Performance model is most powerful Golf GTI yet
Can the Volkswagen Golf GTI do no wrong? The Germans keep nipping and tucking away at one of the most popular performance cars in the world, making it subtly better and more desirable with each iteration while maintaining its unbeatable all-round appeal that allows it be used as civilised family transport one minute, then a genuinely accomplished hot hatch the next.
The 2017 update to the Golf line-up allowed Volkswagen continue the theme, with all the styling and tech upgrades seen elsewhere in the range, plus more power and equipment for the more driver focused 'Performance' model. Of course, if that's not quick enough for you there's also an upgraded Golf R, now with more power and additional tempting options in the pipeline.
All performance versions of the updated Golf get full-LED headlights up front as standard, plus LED rear lights with that cool new 'sweeping' indicator function that is slowly filtering down from high-end models into the mainstream. There are new bumpers as well, though the GTI is easily identified by its red grille striping, strakes in the bumper and a honeycomb design for the large air intake. It also gets red stripes within the headlights and a meaty chromed exhaust outlet on either side of the rear bumper. They poke out of a black diffuser that is complemented (visually and aerodynamically) by a modest roof spoiler. A new design of 18-inch alloy wheel is standard, called 'Parker' and as ever the stance is improved by lowered sports suspension.
The Golf R gets a similar upgrade and the same fancy lights (without the red highlights), while its quad exhaust outlets are moved further out to the sides to give the car more presence. It's available as an Estate, too. Standard are 18-inch 'Cadiz' alloys and matt-chrome door mirror caps, but there are loads of aesthetic options for the Golf R buyer, including 19-inch rims in two designs (gloss black if you like), carbon effect door mirrors and a forthcoming Performance package. Though this pack's full contents have yet to be finalised, we're told it will feature bigger yet lighter front brakes, semi-slick tyres, a more prominent roof spoiler for the hatchback version and a lighter, sportier exhaust by Akrapovic made from titanium.
Both the GTI models and the Golf R get a new eight-inch Discover Navigation touchscreen system as standard with various 'connected' features through Volkswagen's Car-Net system. The full-on 'Pro' option with gesture control is expensive, at £1,325, and both cars are just fine without it. The GTI Performance model, however, does come with the digital instrumentation Volkswagen calls Active Info Display.
How does it drive?
If you've driven the Golf GTI or R recently, you won't find many surprises in store for you here, as the mechanical updates are relatively minor, though there are a few items worth looking at. The Golf R's turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine gets a 10hp boost in the arm to 310hp, for starters, and if you specify the DSG automatic transmission, you now get a seven-speed unit, replacing the old six-gear transmission. The new one features launch control and allows Volkswagen up the engine's peak torque to 295lb ft (from 280lb ft previously). Small gains, relatively speaking, but it means a 0-62mph time of as low as 4.6 seconds.
As before, 4Motion four-wheel drive is standard and the R is available as a three- or five-door Golf hatchback or as an estate, as mentioned above. Even driven back-to-back fast on track, there's little to separate the body styles. All exhibit searing pace and the ability to carry that pace through corners that means it can keep up with virtually anything on the public road. Sure, we still lament the sonorous tones of the old V6-engined Golf R models, but this is a superior car in every other way and it manages to keep almost all the GTI's civility while adding even more performance and all-weather ability. The four-wheel-drive system manages to marry supreme safety with real driver engagement, and there's no fear of turning the stability control to ESC Sport (or even off), as there's loads of traction on offer. The chassis is largely neutral in its balance, using all four tyres to extract maximum cornering speed.
So by any logical measure, the Golf R should overshadow its GTI siblings completely, and yet within 100 metres of taking the wheel of the updated Golf GTI Performance it's clear that this car still has something very special about it that makes you want to go out and drive, just for the hell of it. Sure, it's not as fast as the Golf R, and yes, it has to make do with front-wheel drive, but bloody hell is it a polished product. It does the real world thing a little better than the Golf R in its more subdued settings and it's great fun when you open it up. Saying all that, in its bid to be all things to all men (and women), the Golf GTI isn't quite as super-sharp and driver-focused as others in the segment, for example the Seat Leon Cupra 300, or Renault Sport Meganes of the past.
For the 2017MY, the Performance version gets a power boost from 230hp previously to 245hp now, while maximum torque output jumps from 258lb ft to 273lb ft. This results in a 0-62mph time of 6.2 seconds for both manual and DSG automatic versions. That DSG is now the same seven-speed unit found in the Golf R. As before, the Performance model gets larger brakes and a sophisticated electronically controlled differential for the front axle. The latter enables ludicrous cornering speeds in safety and you almost need to relearn your approach to fast front-wheel-drive car driving, as, instead of waiting for enough grip on the exit of a tight corner before applying the throttle, you get on the gas much earlier and the differential helps whip the car through the turn nonchalantly. It does this without any grabbing or sawing at the wheel, which, as before, is attached to a very well-judged variable ratio power assisted steering system. In short, it's exhilarating to drive - when you want it to be.
Should I buy one?
Yes, of course, but which one is the big question. Apparently, the Golf R slightly outsells the GTI models in the UK, which shouldn't be a surprise in this day and age of affordable PCP finance. And yes, it is, by any measurable, a more accomplished car with more weapons in its arsenal. We'd have one in a heartbeat.
However, if someone gave us the choice between it and the updated Golf GTI Performance, we'd have to think long and hard about the decision; that's how good the GTI is. There are faster and more focused options on the market, but none as beautifully made or as good an all-rounder.
Gallery: 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI and R First Drive
Volkswagen Golf R