The joy of VI - Golf GTI

When the MkV Golf GTI launched internationally at the end of 2004, it marked a dramatic return to form for the famous three-letter badge that Volkswagen invented in 1976. By the time the GTI arrived in Australia in May 2005, it had already become the darling of the motoring press. Waiting lists blew out past six months as local dealers were stampeded by punters flocking back to the pioneering hot hatch after it had spent, by VW's own admission, a couple of generations in the dynamic wilderness.

In short, the new MkVI GTI, due for local release in the fourth quarter of this year, has to live up to massive expectations both from the public and VW.

While it's claimed to be a new car, the MkVI GTI is a Porsche 911-esque evolution of the MkV. The platform is an updated version of the DQ35 used in the MkV, but the only common exterior panel is the roof. Some journos on the car's international launch in France thought the styling was too similar to the MkV, but the differences become apparent when the two are parked side by side.

VW also claims that the VI is powered by a new engine, but again, it's an evolution of the Volkswagen Audi Group's EA888 TSI range of turbo four-cylinder engines. Swept capacity remains 1984cc (from a 82.5mm bore and 92.8mm stroke), but internally the engine is more closely related to Audi's A4 TFSI four-cylinder.

Power is up 8kW over the MkV to 155kW, on tap from 5300-6200rpm, but that's still 14kW short of the limited-run Golf V Pirelli Edition. However, Rolf Trump, technical project director for Golf and GTI, is quick to defend the GTI as a complete package.

"It's not all about power," Trump began, "we believe 210ps [155kW] is sufficient and 230-240ps [169-177kW] is essentially the limit for GTI".

Curiously, Trump then went on to outline plans for two hot models. "The official program is two cars," he said. "There may be one at 230-240ps, then one at 270-280ps [199-206kW]."

Back to the MkVI GTI, and peak torque remains 280Nm as per the V, but it's now available over a spread 300 revs wider - 1700-5200rpm. Coupled to either the six-speed manual or optional DSG transmission (also a six-speeder), the mid-range torque is an ever-present and welcome companion. On the sinuous mountain roads of the launch drive, it was virtually impossible to get caught in the wrong gear regardless of transmission.

Locally, 75 percent of GTIs are ordered with the DSG. On the move the transmission plucks gears adroitly, but still suffers from that great dual-clutch bugbear of abrupt throttle tip-in at low speeds. It's also a bit doughy in normal mode, quickly selecting the highest available gear for the sake of economy. Drop the shifter into sport mode, though, and the 'box comes alive, holding gears on the run up the ratios, or instinctively giving you a downshift as you trail-brake into a corner. All the while, the engine delivers a stirring, rumbling note, with entertaining pops and bangs on upshifts.

For those not yet willing to join the DSG revolution, the manual features a quick and accurate shift, mated to a light clutch. It'd be my pick only because any low-speed hiccups are the driver's.

The efficiency and fluidity of either gearbox, and the storming mid-range punch are coupled to an 18kg weight reduction (for the German-market three-door manual model), resulting in a power-to-weight of 118kW/tonne (up from 110kW/tonne). Seat-of-the- pants impressions suggests this combo makes VW's performance claims seem conservative. According to the brand, both models will now reach 100km/h from rest in 6.9 seconds - maintaining the status quo for the DSG but 0.3sec quicker for the manual.

While performance appears similar, fuel economy has made huge gains. In European testing, which is very similar to Australia's revised ADR81 standard, combined cycle consumption for the six-speed manual drops to 7.3L/100km (down 0.7L or nearly nine percent). The DSG version consumes 7.4L per 100km.

If VW is being conservative with its performance claims, it's being cheeky calling the GTI's XDS technology an "electronic transverse differential lock". It's not a proper locking diff like that offered on the Renaultsport Megane R26; instead, the diff remains open. Torque-limiting of the spinning inside wheel is controlled by XDS, in conjunction with the ESP system, applying the brakes to that wheel. It's not as effective or hardcore as the hardware fitted to the French fryer, but it does work, with a feeling of increased stability in faster corners. It also doesn't feel 'tight' like some LSDs.

Dynamic chassis control (DCC) is another GTI first. Carried over, albeit in a performance-oriented guise, from the regular Golf MkVI, DCC offers three damper settings - comfort, normal and sport. On the smooth French roads of the drive program, sport mode was the pick, delivering terrific body control and just enough compliance for a car of this genre. The few rough bits of tarmac we encounted, however, suggested that sport may be too firm for Australia's pimply roads.

Which is a shame, as sport mode also adjusts the steering weighting (comfort and normal feature the one steering setting). Without selecting sport, the steering is strangely lifeless and too light. Even with sport mode on, you still crave more feel. VW insists that there were no changes to the steering, but four of the five Aussie journos present on the launch had similar reservations about the lack of weight and feedback.

Perhaps the difference can be explained by wheel size. All 14 test cars available at the launch were fitted with the optional 18-inch alloys, while all Golf GTI MkVs I've driven in Australia have been fitted with 17-inch alloys. Of the 14 cars, two were fitted with Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres (225/40R18) while the remainder rode on same-size Michelin Pilot Exalto rubber, with the French set appearing to offer marginally better ride comfort and steering feel.

It'd be ideal if you could separate damper and steering settings, allowing you to choose comfort or normal for the dampers and sport mode for the steering. As it stands, the lack of steering feel is the only chink in the GTI's impressive armour, and we'll reserve final judgement until Wheels drives an Aussie-spec car on local roads.

The interior has benefitted from the changes introduced by Golf VI, including loads of work on NVH. There's a slightly redesigned steering wheel, and the tartan-trimmed sports seats (leather remains an option) are some of the best in the business, offering a terrific combo of support and comfort.

Pricing and some options are yet to be confirmed for Australian-spec cars, but expect a $1500-2000 price increase when the five-door debuts late this year (at around $42K for the manual). VW Australia also won't yet confirm the new three-door, but Wheels expects it down under from mid-2010 priced about $2K less than the five-door. Dynamic Chassis Control is optional in Europe and is likely to remain so in Australia, along with the 18-inch telephone-dial alloys (17-inch alloys look likely to continue as the standard wheel in Australia).

Next to the likes of the Renaultsport Clio and Megane, Mazda 3 MPS and Honda Civic Type R, the sixth-gen Golf GTI may appear tame. But for most drivers, the GTI offers the best balance of driving thrills and useability. In short, it's the one to own.

Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats
Drivetrain front-engine (east-west), front-drive
Engine 1984cc four cylinder, dohc, 16v, turbo
Power 155kW @ 5300-6200rpm
Torque 280Nm @ 1700-5200rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual or 6-speed automated manual
Size l/w/h 4210/1779/1465mm
Wheelbase 2578mm
Weight 1336kg (3-door manual)
0-100km/h 6.9sec (claimed)
Price $42,000 (estimated)
On sale October

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