TO FEND off fresh competition, Volkswagen has reached for everything at its disposal for the midlife update of the world's biggest selling hot hatch, the Golf GTI. More power and technology are the headline acts but there are also a couple of price-leading models to lure buyers on a budget.
The regular GTI gets a power bump to 169kW/350Nm from its turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine.
The Performance edition - dubbed GTI-P - gets a further boost to 180kW/370Nm and adds bigger brakes front and rear, an electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip diff, a new seven-speed twin-clutch auto, a digital widescreen instrument display and 19-inch alloy wheels.
The GTI-P is a three-door for now; a five-door is about 12 months away.
At about $60,000, the R variant has 213kW/380Nm thanks to a larger turbo and unique engine tuning, making it the most powerful Golf sold in Australia.
The engine is matched to a seven-speed auto and the 0-100km/h time is trimmed to a claimed 4.8 seconds - putting it on par with its Audi S3 stablemate. A six-speed manual is optional but slower (5.2 seconds).
The R gains intelligent LED high-beams that mask oncoming cars, digital widescreen instrument display and a larger central touchscreen, although it lacks a volume dial.
If all of the above are out of your price range, it will pay to be patient. A cut-price Golf R "Grid” edition starting from a little more than $50,000 drive-away is due at year's end with the same power, performance, wheels, tyres and brakes, but deleting such mod-cons as radar cruise control, digital dash and high-end audio.
Further down the price range - and arriving about the same time - will be a stripper edition of the GTI three-door dubbed "Original”, starting at a little more than $40,000 drive-away.
The revised line-up is designed to counter the coming raft of hot-hatch rivals in the $40,000 to $60,000 price bracket, including the next-generation Ford Focus ST, Renault Megane RS, Hyundai's i30N hot hatch and the final edition Focus RS.
The Golf performance range has a keen buyer base. Between 20 and 25 per cent of local Golf sales are performance models; the global average is 5 per cent.
Women account for almost one in four GTI buyers in Australia; two out of three are young couples. The average age is 42, much lower than the industry average for new-car customers, 51.
Clearly the Golf performance models are not only for the young at heart.
ON THE ROAD
The Golf GTI is easy and relaxing to drive when you're not in a hurry. Some might even label it as boring. But that's the genius of it.
Its personality changes seamlessly into a serious hot hatch as soon as you floor the accelerator. The grip from the tyres, the accuracy from the steering and sharp response of the brakes endow a feeling of constant contact with the road and conditions.
It's remarkable that after more than 40 years of hot-hatch production, few can match the GTI's breadth of ability.
Renault can make a sharper track weapon, Ford can create more power but no one does the one-size-fits-all hot hatch like Volkswagen.
When Renault responds to criticism that the VW is better to live with day to day, it makes the Megane's suspension and steering too soft and dilutes its DNA. Ford hot hatches come close dynamically but lack the Golf's luxury and comfort.
Whatever VW is paying its engineers, it's not enough.
There is a caveat. The R's super-low-profile Continental tyres on 19-inch wheels aren't suited to Aussie back roads.
On perfect road surfaces the Golf R is sublime but on bumpy back roads it's less composed. This is the price for alloys the size of Ferris wheels on such a small car - bumps that seem harmless can create an almighty thump through the front suspension.
The GTI-P's 19-inch Pirellis have as much if not more grip but are less susceptible to sharp bumps.
The sweet spot is the regular GTI on 18-inch Bridgestone rubber - proving that it doesn't cost a fortune to get one of the best driver's cars on the market.
From $46,441 drive-away (up about $200) for a GTI manual to $61,125 for an auto Golf R before options. A new, cut-price three-door GTI (just over $40,000 drive-away) and R (just over $50,000 drive-away) are due at the end of the year.
The regular GTI persists with what VW boldly describes as an electronic diff but it's enhanced stability control to send power to the front wheel with the most grip in a corner. The GTI-P's mechanical limited-slip diff is electronically controlled. The R gains intelligent high-beams that mask oncoming cars. A new digital widescreen instrument display is standard on the R and GTI-P, an option on the GTI but not available on the limited editions.
An updated 2.0-litre turbo four powers the entire line-up - GTI is up from 162kW to 169kW, GTI-P from 169kW to 180kW and R from 206kW to 213kW. The GTI-P and R get a seven-speed dual-clutch auto (previously six) and the GTI options are six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch.
VW claims all are 0.2 secs quicker to 100km/h: the GTI does 6.4 seconds, GTI-P 6.2 and the R 4.8.
Look closely for new headlights and tail-lights (the GTI-P and R get scrolling LED indicators) and new front and rear bumpers. Inside, there are larger central touchscreens.
Shopping trolley one minute, sports-car performance the next.
VW GOLF GTI AND R
PRICE $46,441-$61,125 drive-away (expensive)
SERVICING 3 years/unlimited km (average), $1382-$1531 over 3 yrs (expensive)
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, GTI 169kW/350Nm; GTI-P, 180kW/ 370Nm; R 213kW/380Nm (plenty)
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, city automatic emergency braking plus highway speed crash mitigation, rear camera, fatigue detection. Dearer models have lane keeping, radar cruise control, blind zone warning and rear cross traffic alert (good)
THIRST 6.5L-7.2L/ 100km (fair)
SPARE Space-saver (better than nothing)
BOOT 343L-380L and 1233L-1270L (good)
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