MK5 GTI 15 YEARS ON, IS IT STILL THE HOT HATCH KING?
This article looks at the Golf GTi in its Mk5 generation, or simply Volkswagen Mk5 GTi to my American cousins. The article will detail how the car drives, it’s current value and ownership proposition as well as its rivals and alternatives in the current used and new market.
HISTORY OF THE GOLF GTI
To understand the Mk5 GTI we first must go way back to the initial Mk1 Golf GTI. The Mk1 hit the roads of Europe after a difficult birth, pushed forward by a small internal team in 1977. It forever changed the landscape of the hatchback car market, taking on the sports cars of the time whilst offering more performance, reliability and day-to-day usability. The success of the first generation GTi was shown by its sales. Following an initial estimate production run of 5,000 cars, VW actually ending up instead selling over 450,000 units by the time production ended in 1983.
This was followed by the very popular Mk2 generation golf GTi, this car was bigger, heavier and safer than its predecessor but still stuck to its initial fun and practical principles. The Mk2 proved very popular especially upon the release of the more powerful 16V version (130hp) in 1986, with production coming to an end in 1991. The Mk2 along with the Mk1 has become a cult classic with Volkswagen enthusiast with prices soaring in recent years.
The larger bumpers of later Mk2 GTi’s were a sign of things to come, as the Mk3 grew larger and heavier again. The Mk3 is viewed by a number of people as the illegitimate third child of the GTi range, slower and less involving than the original as much due to safety and emissions regulations changing as a changing car market calling for more comfortable and refined hatchbacks. This followed into the Mk4, which offered an un-charismatic 1.8 litre turbocharged engine, blocky styling and large weight increases (though they were built solidly, with good reliability particularly shown by the high mileage diesel examples). Clearly the golf GTi had lost its way from the initial exciting beginnings, but in 2004 the questions were answered in the form of the Mk5 (Golf) GTi.
RECEPTION OF THE MK5 GTI AND CURRENT MARKET
The Mk5 evolution of the Golf GTi was adored and highly rated by most motoring publications at its time of release around the world, named as “the return of the GTi” and stating that the “GTi is definitely back”. The car was praised for its 2 litre 197hp four-cylinder engine, it’s engaging driving characteristics and optional DSG gearbox alongside its high build standards, high levels of practicality and subtle but brutish looks. The new car was loved by the motoring press and the public alike, selling a large number of units and proving especially popular in the tuning scene with companies such as Revo and R-Tech (in the UK) releasing over 300hp in some cases with little more than bolt-ons and larger K04 turbochargers (sourced from S3’s and TT’s of the same period). The car was also updated in 2007 with an edition 30 model available, adding some extra interior and exterior styling features (wheels, seats etc) along with a more powerful 230hp engine (utilising the aforementioned K04 turbocharger).
This brings us to the current market that the Mk5 occupies, in the UK the used market for these cars is still strong, showing good residuals when compared to the rivals at the time such as the Renault-sport Megane 225, Seat Leon Cupra R and the Ford Focus ST thanks to its premium badge and good build quality. Cars can be found anywhere from £2000 (ropey, high-milers) to £10,000 (very low mileage, edition 30 examples), with manual/ DSG and 3/ 5 door examples all around the same price range meaning extra practicality can be found without extra cost, my personal preference is a manual 3-door car due to the better looks and extra involvement of the third pedal.
DRIVING THE MK5 GTI IN 2019
The market has moved on in the past 15 years and due to the used nature of most examples nowadays they will each come with their own issues and driving experiences but the basic dynamics of the car still hold up today.
When compared with the latest Mk7 GTi, the older car only produces marginally less power, with similar performance figures to the newer car and offering a similarly charismatic but practical experience. The handling of the Mk5 GTi is best described as accurate but without much feel (thank an electrical rack for that), the car turns in well (helped by the Michelin Pilot Sport 4’s on my car no doubt) but will push into understeer fairly quickly, without much movement if any from the rear end. These characteristics make for a car that can cover ground quickly if without the excitement of some of its rivals (Renaultsport Clio’s come to mind). This makes the car possibly the ultimate jack of all trades for the price when you take into account; the comfortable motorway cruising on offer (with minimal squeaks and rattles even over rough surfaces), decent ride quality (especially on standard 17-inch wheels) and an average (in my experience) of 30-32 mpg under mixed driving conditions.
