01 February 2010

VW Golf GTI: On Your Marks: Nine into One Goes

Volkswagen Magazine : Issue 14 : Summer 2010

Roderick Eime traces the GTI’s 33 years of progress

When a car is this overwhelmingly successful, the world takes note. What is it about this little Volkswagen that so captured the imagination of car enthusiasts across the planet? Intended as a modest replacement for the ageing, yet evergreen Beetle, the Golf took off like no-one expected.

Named after, not the famous ball game, but instead the ferocious wind: Gulf Stream. Golf was a complete departure from Doktor Ferdinand Porsche’s original vision of the ‘People’s Car’. Instead of rear-mounted, air-cooled and rear wheel drive, the complete opposite was engineered into the new VW mass market machine.

In all its incarnations, the VW Golf is now the world’s third best selling vehicle with over 26,000,000 made and sold. It passed the venerable Beetle’s mere 21,500,000 in 2002.

But while mum, dad and Aunt Vera were happy to motor sedately in their new Golf runabout, the backroom lads were already plotting the steroidal version for the more ‘enthusiastic’ driver. Here mystery and legend come into play as the tale of the GTI’s development is told.

In the early ‘70s, Volkswagen wasn’t in a particularly bold frame of mind. Car companies were generally spooked by the rise of global terrorism and the uncertainty of oil supply. A bunch of hotheads talking about performance cars was not getting much of a hearing. So the boys went underground, literally, into a bierkeller to hatch (pun intended) their plans over pilsener and bratwurst.

Engineers were joined by marketers and public relations men in the subterranean trysts. Other manufacturers, the growing team observed, were leading buyers away from rivals by dressing up the vanilla-flavoured models with racing stripes and a few race-bred bits under the bonnet. Ford, for example, were successfully leveraging their relationship with Lotus and Cosworth to make ‘party animal’ Cortinas and Escorts that publicly flexed their muscles on the race track. These results translated into sales with the famous motto: “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday”.

Persistence paid off and the project dubbed “Sport Golf” began to get official recognition and six prototypes were approved. These were displayed at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show and the seed was sown. 5000 limited production units were built and dispersed throughout the dealer network and the resulting interest was unstoppable to the point where production of the LHD-only version was running at 5000 units per month.

The Mk1 Golf GTI profited from the recent corporate merger between Audi, NSU and VW and the Audi-developed, 1600cc 8-valve engine was employed, fed by a then state-of-the-art Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system. The little beast erupted with 81kW at full noise, propelling the 800kg car to 100kmh in nine seconds and on to a top speed of 180kmh – respectable enough to mix it with the big boys on the Autobahn.

The UK market was clamouring for a RHD version, but their appetite for the GTI had to wait until 1979 for a production version. Just as the European precedent had already been set, sales of 1500 in the first year tripled in the following 24 months.

By this time the phenomenon of the Volkswagen Golf GTI has spread like wildfire among its competitors and the ‘hot hatchback’ concept was born, spawning copycat models from France, Britain, Japan and Italy. The genre was now a permanent and mandatory segment of automotive manufacturers’ repertoire.

While the world was enjoying the GTI, the wait was even more frustrating for Australians. While the original, regular Golfs had been assembled here almost since the model’s introduction, the first GTIs didn’t go on sale until 1990 and then in a “knobbled” Mk.II version because of inability to supply the new and preferred 16 valve engine in compliance with Australian emission rules. To further rub salt, the uber-hot 4WD, supercharged G60 Limited would not come Down Under at all.

The early nineties saw Golf GTI fall into a mild form of the doldrums. The world was in turmoil again over oil in the Middle East and carmakers across the globe were pre-occupied with meeting the demands of frugal buyers. In an inspirational and lateral move, VW introduced a surprisingly potent turbo-charged diesel engine and the GTI TDI was born. Introduced in Europe in 1991, the GTI Mk.III never made it here

While critics and enthusiasts alike had mixed feelings about the heavy and lazy Mk.III, the 1997 launch of the fourth generation GTI restored interest, but not immediately. While press reports extolled its refined handling and finish, some of the original spark that set the GTI alight back in the ‘70s was missing. VW and Audi production was now more closely linked than ever and the new A3 and Golf GTI Mk.IV were not so much cousins as siblings.

Australians first saw this model in 1999 and despite the anticipation, we were not overly moved by the low-boost turbo 1.8-litre four cylinder with 20-valve head, delivering just 110kW in a chassis that was 50 per cent heavier than the original GTI. Germany reacted by loading the 25th Anniversary model with a 132kW 1.8-litre turbo. While this new powerplant wasn’t seen here for that model, the message was loud and clear: more power thanks.

The arrival of the Mk.V at the 2004 Paris Motor Show was like a second coming. Someone had put a rocket up the design and development team and this new model revived both the prestige and the fortunes of the languishing GTI. It looked the goods and had the notoriously cynical motoring press sitting upright.

“Decades of disappointment end here,” wrote Wheels journalist Nathan Ponchard at the time of its launch in 2005. “It takes just five minutes of hard driving to discover that Volkswagen’s all-new Mk.V Golf GTI is far beyond the mediocre efforts of all its predecessors. It’s the first Golf GTI sold in this country that goes as hard as it looks and, more importantly, actually fulfils your expectations of the badge.”

Volkswagen had a new swagger in their step and the 147kW 2.0 litre turbo-charged engine matched to either a six-speed manual transmission or the much-lauded six speed automatic (with dual clutch, no less) had the GTI back on its aspirational pedestal with a more reasonable price tag.

Visually the Mk.V harked back to the original GTI with the return of the tartan interior and the red surround to the grille element. Even the typeface used on the badge echoes that of the original. Furthermore, this new model served as a base for two special editions, the Pirelli and Edition 30. Both models are powered by an up-rated evolution of the 2.0-litre T-FSI engine fitted to the conventional GTI.

Paris 2008 was again the venue for the debut of the newest model Golf, the Mk.VI. The GTI, however, had to wait until March this year in Geneva to show its hand. At this point in its life, 1.7 million GTIs had been sold worldwide, cementing legend status for this cult car.

Australia is on tenterhooks for a late-2009 arrival of this next model which will coincide with the venerable GTI’s 33rd anniversary. A new 7-speed twin clutch DSG (direct shift gearbox) will be offered, designed to improve both performance and economy.

Expect a top speed of around 238kmh, but despite the power increase to 155kW, the engine will more efficient and deliver improved fuel economy on both the city and highway cycles. The visual and technical design remains faithful to the original brief of the original 1976 model, namely startling performance with maximum driver enjoyment and engagement in an understated package.

What will be unrecognisable, however, is the array of technical and safety features that will make the landmark GTI pale by comparison. Add seven airbags, a five star NCAP crash rating, a dynamic chassis control (DCC) system, XDS electronic transverse differential lock and six-speed manual and DSG twin-clutch gearboxes and you have the comparison equivalent of a Spitfire and an F-18.

The powerplant is a second stage development of the EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It has minor modifications to the pistons, oil and fuel pumps and induction system, while the torque is more accessible than before, delivered earlier in the range for better throttle response.

While the GTI may have travelled a winding path through its various incarnations, many will believe development has run a full circle, returning to the core values that inspired the original design and development conspirators who colluded 35 years ago to bring the model to market.

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