Redefining performance for 40 Years: the Golf GTI
Few cars can claim to have reached iconic status like Volkswagen’s
Golf GTI. With the release of the new 40 Years edition, the time is
right to celebrate this most beloved of performance hatches.
Looking back, 1976 was quite a year. Both Microsoft and Apple were officially formed, Concorde made its first commercial flight, the Ramones released their debut album and the Space Shuttle was unveiled. And of course, enthusiastic drivers got their hands on the first examples of what was to become an icon – the Golf GTI.
The car that popularised a whole new class of performance vehicle, the hot hatchback, was officially unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1975 and, like so many things destined for greatness, was the personal project of a small group of passionate people at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Led by engineer Alfons Lowenberg and PR man Anton Konrad, a six-person team worked in secret, having been told by the higher-ups that Volkswagen had no need for a performance product. That all changed when the prototype – actually based on a Scirocco chassis – was shown to the board, who greenlit it for a limited production run.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The original formula was simple. Shoehorn a powerful 1.6-litre engine from sister company Audi into the compact and practical Golf hatchback, add mechanical fuel-injection (hence the ‘I’ in the name) and some purposeful exterior tweaks and a front spoiler to designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s elegantly simple creation.
The driver was left in no doubt that fun was on the cards thanks to touches like the tartan seats and the golf ball gearknob. And with a rev-happy 80kW moving just 810kg, the GTI certainly delivered, with performance to match sports sedans of the day. An upgrade to a 1.8-litre engine offering 85kW only increased the smiles-per-mile factor. An instant hit, the initial run of 5000 cars quickly sold out and the GTI became a full production model.
The Mk1 was never officially imported into Australia but that changed with its 1983 successor. Only offered here as a GTI (or convertible), the Mk2 cemented the model’s iconic reputation and it became an ’80s status symbol, particularly in 16-valve form, which raised the power output of the 1.8-litre engine to 102kW. The Mk2 also established the GTI design cues that you can still see echoes of today, such as the red grille treatment, twin headlights and aggressive looking bumpers. In 1990 the one millionth GTI was produced.
»As soon as the road becomes twisty it turns from draught-horse to quarter-horse«
As the world moved from the excess of the ’80s to the more circumspect ’90s, the GTI followed suit. The 1992 Mk3 received another engine upgrade, this time to a refined 2.0-litre that in 16-valve form produced 110kW. With its aerodynamic new body, the car could reach speeds of 210km/h. For the GTI’s 20th anniversary in 1996, a diesel joined the range for the first time, producing 80kW but none of the Mk3 GTI variants were officially sold here.
Even its most ardent admirers would admit that the Mk4 GTI had lost some of the edge that the model was famous for, despite it being offered worldwide with the widest range of engine options yet. However, at the start of the new millennium, the GTI celebrated its 25th birthday with the introduction of something special – turbocharging – that would pave the way for the car that is regarded as the rebirth of the famous badge.
GTI COMES OF AGE
Announced in 2004, the Mk5 once again made it clear that the Golf GTI was the ultimate all-round performance package. With a new, turbocharged 2.0-litre engine producing 147kW, sports-focused suspension changes and the option of Volkswagen’s acclaimed DSG twin-clutch gearbox, the resurgent GTI could handle the Sunday morning blast as confidently as the school run. The distinctive red grille-trim, tartan seats and golf ball gearknob were back, too.
Building on its predecessor’s success, the Mk6 GTI added greater power and refinement, proving that in the GTI, you can have it all. The GTI Edition 35 had a top speed approaching 250km/h and could do 0–100km/h in well under seven seconds.
The Mk7 GTI, introduced in 2013 raised levels of sophistication and technology to levels that would astound someone who bought an original 40 years ago. Lighter than its predecessor thanks to an all-new platform, the latest GTI comes in two power outputs thanks to the Performance variant. It’s capable of 169kW, an increase of 7kW on than standard.
The lucky few drivers who manage to snag the latest offering in the venerable Golf GTI range, the very limited Golf GTI 40 Years edition, will find that they have up to 213kW at their disposal thanks to a new boost function.
The most powerful GTI ever? Well, for now…
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