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Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 6
9/10

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Road Test

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 6

Driven April 2009

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Surely the first sentence of a test drive for the new Volkswagen Golf GTI can get written without making mention of the economy? Perhaps not. But then there is a very good reason for that. It's time to make a suggestion. More than that, a bold assertion, that the Mark VI Golf GTI is the best car in the world you can possibly buy right now.

‘The best', with lots of emphasis, is a wholly subjective phrase, but you only have to look at what's happening to car sales, and interest rates and Gordon Brown's worry lines, to realise that we're all, for the time being, shafted. Then the Golf GTI starts to make a whole lot of sense.

Time it was, not so long ago, when a mid-Thirties trader with a wife up the duff and a maxi-mortgage Victorian semi in Southwest London would put a biggish deposit down on a brand new Porsche 911 Carrera S in black on black and buy the missus a runaround like a 1.4-litre Volkswagen Polo. No longer. Now this same guy, if he still has a job at all, is sitting in a very quiet and empty office wondering what state school will do to his progeny, and only if they've survived their formative years living under Waterloo Bridge. Or something similar.

So two-car families are becoming one-car families. Which can mean only one thing: Porsches are becoming hot hatches. And the only acceptable hot hatch for a Porsche owner is a Golf GTI.

Here is a car that does it all, and does it all better than anything else does it all, or even just does bits of it. ‘It', or in this case ‘it all', is performance, practicality, tractability, affordability, credibility, reliability, safety, quality, subtlety. And there are bound to be loads more ‘ities' that it does better than everyone else. The Mark VI Golf GTI is what happens when, ideologically speaking, that Porsche and that Polo are subject to some sort of stem cell research to find a cure for the fact that nobody can afford fast cars any more. It's the hybrid love child of extravagance and conservatism. And in this respect it is, essentially, perfect.

This all started five years ago when the Mark V GTI was launched and the whole world sat up to take notes. Gone were the bad old days of plobby, rolly polly shopping trolleys with token turbo-charging, to be replaced by a car that, while every inch a modern machine, harked back to that halcyon hot hatch era when the first Golf GTI appeared and turned performance car ownership on its head. Like its forbear, the Mk V was lithe, agile, genuinely fast and still comparatively affordable. And in one fell swoop the hot hatch was re-appropriated from oily seventeen year olds and put back where it belonged, in the hands of the Yuppie. Or his new millennial descendant.

This next offering, in what is now the GTI's 33rd year, is a pretty subtle evolution of the Mk V, a car that itself hasn't shown the slightest hint of ageing since its arrival. The changes made do make for a better car, but without taking away from what also made its immediate predecessor a great one.

The engine is now more compact and 3kg lighter. But for that it is also greener, more fuel efficient, 10bhp more powerful and able to deliver its peak torque 100 rpm faster. Small things, but all of which add to up a more impressive whole. So total power output is now 207bhp, taking the GTI to 62mph in 7.2 seconds and on to 148mph, figures that are almost identical to the old car. 

Perhaps the most significant changes to the new car are aesthetic ones. Where the Mk V was a very deliberate homage to the Mk 1, borrowing and embellishing upon various instantly familiar styling cues, the Mk 6 moves on from this, taking the nostalgia and morphing it into something more modern. The headlight lenses are more geometric, while the grille is a simpler, narrow parallel slit, albeit one still trimmed in that now trademark red. The front fogs have been pushed as far as possible into the corners of the bumper to give the car a greater sense of width, and with it more aggression and menace. 

The slightly awkward side-skirt that flicked up to the rear arch of the old car has been dispensed with in favour of a far slighter piece of black trim. This provides the effect of narrowing the car's hips, a bit like the kink of a coke bottle, and although a card-carrying Volkswagen bloke assured us there was some sort of aerodynamic benefit to the design, even he was more concerned with how much more agile and poised it makes the car look at a distance.

