To some people, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the definitive hot hatch. Launched in 1976, it helped to prove that a sensible, front-wheel-drive hatchback could be as fast and as much fun to drive as a sports car, cementing a formula that continues to this day. Here’s how the world’s most recognised hot hatch has evolved.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK1
Not only the original Golf GTI, but by most approximations the original hot hatch as well. The first Golf GTI arrived in 1976 and was the product not of an official factory programme, but a clandestine skunkworks project. A handful of engineers gathered together to develop a high performance version of the dainty Golf hatchback. The results were so spectacular that when the car was eventually presented to the board, it was green-lighted. The earliest cars had a 1.6-litre engine that developed 108bhp.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK2
Picking up where the original Golf GTI left off, the Mk2 model was a little bigger and slightly heavier, but it was scarcely any less fun to drive. It first appeared in 1985 with an eight-valve 1.8-litre engine, good for 110bhp. In very short order it was joined in the range by a more potent version, its 16-valve motor rated at 137bhp. Which was the one to have? The debate goes on to this day.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK3
It was with the third-generation Volkswagen Golf that the GTI’s light began to wane. In quite spectacular fashion, in fact. After a decade and a half of light and nimble GTIs with agile handling, the Mk3 model was heavy, slow, flat-footed and hardly worthy of the badge. Not even a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine with 148bhp could make up for the chassis’ shortcomings. In 1996 VW built 1,000 GTI Anniversary models to celebrate 20 years of the nameplate.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK4
Come the fourth-generation Golf, the GTI’s light had been all but switched off altogether. It arrived in 1998 with bland styling, even stodgier dynamics than the Mk3 it replaced and an underwhelming turbocharged engine. Although the Golf had by now crept upmarket and as an everyday hatchback was arguably the best car of its type, the GTI was anything but. It had become little more than a trim level, much less than the standalone performance model it should have been.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK5
Rarely has there been a more emphatic return to form in the performance car sector than this. The Mk5 GTI debuted at the Paris motor show late in 2004 and when it hit the road soon after, it did so with a set of dynamics the GTI’s originators would have been proud of. With sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, the fifth-generation GTI was a joy to drive, being agile, responsive, poised and well-balanced. It steered beautifully as well and with 197bhp, it was more than quick enough.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK6
A comprehensive facelift of the Mk5 rather than a new car altogether, the Mk6 Golf had much in common with the car it replaced. When the new GTI arrived in 2009, therefore, it was blessed with every one of the Mk5’s many dynamic attributes. Power crept up 207bhp but the basic formula remained the same: strong performance, effortless day-to-day usability and sweet handling with a comfortable ride.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK7
As you’d expect, the most recent generation of Golf GTI is the most advanced and most sophisticated there’s ever been. Powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that puts out between 217- and 242bhp depending on age and specification, it is effortless quick but not at the cost of refinement. The last of the line GTI TCR model spices things up further with a power hike to 286bhp and a 0-62mph time of 5.6 seconds, and is designed to keep GTI fans happy until the all-new Mk8 version arrives. If there’s been a problem with the Mk7 GTI it is not the car itself, but rather the existence of the latest Golf R, which is more powerful, faster, and arguably better to drive thanks to its all-wheel-drive capability.
Cars Reviews by Manufacturer
In the market for a used car?
CarGurus makes it easy to find great deals from top-rated dealers. CarGurus compares price, detailed vehicle data and dealer reviews to give each used car a deal rating from great to overpriced, and sorts the best deals first. Find out more and begin your used car search at CarGurus.