In June 1976, Volkswagen launched the Golf GTI in Europe-the very first hot hatch. We could wrap up this feature with just that statement. The car hardly needs to prove itself after that. But it would be doing the GTI a grave disservice not to look at how it has evolved over the past three decades. So we've paired a Mk I with the latest Mk V, which Volkswagen is touting as the model that best interprets what the original was all about. But first, a little history.
VW launched a sporty version of the evergreen Beetle, the 'Yellow and Black Racer' in 1973. As the name suggests, its yellow paintwork was offset with a black hood and rear engine lid, slightly wider than normal tires, sports seats and a leather steering wheel. Apart from that, it was all standard Beetle fare. Exciting stuff, eh? Some people seemed to think so. It caused quite a stir, with every model being sold, much to the incredulity of the company that built it.
However, the seeds of an idea had been sown and a new small car waiting in the wings would benefit from a similar treatment. It seems so poignantly familiar now, but the early 1970s saw a worldwide energy crisis. Suddenly, there was a big demand for small cars that drank less. There was an obvious market for a new, cleaner, more useable Beetle. Enter the Golf (aka the Rabbit in the USA).
Contrary to what people might think, the Golf isn't named after a game played by management types committing crimes against fashion. It's from the German for 'gulf' and, like other VW cars of the time, it was named after a wind-in this case, the Gulf Stream.
When the Golf was nearing its final development stages (which coincided with the appearance of that boy-racer Beetle), VW's test engineer, Alfons Lwenberg, wrote an internal memo to a few colleagues in the R&D department, suggesting the company should build a proper sports car. The Golf's gestation had emptied VW's coffers, so this idea fell largely on deaf ears, but a small number of enthusiastic colleagues saw the potential. They met at Herr Lwenberg's home after hours for beer, sandwiches and brainstorming sessions on what they secretly dubbed der Sportgolf.
They took a Scirocco prototype and lowered its suspension. With an already rock-hard chassis, a tuned engine giving a 15-hp increase over standard and a huge exhaust pipe, it was described by the team as 'a roaring monster.' Something a little subtler was called for, so a tamer version was developed. It took a long time for the top brass at VW to come round to the idea of a sporting Golf, but it happened eventually. This glorious little hatchback made its debut in '76.
The Brits took to the Golf GTI like no other nation. And it remains the model's biggest marketplace to this day. It's easy to see why the Limeys fell for its charms. Subtle body modifications gave the diminutive Golf added presence. As for those three little letters-wasn't that the masterstroke?
The original GTI isn't exactly powerful by the lofty standards expected from even the smallest cars today. But three decades ago, it redefined how a little hatchback should drive; with a firm emphasis on fun-the overriding quality that appealed to so many loyal owners.
While we could have gone for a rip-snorting R32, it seemed prudent to look at the 'base' Mk V GTI, as this is where the original's DNA should be most evident. Volkswagen has really been homing in on the alleged similarities between the latest model and its groundbreaking great, great granddaddy. Let's see if there's any truth to it.
At first, our reactions to the Mk V were mixed. This might have been unfair, but we were expecting to be hit immediately between the eyes by a four-wheeled funbag. It's well screwed together, quite nice looking and easy on the wallet when it comes to thirst, but something is missing. Perhaps it's the fun factor.
One thing's for sure, the new one whips the Mk I's butt on the performance front. The old-timer can't keep up, whether it's in a straight line or on fabulous, undulating twists. But then that's exactly as it should be after years of refinement and progress.
Speed doesn't necessarily translate into fun, though. Driver involvement is something woefully absent from a huge number of modern cars. Our initial fear was that the latest GTI was as remote from its pilot as George Dubya is from reality.
Wrong. It's a hoot, but it really needs to be driven hard to get the best from it. This particular car is fitted with VW's much-lauded DSG transmission and this can, if you let it, keep you at arm's length. Start using the paddles behind the exquisite-feeling steering wheel, though, and the thing comes alive. Head into a tight corner, drop a couple of gears and the engine responds with a delicious-sounding yelp, ready to gun the car to the next turn. Want control? This is it, only without having to use your left foot.