The new GTI's back end is a minor triumph of symmetry too. The bespoke rear bumper has been designed to align perfectly with the diagonal section that houses the number plate, while the twin exhausts, at some considerable expense of time and effort to the engineers, have been placed at the far corners, much like the front fogs.

The overall effect is modest but marked, making the new GTI instantly recognisable and causing more than the odd double-take on the day of our test drive in Europe. 

In a matter that always comes down to personal taste I have to venture the opinion that Volkswagen has slightly cocked up one of the key principals of the GTI, and that is its class. While it's still clearly an expensive and entirely Germanic car, some of the detailing, most notably in the headlight lenses, grille and new black inserts to the Monza alloys, look a bit aftermarket. The vast majority of people who have the money and wherewithal to buy such a car neither want, nor need, to tart it up. And the subnormal genre of car butchery that encourages this sort of thing targets the Golf GTI because it is classic and understated in the first place.  I'm being old fashioned before my time here, and car styling always grows on me, but right now I prefer the quieter styling of the Mk V. That's what a GTI should be about.

And this slight departure from under to overstatement continues inside. A new steering wheel overdoes what was pretty much perfect in the old car, now being slightly too bulky, fussy and fiddly. The gear knob has a bright red - or is it orange? - dash of colour to tie in with the contrasting stitching that seems to be everywhere. 

There's also more modern door trim that you might be forgiven for missing, and the tartan cloth seats, the nostalgic inclusion of which was so welcome in the Mk V, have gone contempo too. It still looks great, and retains a fairly obvious reference to VW's past, but reminds you that as time marches on, so must mock-Jock upholstery.

The new generation also brings with it some valuable additions to comfort and safety, including greater insulation, knee airbags and a change-up indicator on the dash that helps you maximise economy. Oops. There's that word again.

For a car that has made these gradual yet positive upwards movements, you'd expect a similarly gradual and positive improvement in the driving experience, and that's just about spot on.

What seemed remarkable last time around still pretty much is, in that the GTI remains a very comfortable and refined high-end hatch, but one that instils an unnatural level of confidence in its driver. The steering is light but positive and communicative, a feature that it seems to have achieved with greater aplomb than various sister ships at Audi. The gear change, although not as short and immediate in action as you might wish in a car with this much instantly available performance, is still light, easy and direct. Switch the adaptive chassis from Comfort to Sport and the dampers get firmer, the steering weights up nicely and the whole car seems to go limpet-like. 

Bags of grunt, both in low down torque and sky high horsepower, makes the GTI feel quick in every part of every gear. Punch it up an empty straight and it's hard to imagine ever finding a real-world need for greater levels of acceleration. Throw it hard into a fast, tight corner and it pitches modestly and consistently, staying poised and stable, traction maximised courtesy of the GTI's limited slip diff debut. Demand an aggressive halt and it complies with lightning speed and composure, before picking up the pace again with lag-less immediacy. And all the while you have a huge boot, proper rear seats and all the tick box mod-cons of modern motoring. One of which warrants a bit more detail here: Select reverse and the satnav screen displays your rear view parking camera, the lens for which appears, a la Cubby Broccoli-era Bond, from behind the VW boot badge. And why the hell not?

So this really is Porsche meets Polo, the performance car for our times. Every bit as quick and capable as you will ever need ona British, or European, road, and genuinely easy to live with. And, relatively speaking, to buy too.

The first right-hand-drive cars will turn up in May and will cost from £22,000 for the three-door version. That's around £3,000 less than Ford's Focus RS, the car against which the GTI is inevitably going to be benchmarked. I haven't driven the RS yet, but strongly suspect it's going to be markedly more capable that the GTI. But it's also going to be a chest wig of a car compared to the Golf, its own aftermarket detailing notwithstanding. If the VW GTI is today's 911 then the RS is probably something like a TVR Tuscan. And I know which one I'd rather be seen in.

Matt Master

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