Matt Kimberley profile picture Matt Kimberley a year ago 10

Love To Hate Or Hate To Love The Golf GTI: Why It’s Still An Icon

It seems like everyone either likes to hate on the Volkswagen Golf GTI, or is weirdly apologetic for owning one in the face of more exotic rivals. Here’s why it’s still the king of the hot hatch hill

Remind me later
Volkswagen - Love To Hate Or Hate To Love The Golf GTI: Why It’s Still An Icon - Blog

We know you guys love the Golf GTI, judging by the popularity of this week’s pics showing the eighth-gen model basically undisguised, but few hot hatchbacks, if any, seem to attract more negative comments. ‘You should have bought an R.’ ‘You should have bought a Renault Sport Megane.’ ‘You could have bought an M3 for that price.’ The list of anti-Golf spam goes on. It’s not just that, either; it’s like a lot of owners end up justifying their choices slightly apologetically, as if they think they’ve done something daft.

People picking fault with the VW Golf GTI is pretty ironic, seeing as it’s the one hot hatchback which, day to day, seems to have no flaws worth mentioning. As long as it’s a five-door you’ve got a car that’s solid, agile, plenty fast enough, just about frugal enough if you know what you’re doing, spacious enough and easy to access replacement parts, upgrades and tuning for.

The Mk7 Golf GTI launched in 2014
The Mk7 Golf GTI launched in 2014

It won’t break your back if you use it to casually biff down roads that have more holes than a British parliamentary manifesto. It won’t disappoint if you head for mountain roads at 4am on a summer’s morning. It won’t turn any noses up if you arrive at an expensive hotel and hand the key to the valet. Nor will it attract too much of the wrong kind of attention in a dark car park (the Golf R, on the other hand, is one of the most stolen cars in the UK).

Honda motorbikes used to have the same ‘problem’ as the GTI. They were a bit too good; a bit too refined and a bit too usable. Brilliant, in other words, but lacking that edge that made riders think they were going to need a change of pants if they didn’t pay the machine more respect.

The Golf GTI is a car that doesn’t really frighten; has never really frightened in any of its seven official guises (plus myriad variations thereof), and that means plenty of people will always say you should have bought a ‘more exciting’ Civic Type R or a Renault Sport Megane. Both have been spectacularly good in their own ways at times, but as civilised dailies? Cars you could put your irritable elder relative in and pretend you’re not a yob? Nah.

The EA888 may technically be old, but it's still powerful and tunable
The EA888 may technically be old, but it's still powerful and tunable

The problem is the same from a different angle. You go on some forums and it’s almost like you feel you need to apologise for owning a Golf GTI. There’s always an element of qualification, like “I thought about a 135i, but…” or “I initially wanted a Megane 275, but…”. It’s like you’d be laughed at for wanting a Golf GTI above its rivals. It’s like there’s something - anything - wrong with choosing an outwardly more sensible option that still drives that well.

There’s always something on paper that makes you think that yes, other hot hatches even within the VW Group are faster and potentially cheaper, too. The culture around the GTI sows a seed of irrational doubt that you’ve somehow done the wrong thing, but the iconic Golf’s genius; its quality unmatched by any hot hatch other than the Golf R, is to remind its driver every time they drive it that no, they haven’t done the wrong thing. Whatever task you’re asking of it that day, it simply aces it. A life spent with a Golf GTI is a life spent forgetting what it’s like to be annoyed at your car half the time you’re in it. That is why it’s still the boss.

If you do want something harder, try a Clubsport S...
If you do want something harder, try a Clubsport S...

Never mind the power wars: 200-250bhp really is enough for the road. Skip past Haldex-based four-wheel drive: front-drive with VAQ playfulness is more engaging. Forget Nurburgring lap times: they don’t matter on rutted back-roads.

Most importantly, don’t ignore all the hate for the Golf GTI if you’re looking at buying a hot hatch. Embrace it, in fact, because only the very best real-world cars earn so much of it.