the GTI on notoriously demanding British A- and B-roads. Despite its generous proportions, the spacious new GTI makes you feel snug thanks to its excellent sports seats. Trimmed in plain grey cloth with tartan centre panels - a nod to the original GTI - they have deep side bolsters that hug you in all the right places. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is an ergonomic delight, too, its fat, sculpted rim offering a comfortable, positive grip, and it looks the part, too, with perforated sections and a flat lower edge. It adjusts for rake and reach, while the seat height can also be tuned, enabling a perfect driving position to be tailored. Completing the driver-oriented landscape are a chunky gearlever and a pair of fussily marked main dials. Anyone who has driven the 1.8-litre, 20-valve turbo engine - and there must be plenty of you because it has found a home in just about every sporty model in the VW, Audi, SEAT and Skoda ranges - won't be expecting much from the new 2-litre turbo unit. With 197bhp and 207lb ft of torque, this FSI engine isn't as potent as the 1.8T fitted to, say, the Seat Leon Cupra R, but in fact it's one of the GTI's best features. While the 1.8T is a bland, unexciting performer, the 2-litre direct injection FSI is stimulating and effervescent, a pleasant surprise given the turbo's delivery is capped to give linear torque between 1800-5000rpm. There's nothing linear about the delivery, though, and underpinning its strong, responsive performance is a genuinely engaging induction note. Somehow VW's engineers have given this turbo engine a normally-aspirated voice - a guttural, appealing bwarp that swells with bass on large, low-rev throttle openings and then gradually thins out to a keen bark that reaches a natural peak and suggests an upshift. Peak power arrives at an unusually low 5100rpm but, foot down, the tacho needle sweeps purposefully past this mark and is still doing good work at the 6500rpm redline. The growly note encourages you to go there and, if the need arises, the engine will go to 7000rpm before the limiter cuts in. The six ratios are well-spaced, while the shift action is crisp and positive. VW's engineers have seen no need for further strengthening of the Golf shell for its GTI role, though naturally the suspension - MacPherson struts up front with a multi-link rear - has been tweaked. The GTI sits 15mm lower, has stiffer anti-roll bars, shorter, stiffer springs and re-valved dampers. The variable-rate electro-hydraulic assisted steering feels worryingly light at car park speeds but soon takes on weight as the pace rises, while the chassis initially feels very stiff, especially laterally. There's a vaguely racecar-like feel to how the GTI moves. Yet there is suppleness, too, the edges of any road imperfections being softened quietly by the suspension, and there's fine body control over large bumps and dips. Still, attack a second gear corner and roll is firmly resisted. The Golf corners flat and secure and seems to distribute the cornering load between the front and rear evenly without any sense of the rear getting a little loose as you turn the nose in. You turn and the car simply settles comfortably into the corner, clean and calm. The steering isn't overburdened with feel but its weighting is spot-on, and when you feed in the power for the exit there are no writhings as the tyres - 225/45 Bridgestone Potenza RE050s - lay all 207lb ft on the road. It's impressive because although this rarely feels or sounds like a turbo engine, one of the tell-tales that it has a light-pressure blower is the very strong low-rev delivery. Another is a slight pause before it picks up after you've snapped the throttle open, so the fact that the front wheels remain undeflected when the torque floods in is confidence-inspiring. In the dry the ESP warning light rarely flickers, and VW's chassis engineers should be praised for allowing some slip and spin before it intervenes, which it does remarkably discreetly. It's easy to find yourself haring along at much more of a pace than you expect. The engine is very strong right through but especially in the low- and mid-ranges. At speed the ride soaks up everything a tricky road can throw at it, and there's so much cornering grip that, despite weighing a substantial 1328kg, the Golf can carry lots of speed through bends. In this respect it's quite Mini Cooper-ish. Back off sharply mid-turn and the rear does move, but not dramatically and certainly not with the feeling that it's adopting the three-wheel stance typical of Golf GTIs past. The brakes, like the steering, aren't the most feelsome but compared with the over-servoed pedal of previous generations, there's more resistance to lean against, so it's much easier to check-brake. If I had any concern it was that in the wet the GTI's roll-free stance would result in a lack of progression and feedback before a snappy breakaway. Happily for me, mid-afternoon the heavens opened and I was able to retrace my nadgety morning route. The ESP's loose leash means you can have modest wheelspin right through to the limiter if you lead-foot the GTI out of a wet junction in first gear, but also means that you have a little slip to play with in the corners, which can be useful for trimming your line. Fears of abrupt break-away proved unfounded, the Golf feeling remarkably secure and capable, though when the nose did power wide with the ESP switched off, recovery was a little slower than I'd have liked. There's no question that the mk5 GTI is an entertaining and appealing fast hatch, different to the best Golf GTIs that have gone before but deserving of a place alongside them. It feels like a driver's car, with its wonderfully supportive seats, chunky wheel and enthusiastically vocal and gutsy four-cylinder engine. Its flat-cornering chassis is sporty in a new way but the more you drive it, the more you appreciate how well it works, even on our uncompromising B-roads. Is the mk5 GTI good enough to beat the best in class and put Volkswagen back on top? That's a difficult question to answer because in scale and price (a fiver short of £20K) the Golf isn't a direct rival for feisty little funsters like the Clio Cup and Mini Cooper S. However, against bigger rivals like the bargain-priced Civic Type-R and Leon Cupra R, and the upcoming harder-edged version of the RenaultSport M�gane, I'd fancy the Golf's chances. Champion or not, the great news is that the mk5 Golf GTI shows that Volkswagen hasn't forgotten how to make a characterful, capable and engaging fast hatch. The GTI is definitely back.
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbo|
|Max power||197bhp @ 5100rpm|
|Max torque||207lb ft @ 1800-5100rpm|
|Top speed||145mph (claimed)|
|On sale||January 2005|