When driving hard on challenging roads, the GTI's stability control (known in the UK as ESP) is particularly good. It never feels like a nanny-state controlled experiment; it simply corrects errors and gets on with the job by hauling the car out of ridiculously fast cornering maneuvers without admonishment. The latest Golf GTI, despite earlier misgivings, is epic fun. But is it as much fun as the original?
Disregard the performance aspect for a moment because, with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine under the Mk V's hood, it wouldn't be a fair contest. Instead, let's go for driver involvement and the amount of smiles-per-mile behind the wheel. This, if owners of early GTIs are to be believed, is where the old-timer stands a fighting chance.
Sitting inside the Mk I, it's obvious that the experience will be completely different. It's basic, spartan, old-fashioned. Yet it's also apparent that Volkswagen has tried to imbue the Mk V with the same sort of vibe. The tartan seat covers, the sense of space, the no-nonsense ergonomics-they set the newest model apart from its Mk III and IV forebears; they both conspired to turn the GTI's cabin into a luxurious environment, completely at odds with the original's simplicity.
Twist the key and the 1.6-liter engine fires into a gruff idle, sounding much nicer than the latest model's FSI unit, which tends to sound like a diesel at standstill. Blip the throttle and the sonic pleasures increase. However, engaging first gear and setting off for the horizon opens up the generation gap. No power assistance for the steering makes for hard work at low speeds. But there is a fortunate trade-off once the pace picks up: communication and that elusive driver involvement thing.
The old GTI is light, another quality sorely lacking in today's crop of gadget- and safety equipment-laden motors. Its lightness makes it nimble and the car connects with the driver in a way that no contemporary (this side of a 911 GT3) can touch. Throw it into a tight corner and the thing turns in with a smattering of understeer and a pretty dramatic lean (compared to modern GTIs with their finely-tuned suspensions). It's easily as much fun as the new car, but there's another, more hidden benefit: there's no need to be driving at breakneck speed to get the same feel, the same smiles. This hot hatch is socially responsible.
So, has Volkswagen recaptured the joie de vivre of the original GTI with the Mk V? There are certainly enough visual similarities in the form of the red-bordered grille, the similar GTI badging, the utilitarian upholstery and the less luxurious appointments. But they mean nothing once on the move, where it counts.
The Mk I is an undisputed classic. It has a charm that's immediately obvious and its simplicity makes it easy to live with. The GTI essence made it through to the Mk II, but after that, things got a little muddy. Marks III and IV were (and Volkswagen admits as much) disappointing. The Mk V is a belter and a daily driver to boot. Yes, the fun factor is sky-high again. The old spirit is alive and kicking once more.
It's no easy task to re-interpret a legend, which the original GTI certainly is, a bona fide legend. Cars can no longer be as simple as they once were because of customer demands, legislation, emissions controls and aerodynamics; those days are over. But Volkswagen has grasped the nettle and brought the GTI smack into the 21st century, reviving the precious magic that sparked our enthusiasm 30 or so years ago.
2008 Volkswagen GTI Mk V
Transverse front engine, front drive
2.0-liter inline four, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged and intercooled
DSG six-speed sequential manual
*Wheels And Tires
Monza II alloys 18x7.5, 225/40 (f & r)
Peak power: 197 hp @ 5100 rpm
Peak torque: 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
0-62mph: 6.9 sec.
Top Speed: 145 mph
1976 Volkswagen GTI Mk I
Transverse front engine, front drive
1.6-liter inline four, sohc, 8-valve
*Wheels And Tires
Multi-spoke alloys 13x5.5, 175/70 (f & r)
Peak Power: 110 hp @ 6100 rpm
Peak Torque: 103 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
0-62mph: 9.0 sec
Top Speed: 113 mph