The aforementioned points make this a very hard car to criticise, but while this car is a great all-rounder and one of the greatest bargains on the used market, it does have its issues. Firstly, the driving experience, while quick and entertaining, it does leave that last level of involvement to be lusted after and in my opinion some more noise and tighter rear end would bring together the driving experience (though this is easily attainable through modification). Secondly, the ownership costs of my particular car were a lot higher than expected, these cars in general have good reliability and low running costs but are not without their issues with a number of common costs: £400 for cambelt and tensioner (every 4 years/ 60,000 miles), HPFP bills (£300+), regular Monza alloy refurbishments (£80+ per wheel, unfortunately the diamond cut wheels were prone to “white worm” degradation) and in some cases turbo failure. After some of these above mentioned, high tyre costs and a string of issues with the car, my ownership came to an end after 12 months and 11,000 miles.
SHOULD YOU BUY ONE & THE ALTERNATIVES?
The comments above and the many journalist reviews online would suggest that you should take your money immediately to the nearest dealership stocking a Mk5 GTI, but you’d be surprised the challenges you firstly may face in finding a nice example. Despite the premium badge and price tag there are many examples that have been poorly serviced, poorly maintained or just been subject to a terrible life/ owner. This surprised me at first but there are good examples out there with reasonable mileage and good history if you look hard enough, starting roughly around £4,000 (correct as of June 2019).
At the time of release the Mk5 GTi had a large number of rivals, Ford had it’s 5-cylinder ST Focus, Renault had multiple hot versions of its Megane, Seat were using the same underpinnings with its Leon FR and Cupra models while BMW were marketing their 130i at a higher price point. Any of these cars could hold up on their own merits but when compared with the GTi they all seemingly fell at the wayside, with less practicality, poor driving dynamics or lower quality build than the VW offering. As a result, when compared with the competition the GTi came away with a cabinet full of trophies, taking multiple group test wins and car of the year awards particularly in the UK and mainland Europe.
So, you have £4,000 burning a hole in your pocket and are ready for your next performance motor, should you get a GTi? Personally, I would recommend a GTi if what you are looking for is a practical, refined and brisk paced hatchback, however there are some interesting alternatives that I recommend you look at and/ or drive first.
There are three cars that I would personally consider as good alternatives/ rivals in the current used market to the Mk5 GTI.
The fun choice: Ford Focus ST Mk2 2.5. This car, while not as economical or refined as the GTi will provide more smiles and excitement due to its great sounding 5-cylinder engine (with lots of power adding options like the GTi), involving driving experience and shouty looks especially with vibrant orange paint. This car may not be as easy to live with or as good an all-rounder, but will pay you back for it when you hear that engine at full throttle.
The budget option: Renaultsport Clio 182, while not an exact competitor for the Golf in terms of size, this is an exceptionally capable and fun hot hatch for those people who don’t require the same levels of practicality or refinement. This car comes with a lower purchase price and lower running costs this could be an ideal car for someone looking for a fun hot hatch (being one of the most highly rated hatchback driving experiences of the past couple of decades). Insurance is surprisingly high for a smaller less powerful car, but parts and servicing are cheap and simple to fix.
The alternative option: BMW Z4 E85 3.0. Now this may seem like an oddball choice but it is similarly priced to a clean, low mileage GTi. The Z4 provides more thrills, better sound and a more engaging drive at the expense of much less practicality and slightly higher part prices. The experience of driving this car will excite much more often and there is the obvious benefit of dropping the roof when the weather turns nice.
Other alternatives: Alfa Romeo Brera 3.2, BMW 330ci E46, Honda Civic Type R EP3/ FN2, Mazda RX8, Renaultsport Megane, Seat Leon Cupra R and Skoda Octavia VRS.
THE FINAL WORD
As a final statement I would like to point out that I thoroughly enjoyed my ownership of the GTi (last couple weeks of bills an exception), it was quick, interesting, practical and even cheap to insure considering I was 21 years old with a nigh-on 200hp hatchback. As a result of this I would heartily recommend a Mk5 GTi for those UK buyers at a younger age (under 25) looking to insure a hot hatchback with a price tag under £10,000.
I must admit though that while this car is good, great or even the best hot hatch of the past couple decades you may struggle (as I did) to find a place in your heart for it, as while it may be a great car it isn’t one that you can necessarily fall in love with.
Please let me know your thoughts and experiences below, this is my first article so some constructive criticism would be much appreciated. Thanks for reading.