golf gti - evolution of the species

"i voted for this as the greatest car of the 20th century. over the years, however, the golf gti got bigger, and fatter, and slower. think of it as elvis presley. it started off all athletic and full of vigour, and wound up on the lavatory, an enormous, dribbling hulk." jeremy clarkson.

golf gti - evolution of the species

Mr Clarkson is usually good for a quote, but as soon as you scrape anywhere below the surface of the hyperbole, you'll often find little in the way of substance. The Golf GTI story is one that runs a course of ups and downs but try to keep pace with a 228bhp GTI Mk5 in a 108bhp GTI Mk1 would, to quote the King, leave you All Shook Up. Here's the truth behind the Golf GTI story.

Mk 1 - The Legend

Volkswagen does little to dissuade the belief that the Golf GTI started the whole hot hatch story. Although pedants may point out that although it had a boot, the Alfasud Ti offered much the same basic ingredients as the Golf and arrived fully three years before the left-hand drive GTI Mk1 hit the market in June 1976. It took over three years before right-hand drive cars were offered in the UK, by which time the Renault 5 Gordini had been making itself popular. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the GTI was a fantastic thing - taut, responsive, affordable and most importantly, huge fun to drive. The 108bhp engine wasn't the last word in refinement but the Golf's body control was leagues better than the lardy 'sports' saloons and coupes that keen drivers had been weaned on. A kerb weight of just 830kg meant that the Golf GTI could accelerate to 60mph in just 9.6 seconds, which may not sound staggering in modern terms, but for the £5,135 Volkswagen was asking, it wasn't a bad return.

The Golf's price had crept up from the £3,372 charged for the first 1976 model year left hand drive imports, and by 1983, Vee-Dub was asking £6800 for a new 1.8 Golf GTI. In the glossy mag ads of the day, the GTI was positioned as a premium product. As Car magazine noted in 1996, "every generation needs icons in cars, fashion and music. The GTI was a cut above the rest, a car you aspired to own. No one wanted to be average and the GTI had an important whiff of cachet." It was either that or Drakkar Noir.

Mk 2 - The Best?

There are many Golf aficionados who hold that the Mk1 was merely a stepping stone to the best Golf in the entire panoply - the Mk 2 GTI. Available in 8 valve and 16 valve forms, the Mk2 was bigger and 120kg heavier, but the suspension system was more sophisticated. It carried over the 110bhp 1781cc engine from the later Mk1 GTIs but, in 1986, Volkswagen did the right thing and fitted the 137bhp 16V engine to both the Golf and its booted sibling, the Jetta. To this day, this vehicle remains a desirable choice for track day drivers, being tough, repairable when things do go wrong and easy to source suspension upgrades for. The Mk2 was facelifted in 1990, spawning the so-called 'big bumper' models and, for collectors, there's the ultra rare supercharged 160bhp G60. Want rarer still? Try tracking down one of the 71 Golf G60 Limited models, a 210bhp powerhouse with Syncro four-wheel drive. Mainly sold to Volkswagen-Audi Group executives, these retailed for £25,000 in 1989. This would be £49,250 in today's money!

Mk 3 - The Troubled One

For every great GTI there has to be a lemon, and the lowest point in the Golf GTI's lifeline has to be the Mk 3. This was the car that really piled on the pounds, tacking another 115kg onto the kerb weight without pumping up power. Consequently, the GTi's power-to weight ratio slipped from 133 bhp per ton to 113. Couple that with suspension that seemed better suited to motorways than a twisty country lane and it didn't take long before the general consensus was that the Mk 3 Golf GTI had lost the plot. This was probably a little harsh as Volkswagen seemed to be trying to change the car's focus, and responded with a more powerful 174bhp VR6 flagship. Unfortunately, it released a pre-production version to Car magazine to run as a long termer. As is often the case with such vehicles it suffered a number of teething problems and led to the infamous 'Lemon' cover story. The production VR6 was a much better car, albeit one with so much weight in the nose that it was never an engaging handler. Nevertheless, its 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds still looks good today as does its 150mph top speed. The 1090kg GTI 16v with the 2.0-litre 148bhp unit was probably the pick of the bunch, offering decent pace without the big bills of the VR6. It also makes a cracking used buy if you're after a GTI bargain and don't mind the Mk 3 stigma.

Mk 4 - Hey Good Looking

The Golf Mk 4 arrived in 1997 and offered yet another new take on the GTI. Ignore the rather cynical 115bhp 2.0-litre model which does the GT badge a disservice and instead run straight to the Golf GTI 1.8T, the first mainstream GTI model to be fitted with a turbocharger and the first to feature a 20v engine. V5 and V6 4Motion models were also offered, but the 1.8T restored the GTI to its rightful place. Initially it packed 'only' 150bhp, but as soon as it was launched, many owners were having their cars remapped to take advantage of the turbo's potential. Despite some issues with faulty coil packs, the Golf GTI 1.8T was a well-received car and, in 2002, the Golf GTI Anniversary arrived, to celebrate 25 years of the GTI. This packed 180bhp and, despite the later launch of the racy V6 R32, remains the Mk 4 GTI of choice among collectors. Although not a high point in the GTI story, the Mk 4 was clearly moving in the right direction.

Mk 5 - Hitting Its Stride

The Golf Mk 5 had us worried. At the time of its introduced in 2004, there was no GTI model in the range. Did Volkswagen think that, after a quarter of a century, the GTI line had run its course? We needn't have worried as the GTI appeared the following year. The original Golf's 108bhp had swelled to 197bhp and although the weight had crept up, the MkV managed 150bhp per ton, compared to 110bhp per ton for the MkIV and 133bhp per ton for the final 1.8-litre version of the MKI GTI. The fact that the MkV was the quickest and most able GTI to date went a long way to re-establish it as the hot hatch to beat. All right, it was the heaviest yet - the result of safety legislation and customers wanting more refinement and kit - but also quite superb car, with beautiful handling, an engine that won International Engine of the Year so many times the competition threw the toys out of the pram, and build quality like no Golf before it. It also debuted DSG, the twin-clutch sequential manual gearbox that allowed drivers to ping up and down the box at a frenetic rate or leave it in Drive to mimic an automatic.

One criticism levelled at the two previous generation Golfs was that although the cars offered a ride and refinement package that was hard to beat, they never really offered the sort of infectious handling that many rivals could boast. The fifth generation car adopted a pragmatic tactic in benchmarking (read copying) the suspension of the Ford Focus - and it worked a treat. The body was eighty per cent stiffer than its predecessor's and the electro-mechanical steering feel and composed body control were leagues ahead. As a result, Volkswagen was able to offer a hot hatch that enthusiasts would again want to drive.

Mk 6 - Onwards and Upwards

So hard was it to improve on the Golf GTI Mk 5 that Volkswagen didn't really try with its successor, instead opting to smooth the styling and improve its efficiency for these economically challenging and climate-aware times. Power rose to 210bhp but CO2 emissions dropped from 189g/km to 170g/km. The Mk 6 also combined best-ever pace (0-60mph in 6.7s) with great handling, a decent ride and more air conditioned, leather-trimmed, multi-airbagged comfort, safety and convenience than you could shake a stick at. All this and 38.7mpg. A 1979 Golf GTI? 36.7mpg. Seems nostalgia ain't what it used to be, Mr C.