Volkswagen Magazine

Golf GTI

Fast family’s fresh face

The Golf GTI 40 Years edition has a lot to live up to. Happily, the newest kid on the block benefits from its ancestors’ golden heritage.

Words Michael Benn
Photos Thomas Wielecki

Countless performance models have their own particular subsets of superfans, but few fanbases are as enthusiastic as those for the Golf, Volkswagen’s legendary successor to the equally storied Beetle. And if Golf fans are devoted, then those enthusiasts who’ve caught the GTI bug are positively rabid.

We’re in Camden, NSW, to meet one such devotee— Mark Kofahl—and to enlist his help in a compare and contrast exercise between his very original Golf GTI Mk2 (the first generation officially imported into Australia) and the current pinnacle of the Golf GTI experience, the 40 Years edition. Mark’s Mk2 is all-original—including the paint—which allows for a nice comparison with the box-fresh Golf GTI 40 Years edition by its side. The new vehicle shares its underpinnings with the current-generation Mk7, but this version is a true excitement machine. Never before have Australian drivers had access to a Golf GTI with this much power under the hood.

»The Golf GTI 40 Years is instantly likeable as soon as you approach it.«

Standing side-by-side in the cold, crisp winter sunshine, it’s not difficult to discern the cars’ shared styling cues. Both are accentuated with black exterior detailing and the roof spoiler on the 40 Years edition very deliberately echoes that of its forebear. That two-piece rear wing on the new car is an enticing statement of intent, echoed by new bumpers and side sills, and signed off in an understated fashion—a lovely, confident touch—by a sublimely sculpted diffuser.

In Tornado Red, one of three classic paint options on the anniversary model, the new hot hatch seems to champ at the bit, even while stationary. The raked A-pillar, bold red brake calipers on 19-inch wheels and even the red highlight line slashed across the Bi-Xenon headlights is each a little promise, contributing to the 40 Years edition’s urgent demeanour.

As Mark puts it, “The Golf GTI 40 Years is instantly likeable as soon as you approach it. I appreciate the businesslike quality of the cabin, and design touches like the red 12 o’clock rally mark on the steering wheel. There’s a certain element of expectation about it, certainly emotionally.”

Unlike many of its peers in the performance hatch category, the Golf GTI has always eschewed any sort of ostentation. Simply put, it has always let its performance do the talking. But this 40 Years edition is not afraid to make a visual statement. Whether to the eye of an experienced GTI man, like Mark, or even to a casual enthusiast, the 40 Years looks like it’s ready to rumble.

New face, old feel

The front of the 40 Years edition has been restyled to include a new splitter and larger intakes, while striped air louvres help to smooth airflow. The striped red trim across the honeycomb grille and through the Bi-Xenon headlights has become a Golf GTI hallmark as has, of course, the car’s unmistakable red GTI badge.

Refinement is progress—to a point. The 40 Years edition’s most significant nod to its ancestry is all in the gut: it’s more raw, more instantly visceral, and a touch more mad. This is an enthusiast’s car, without mistake; less indulgent to error, perhaps, but more rewarding of precise driver input. It cradles the driver in beautifully bolstered seats, one clear advancement over the decades, and invites you to fully engage. It’s a punchy, ravenous thing, with acceleration never found wanting (indeed, the anniversary edition feels impatient to be booted into overboost, keen to show off that flashy, 10-second surge of power). Despite electric steering, the 40 Years edition allows a continuous assessment of what’s happening beneath the tread. It is forever hungry for corners.

Front-wheel-drive hot hatches are naturally inclined towards torque steer, the tendency for steering to pull to one side while attempting to get power down onto the road through the wheels that are also dictating direction. But this car’s suspension set-up and sophisticated front differential lock are more than capable of channelling its 195kW without becoming unsettled.

Riding flat despite increased lateral G-forces or corrugations, the anniversary edition is extremely well damped. Should you select its sportiest mode for enthusiastic driving (and you should), it’s robustly engaging from ankles through to tailbone and wrists.

It certainly earns Mark’s praises. “Behind the wheel, there’s a lot of electronics in that 40 Years edition that I feared would detract from the driving experience, but in fact it only really enhances it. The differential at the front really allows you to push hard, and just like the original Golf GTIs, it really encourages enthusiastic driving. I can only commend the engineers. It’s an incredibly fast hatch and it’s aurally lovely—far more in tune with the old one. I’m sorely tempted, I must say.”

Debuting in 1986, the much lighter Golf GTI Mk2’s 102kW was palpably exciting at the time—and remains so. It was the iteration that established the Golf variant’s status as a performance standard bearer, and driven hard, the Golf GTI Mk2 still feels alive, as if hunkered around the driver, forgiveable play in decades-old steering unable to mask deeply engaging road feel. Basically, it’s fun. You can wring the Mk2’s neck, stomping through the cogs, alternating between unweighted shimmy and sure-footedness, grinning like a loon… and still be well below 100km/h.

The 40 Years edition is undoubtedly, obviously and enthusiastically faster. Character is hard to pinpoint and easy to lose, but Volkswagen has been at pains to retain that old-fashioned GTI attitude, and it’s more apparent than ever in this latest edition.

Success always has its price. For the Golf—and the GTI in particular—that price isn’t the challenge of matching the stratospheric standards set by earlier iterations. It’s that the new model must exceed each version that’s gone before it, while remaining true to the icon’s essential, fundamental character. The Golf GTI’s fanbase is so passionate, its predecessors so groundbreaking, that each new model arrives with what could easily be a crushing burden of expectation.

»It’s an incredibly fast hatch and it’s aurally lovely—far more in tune with the old one.«

Mark, for one, is happy—and we can only share his conclusion.

“The GTI heritage is not just about having the first swift hot hatch that was good for grand touring. It’s in the heritage of these vehicles that they offer a certain rawness in the driving experience,” Mark says. “The modern GTIs are a fair bit more businesslike, but what’s most impressive is that the 40 Years edition manages very well to evoke that sort of intoxicating rawness of the original.

Forty years down. Forever to go.

We ask Mark: Why the Mk2?

“My first car was a very rare, Australian-built—with sunroof—1967 Beetle, which I bought and restored when I was 16,” Mark says. My mother and father both had Beetles. My father was born in Germany and lived there until his early 20s and my wife’s father had 13 Volkswagens in South Africa.”

The IT company director, pilot and father of two has owned, driven hard and cared for multiple iterations of Golf GTI, including such rarities as an original VR6 Mk3 (“the first ever six-cylinder hot hatch!”). Few Australians are more familiar with the marque—and Mark’s son Max (pictured above), a walking encyclopaedia of all things GTI, extends the lineage.

“The 16-valve was the pinnacle in series production of the Mk2,” Mark says, so when the opportunity came up last year to acquire his from Darwin (it had been privately imported into Australia in 1996 from the UK), he went to collect it.

“I had the chance to drive it at up to about 170km/h on the unrestricted Northern Territory roads,” he says. “You can still tell the advantages the engineers took from being so close to the autobahns!”