First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI

First Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Almost every performance car on sale today is endowed with an assortment of synthetic sounds that can be turned up or muted via a button. Rice Krispies for cars, basically. Snaps, crackles and pops that clout ears and force bewildered exclamations from mouths.

And yet for most South Africans – even those who do not care for cars – the “vrr-pha” onomatopoeia is immediately synonymous with one product. That is of course, the Volkswagen Golf GTI and by extension its sibling the Golf R.

The employees in their marketing department must be quite smug. They appropriated an entire sound, with a name that is accepted and understood by almost everyone in the country. Vast is the extent of the success enjoyed by the iconic hot hatchback. But if you ask some, it is more than a mere hot hatchback. It is a cult with a myriad of factions.

And one that keeps the accountants at the manufacturer very happy indeed: our market has an insatiable appetite for products wearing those three letters. Well, this statement is hugely erroneous if we remember that Peugeot uses the same moniker. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

Last week Volkswagen unveiled its enhanced Golf 7 range to local media. We loathe to use the word “new” because it is a facelifted model, rather than an entirely rejuvenated one. And it was not surprising that there were more units of the GTI than the regular car for our launch drive. Because the performance versions outsell the standard variants by a decent margin.

A 1.0 TSI engine (81kW and 200Nm) replaces the 1.2 TSI as the entry-level model in the range. The 1.4 TSI (92kW and 200Nm) is carried over from the previous range. Then we have the GTI, which brings (a little) more firepower than before. Now it boasts an output of 169kW (from 162kW) but the torque figure remains unchanged at 350Nm.

Interesting is the arrival of the GTD later this year, which will have an output of 130kW and 380Nm. But do not expect its soundtrack to entertain as much as the petrol vehicle. The enhanced Golf R will gain a jump in output too when it lands in the second half of 2017.

Technological upgrades for the new Golf includes smarter infotainment systems. Frustratingly however, a good old-fashioned volume knob has been replaced with haptic buttons in the top-tier Discover Navigation Pro interface. Although this system is blessed with novelties such as Gesture Control, where hand movements – swipes, flicks and other reflexes that fellow drivers may misconstrue – can be used to control certain functions.

Distinguishing the “old” Golf 7 from the 2017 version is nigh-on impossible to the untrained eye. Here is what you should look out for. The bumpers are… bumpier, the engineers felt illuminated enough to draw a different set of headlamps and the alloy wheel choices are different too. Admittedly these nondescript terms are not going to really help you spot the changes. But according to Volkswagen, this “understated appeal” works just fine. And buyers of the outgoing car will probably agree, when the time comes to talk to the salespeople at the local dealership about trade values.

Unsurprisingly, our time was spent exclusively with the GTI over our test stint from Port Elizabeth to the town of Graaf-Reinet. This scribe was lucky enough to have the outgoing GTI in both Performance Pack and Clubsport guises as frames of reference. My first acquaintance with the Golf 7 GTI in 2014 was accompanied by a sweet-shifting, six-speed manual transmission.

This option is no longer available, with the DSG transmission as standard. Most customers are unlikely to care: it seems there is only a handful of drivers who prefer rowing their own in 2017. Group them with the enthusiasts’ enclave who yearn for a three-door Golf (unavailable locally) and that distinctive Tartan print seat upholstery specific to the GTI, which is also not for us.

Carla Wentzel, general manager of sales and marketing for the Volkswagen brand, used two terms to describe the GTI demographic. Assertive and self-actualised. The former term is pretty apt, because being in the power seat seems to spark some behavioural change. Whether it is positive is up for debate: driving a GTI, one feels the desire – no, urge – to drive like their hair is on fire. You are going to floor it from a set of traffic lights, timing your first-to-second up-shift for maximum “vrr-pha” effect.

In the corners it inspires heroic levels of confidence and one is often surprised at the velocities with which sinuous roads are tackled. And that is among the tenets that makes it such a hit with virtually everyone on the market for a C-segment hot hatchback. There are some offerings out there that are fast and furious. This is fast and foolproof: a car whose talents can be accessed by a variety of driving competencies. We could fault it on that. But then, Volkswagen caters for those self-proclaimed connoisseurs of driving with hotter variants.

Sport-utility vehicles and crossovers are all the rage these days. The Golf GTI stands out as a crossover in the most literal sense of the word. It combines the refinement of a premium car, the rapidity of a true sports car and the cachet to rival products from brands that sit a bit higher on the badge hierarchy. Still the Jill of all Trades in its category? You bet. – Brenwin Naidu

Fast Facts: 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
Power: 169kW from 4700 to 6200rpm
Torque: 350Nm from 1500 to 4600rpm
Transmission: six-speed DSG
0-100km/h: 6.4-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 248km/h (limited)
Fuel: 6.4l/100km (achieved combined)
CO2: 149g/km
Price: From R545 800