The Golf GTI still looks the part 40 years after it was introduced – but to appreciate its impact you have to drive it and sample its performance
It’s the fizz that wins your heart – each time you open the throttle on an open piece of road, feel the rush of acceleration and watch the tacho needle racing for the redline. This boistrous bundle was built to put a smile on your face – again and again, and again.
Very few cars are as special as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Equally, only a handful are hardwired into your synapses quite as effectively. The German giant’s bosses might have sceptical about the prospects of a sporting Golf before they drove the original prototype in 1975, but hearts and minds changed when they gave the fifinal product a good seeing to at the Wolfsburg test track.
At fifirst glance, they’d have seen something subdued and subtle, with few hints to what lay beneath. Today, one of those hints, that red-pinstriped grille, has become the signature for all that’s great about the GTI. Then there’s the deep front spoiler and the wheelarch extensions.
Volkswagen wasn’t the inventor of the hot hatch or even the fifirst to slap G, T and I on the rump of a car. But these lovely visual touches remind you how the manufacturer has made both its own.
Slide into the interior and the immediate impression is of a car that means business. It has an appealingly minimalist design – every feature has been honed with the keen driver in mind. The onboard computer, known in VW-speak as the MFA, was advanced for its time, and still very useful today. It’s the same with the gearchange indicator for saving fuel – smart, practical. The golfball gearknob has become as iconic as St Andrews, and is still used in modern day GTIs.
The driving position is excellent. You sit high in the slim-pillared interior, and are presented with a commanding view out. Placing this hatchback on the road is a piece of cake, as a consequence. And it’s a friendly place – not a word you’d generally associate with sports cars.
Fire it up, and the engine sizzles enthusiastically, goading you into playing footsie with the throttle. Pull away, and the light clutch, positive gearchange and agreeably weighty steering fill you with confifidence and joy. Even in town, you’ll fifind yourself wanting to slice through rush-hour like a Parisian taxi driver.
But the fun has only just begun. Hit the B-roads, turn it up to 11, and the GTI truly wakes up. The steering feeds back the road surface in minute detail, and loads up remarkably in bends – it’s a good feeling, and there are huge amounts of grip. It’s addictively chuckable. You will love the way it tucks in as you trail off the throttle, countering any unwanted understeer – although other road users might fifind the way it will cock its inside rear wheel in the air in tight turns just a tad alarming.
Our Campaign model is powered by the later 1781cc engine, pushing out 112bhp and 109lb ft. This is enough punch to give this 860kg hatchback genuinely thrilling acceleration. It’s not all about revs like the earlier 1.6-litre GTI, even though it pulls cleanly to 7000rpm. There’s plenty of torque, and it hauls strongly from as low as 2500rpm – just like a large-engined small car should.
All the stories about the GTI’s poor brakes are spot on, though, which can erode some of that confifidence and joy when cracking on. Coming to a halt can take a fair bit of effort on the middle pedal, even if the underlying quality of the stopping power is there.
In short, the Golf GTI deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it over the years. It is a genuine phenomenon, a gamechanging sports car. It’s also one that’s almost as good to drive now as the latest version in the line. You will be much more forgiving of the original’s few dynamic flaws, and more appreciative of the crackerjack feeling you get every time you hit the road in it.
A new more modern dashboard was introduced into the Golf in 1981 along with wider tail lights. Giugiaro designed, and honed by Volkswagen, the GTI has a timeless shape and is as exhilarating to drive as ever, despite hitting 40 this year. The UK was only ever to receive three-door models, but Germany, Belgium and South Africa got fifive-door 1.8 GTIs. The campaign special edition model was fifitted with 14in Pirelli P-slot wheels. Similar alloys were also available for the MkII GTI. Correct MkI wheels have larger Ps and the centre caps should have Pirelli stamped on them.