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Top Gear's Bargain Heroes: the Mk5 VW Golf GTI

You can have arguably the best Golf ever for £5k. Mk5 Golf GTI buying guide here

  • The Volkswagen Golf has a longer and richer history than most. With 33 million sold (and counting), it comfortably sits on the podium of the world’s best-selling cars, and it’s one of a tiny handful that are still going strong in their seventh generation.

    But it’s not the meagrely-specced best-sellers that get car geeks going. It’s the high-performance versions. And there are few badges in the industry with a better claim of the word ‘iconic’ than GTI.

    The Mk1 Golf GTI is credited with starting the hot hatchback genre, while the latest, Mk7 version has taken the name into unchartered, 300bhp, sports car-slaying territory. But arguably the finest GTI of them all is the one you see here, the Mk5. Launched in 2005, it returned the fast Golf to greatness after a slightly duff period in the early 2000s.

    If its combination of 197bhp (plenty back then) and a sub-£20k price tag made it appealing, then a brilliantly subtle makeover outside and some fine tartan seats inside made it practically irresistible. Now, just £5,000 can buy you a good one.

    Pictures: Simon Thompson

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  • On the outside, it’s styling is from the subtler school of hot hatches. We like that: it doesn’t frivolously shout about its intentions, but equally there are enough visual clues to alert those in the know about what’s going on.

    Clues like the honeycomb grille, complete with a red stripe. These continue on the harder cored GTIs of today. The suspension is 15mm lower than standard (with the components themselves stiffened up), and atop the Golf’s standard 17in or optional 18in wheels (the latter fitted here), the stance is spot on. Well, it is to these eyes. Plenty have modified theirs beyond recognition…

  • The seats hug well, the dashboard is laid out in a fashion that still feels modern 11 years on from launch, and the dials shine a cool, satisfying blue. This was the mark of a premium car before fancy TFT gauges came along, don’t forget. So long as it’s been looked after inside, the GTI still feels a cut above.

    This 2008 example has leather, but for the iconic tartan seats – which are excellent – it’s an option that was actually worth forgoing.

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  • The GTI’s other big change over standard Golfs concerned its engine. It’s a peach of a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder, from a time when not every hot hatchback on sale had a turbocharger. This was relatively early days for such an approach in mass-production petrol cars.

    Its outputs almost look limp today: 197bhp and 201lb ft are surpassed by fast Fiestas, and a 7.2sec 0-62mph time is over a second off the pace of the fastest Mk7 GTI. But the way it delivers its power is very appealing: after a small amount of lag, it builds in a brilliantly linear way, the bassy note of the engine overlaid with the fun hisses of a turbo at work.

    It’s a noise that’s often insulated from us nowadays, but this GTI had no shame in putting the driver firmly in the picture about its power delivery.

  • How it feels to drive today

    Every component of the GTI plays perfectly off the next. Each control – throttle, brake, gearbox, steering – asks of no greater effort than the rest, so all of your inputs are smooth from the off. That’s an underrated but deeply satisfying facet in a car.

    Singling out one component above the others is tricky, then, but let’s go for the gearbox. Yes, you can have a DSG paddleshifter. But you want the manual: it’s a slick, short-shifting thing that’s just a joy to use. It’s not being overly luddite to say hot hatches need manuals to fully shine.

  • The GTI is such a neat and tidy thing to drive. It doesn’t default to safe understeer like too many VW group cars do, but neither is it snappy and spiteful. Like all great hot hatches, it cossets you and welcomes you, allowing you to quickly build confidence, driving it quicker and quicker each time you get in.

    The Mk5 Golf GTI relishes a smooth, measured driving style, and it’s unlikely to unearth your inner yob or encourage you to start throwing it around. But as your cornering speeds build, you’ll uncover more and more about a finely balanced chassis that works both axles, rather than just hinging around how much grip its front two tyres have.

  • Its ride is very well-judged, particularly by current standards. It’s firm – and rougher bumps and ruts are sent through those tartan seats to your bum – but the car is rarely deflected from its line and you can get into a real flow on clear roads.

    It puts its power down well, too. Its 197bhp/207lb ft peaks are enough to make it brisk but the front axle is never overwhelmed, with just the smallest amounts of scrabble and wheelspin in sodden conditions.

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  • Hot hatches have moved on a lot in terms of firepower and absolute traction, but I’m not sure they’ve moved on with such great strides where pure fun is concerned. And the GTI’s setup is so fine out of the box: unlike the fast Golfs which followed it, there are no adjustable modes or buttons to toggle when you get in. Your only choice is whether the stability control is switched on or off.

    It’s a damn good car, but if I were to criticise, it’s one that stops just short of being genuinely thrilling. But until the hardcore GTI Clubsport S arrived this year, that had always been the Golf GTI way: trading the final ten per cent of excitement for proper liveability. And in that regard, this car is sublimely judged.

