Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
The GTI can be had with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The former has a shorter action than that of the regular Golf’s, but the way it shifts isn’t a patch on the Honda Civic Type R’s for precision, or the Ford Focus ST’s for slickness. That said, it still adds a layer of added interplay that no automatic gearbox can match.
In terms of raw performance, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the GTI isn’t as quick as the Type R, which has an extra 74bhp. However, at our private test track we found that the difference in acceleration between the two was closer than you might expect; the GTI completed the 0-60mph dash in 6.2 seconds versus the Type R’s 5.8sec. One of the reasons for both cars being so close is that the GTI’s engine is more linear in its power delivery, making it a little easier to get away from the line.
That also means it feels pretty swift on the road, while perfectly spaced gear ratios allow you to make excellent use of the engine’s broad spread of shove. You can feel that kick in just below 2000rpm and drag you keenly into the power band, from where it revs to its redline with greater enthusiasm than the Focus ST will. It can’t match the brutal top-end shove of the Type R, but we like that you can use its low-end power to pull you along easily in a high gear, without having to continually swap cogs.
The Type R will monster the GTI for pace through corners, too – the GTI was more than a second slower than the Type R around our 0.9-mile test track – but again, the GTI feels like it has the measure of the Focus ST. There's buckets of pure grip and an even-handed handling balance that breeds confidence. You can alter it from neutral to more playfully loose at the rear by fiddling with the optional adjustable suspension’s numerous settings – available though the infotainment touchscreen.
Yet even if you crank it up to its friskiest mode, the rear wheels still don't pivot around you like the castors of a shopping trolley, as they do with the Renault Mégane RS. And the steering isn't as quick or as feelsome as the Focus ST's, but with more heft when you start making your turns, it's actually more pleasant to thread the GTI along narrow roads that demand pin-sharp accuracy.
For all its improved agility, that Golf GTI hallmark of approachability remains. It’s not a demanding car to drive – either slowly or quickly – and, while you can feel its electronic limited-slip front differential working away to drag the nose into apexes more determinedly than the Hyundai i30 N's, there’s none of the skittishness under power that requires you to hold on tight in the Mégane RS. Plus, with a ride that’s more tuneable than a harp (we've only tried the optional adaptive suspension), it can be made immeasurably more supple than the Focus ST and Mégane RS. Indeed, it gets close to the Type R for long-distance ride comfort, and also has less road and wind noise than the Type R at high speeds.
But does the engine sound exciting? Well, sort of; it isn’t as thrilling as the Renault Mégane RS’s, which pops and bangs when you back off the accelerator, and nor is it as organic-sounding as the Type R's, which has no artificial tricks – just a highly tuned four-pot noise that’s underlined with manic turbocharger whooshes. Instead, the GTI has a deep, gravelly note, which grows more intense when you switch the driving mode button to the raciest Sport mode. It's a digital sound, though, like it's been designed in a laboratory and honed by focus groups.
The Up GTI is the best budget hot hatch you can buy
The Abarth 595 is startlingly quick and wonderfully stylish, b...
The Suzuki Swift Sport is well equipped and fun to drive, but...
Impressive point-to-point pace, confidence inspiring dynamics...