Golf GTI – which is the best?

Golf GTI – which is the best?
Golf GTI – which is the best?

After 40 years, which is the greatest generation of VW Golf GTI?

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 1 1800

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 112bhp
Torque: 105lb ft
Gearbox: Five-speed manual
Kerb weight: 860kg
Power-to-weight ratio: 130bhp per tonne
0-62mph: 8.8sec
Top speed: 114mph

There have been seven generations of Volkswagen’s iconic GTI, from the slim, svelte original up to the technically impressive as well as much larger and heavier latest model. It’s an icon of the road, every bit as instantly recognisable as a Porsche 911. More importantly, back in the early days it delivered reliably, unlike many other sporting cars of the era. So, over 40 years after that first Mk 1 appeared, which one is the best? We look back in fondness.

Although there have been seven generations, we’ve deliberately put together four of them, since we felt they were the best and most class-leading versions. That means Mk 1, Mk2, Mk 5 and Mk 7. Since all these cars are maintained by VW itself, they’re all in perfect condition, and are truly representative of their generation. Hot hatches all, but which is the hottest?

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 2 8v

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 112bhp
Torque: 115lb ft
Gearbox: Five-speed manual
Kerb weight: 907kg
Power-to-weight ratio: 123bhp per tonne
0-62mph: 8.7sec
Top speed: 118mph

It may not surprise you that we’re starting with the Mk 1. After all, Volkswagen did. It looks so small, so simple, so right. It’s half a tonne lighter than the current version, half a tonne. With 112bhp from its 1.8-litre engine you wouldn’t think it was that hot, but remember that low weight and think again.

Fire up the engine, grab that golfball gearlever and get going. At which point you’ll be thrilled by the purity of that sound, and the slickness of the shift. Everything is so easy to use, so light and simple. But push it very hard and you’ll start understeering, while battling the unassisted steering. You run out of grip sooner than you think, so pushing it to the brink wasn’t a great idea then, and it certainly isn’t now, in a heritage motor.

The Mk 2 delivered a lower power-to-weight ratio, setting an unfortunate trend. That didn’t matter to many people who really appreciated the more mature offering of the Mk 2. It was grippier, more comfortable, more premium, more spacious, more lots of things. But it certainly wasn’t more fun, or more involving. Where there was a rawness to the Mk 1, the successor smothered most of that out in the interests of efficiency and competence.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 5

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Power: 197bhp
Torque: 207lb ft
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1336kg
Power-to-weight ratio: 147bhp per tonne
0-62mph: 7.3sec
Top speed: 146mph

There is now a gap, of over a decade, and in that gap VW continued down that path of more everything except fun and involvement. And the Mk 5 came out and we saw that Volkswagen had decided to not just churn out another version with more kit, more weight and more bulk. The Mk 5 is truly something. The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine gives you nearly 200bhp, compared to the original 110bhp in the first 1.6-litre GTIs.

The effect is a very rapid car indeed, a huge leap up from the Mk 2 and the intervening marks. It’s heavier than the earlier versions but that turbo power gives endless midrange as well as a scintillating top end. And you can use it all, balancing the car on the throttle in a way no previous GTI could be driven. It’s a revelation, a huge leap forward that is not remotely accounted for just by the passing of time.

The Mk 7 takes that on and takes it further. It’s the complete driving experience. Want a practical, comfortable and premium family car? You got it. Want a car you can thrash about in like a maniac and which responds with speed, agility and composure at all times? That too. It’s like the Mk 1 but reimagined and moved forward, showing that VW has still got the right intentions for their GTI. The Mk 7 is the best GTI here, no question. But is it the one we’d buy?

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 7

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Power: 227bhp
Torque: 273lb ft
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1376kg
Power-to-weight ratio: 165bhp per tonne
0-62mph: 6.2sec
Top speed: 155mph

Given that a new one costs nearly £28,000 we might pause. There’s a thing called the Pareto Principle, that says everything in life splits 80/20. So, for example, 80 per cent of your profits come from 20 per cent of your clients. It’s an infallible rule and it applies here. Because for roughly 20 per cent of the money – £5,000 – you can 80 per cent of the thrills and skills you’ll get with the Mk 7. Buy a Mk 5 and you’ll be getting an amazing bargain, four fiths of the best front-wheel drive hatchback in the world for one fifth of the money.

 

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