  • What to watch out for

    “Generally speaking they’re solid, so long as they’re serviced annually and looked after,” says Sam Townsend, of VAGTech. But there are a few known issues, typically ones resulting from lackadaisical maintenance rather than poor design on VW’s part.

    Leaking radiators are something to look out for, while if the turbo doesn’t kick in (basically if nothing much happens above 2,000rpm) it’s probably a problem with the PCV valve, which is a reasonably simple fix. Boost problems can also suggest a problem with the diverter valve, a known Mk5 weak point and something that should also be a basic swap if identified early.

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  • Uneven wear on the rear tyres is a sign the rear dampers aren’t at their best. So have a good kneel down checking their treads (something you ought to be doing anyway), and listen for any peculiar noises while on a test drive.

    The rear springs can break right at the end of their coil, too, and will add up to an MoT fail if found. Spares ought to be plentiful and repairs cheap, though.

  • Bodywork wise, all you really need to look out for is rust on the centre of the arches on the front wings. Door locks pose a bit of an issue though, and can fail. When the problem starts it can be averted with a physical knock on the door to kick the lock into life; at its zenith, the doors completely deadlock and it’ll be incredibly pricey to break in. Fix this as soon as the problem appears, then.

    If you’ve got a manual, the clutch should last 80,000 to 100,000 miles; if you’ve for the optional DSG paddleshift gearbox, it needs a service every 40,000 miles. Not giving it enough attention can lead to very expensive problems. Replacing one isn’t much fun…

  • In fact, keep an eye on how attentively the car as a whole has been serviced. The cambelt needs changing every 80,000 miles or five years, while a general service and oil change should take place every 12 months.

    The GTI actually came with two servicing options when new – a fixed, yearly schedule, or a variable setup which sees the car alert you to when it needs attention. The good news is you can switch between them, as Sam wholeheartedly recommends avoiding the latter – “it causes problems that can ultimately lead to engine failure.”

  • Given how smoothly balanced all of the GTI’s components are, the hoodlums among you may wish for more power. We wouldn’t blame you. Sam says you can take the GTI up to a Stage 1 (256bhp) or Stage 2 (266bhp) power upgrade without having to bring all of the car’s other components up to scratch.

    With the right components, though, 500bhp is doable. Yikes. Such is the car’s laidback gait as standard, it can remain a very amiable everyday car with as much as 350bhp running through the front wheels.

  • How much to pay

    The entry point is below £4,000, but it’ll likely buy a car that’s long since passed the 100,000 mile mark. Upping your budget to £5,000 opens up plentiful cars with strong histories, around 90,000 miles, and your choice of manual/DSG, three/five doors, and a range of colours.

    Naturally, the further your budget swells, the lower the mileage will get, though with production only taking place between 2005 and 2008, there’s not a huge age range to choose from. So £9,000 buys the very best Mk5s, and it’s also the point at which early Mk6s come into reach.

    Unlike the current generation of GTI, there aren’t a dizzying amount of Mk5 variants to choose from. The only notable special edition is the Edition 30, which brought a slightly more assertive bodykit and some smart BBS alloy wheels on the outside, and some leathery bits and a comeback for the GTI dimpled gearknob on the inside. These are quite desirable, though don’t cost much more than a comparable base GTI, starting at £7,000.

  • "Why I love mine"

    Greig Morrison is on his second Mk5 GTI, having enjoyed his first so much.

    “In 2006, I was 14 and my dad arrived at school in a brand new Mk5 GTI in Graphite Blue. I fell in love with it straight away. After he sold it on in 2010, I knew that I would have to have one for myself.

    “I bought this Mk5 GTI in January this year, trying to cut my outgoings on cars having sold my E46 BMW M3 and Mk3 Golf GTI Anniversary. Having had one previously, three years ago, I knew they were good all-rounders. The previous car was a low-mileage minter, whereas this one I purchased cheaply on 138,000 miles, but still in remarkably good condition.

    “I drive it to work every day and use it as my fun car, too. That's why I knew I wanted another, they can put a smile on your face and still return good fuel economy. After changing out all the common fault issues with them (PCV, DV and cam follower) it has been reliable for the 14,000 miles I have covered in it

    “I have modified this one, but mainly by fitting optional extras that it was missing from the factory. I have installed the Highline dash clocks, Edition 30 interior (half leather with red stitching) and wiring in the heated and electric seats. Exterior wise it has an Edition 30 rear bumper and side skirts. like to keep my cars as fresh as possible, so changing things like the interior handles and switches for new OEM ones freshens up the interior of the car and takes years off it.

    “Engine wise, they are great out the box, however, coming from an M3, I did feel it was missing a little bit of 'punch'. I have fitted an uprated turbo, exhaust, intake, intercooler and fuel pump to give it similar power to the M3, which puts a big smile on my face!

    “Overall, I doubt I could get a better car for the money I’ve spent buying this and fitting some of the modifications. It is a great overall package, with a fun chassis while not feeling cheap or dated, despite being over ten years old. I would recommend a Mk5 GTI to anyone.”

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