The Clarkson review: Volkswagen Golf GTI (2013)

Perfect camouflage

More Info

There are many wonderful cars on the market right now: the Ferrari 458 Italia, the McLaren 12C Spider, the Bentley Continental GT V8, the Mercedes SLS AMG, the Lexus LFA, the Aston Martin Vanquish and the BMW M6 Gran Coupé. All are fast, stylish and characterful and I’d happily own any one of them. But I can’t, because driving around in a flash car is like driving around naked. You tend to get noticed. Which is not something I find very enjoyable.

When I’m out and about I’m asked constantly to pose for a photograph. “It’s for my sister who’s going on a hockey tour,” they always say while rummaging around for their cameraphone.

Search for and buy a Volkswagen Golf on 

Several minutes later, after I’ve heard all about the hockey tour and how her boyfriend has a BMW M3, she has found the camera on her phone and is asking passers-by to take a shot. But they don’t know which button to press so they end up taking a picture of their own nose. Or turning it off. And by the time they’ve had a lesson, someone else has arrived. “Oh, my son would never forgive me if I didn’t get a picture.”

Resisting the temptation to say, “Well, don’t tell him you saw me then,” I agree to a snap, only to discover he’s a bit of a David Bailey and wants me to move into the shade because the shot’s a bit too backlit. And soon my two-minute trip to the shop for a pint of milk has turned into a two-hour photoshoot.

This, of course, is a time-consuming by-product of appearing on the television. But when it happens on the road, it’s actually pretty dangerous. People brake and swerve and cut across three lanes of traffic to get a shot of me. Once, a chap in a Mini was so busy videoing me he crashed into the car in front. A car that was being driven, amusingly, by a gorilla of a man.

One of these days someone is going to be killed and that’s why I want my next car to be inconspicuous. And that’s a problem because every single car that offers the speed and excitement I crave comes with “Look at me” styling. Except one: the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

So, I’m sorry. Every week I come here and review a car for your benefit but this morning I’m reviewing a car for mine. Because the new GTI might just be the answer to all my prayers.

When Volkswagen first created the fast Golf 37 years ago, it was truly classless. I knew housewives who scrimped and saved to buy one. And I knew someone who part-exchanged his Gordon-Keeble. It was also a car that was all things to all men. It could carry five people. It had a boot with rear seats that folded down. It had body panels that cost no more to repair than those on the normal Golf but, thanks to its 108bhp engine, it was faster and more exciting than any of the sports cars that were kicking around at the time.

The Mk 2 GTI was pretty good as well, but since then the mojo has been slipping away. You had the impression that VW was making a GTI because it felt it had to, not because it was something that excited it in any way. But for the Mk 7 the company brought in the man who did the Porsche 911 GT3 RS. And from what I’ve been hearing, the original magic is back.

The engine is a 2-litre turbo that produces 217bhp. But for an extra £980 you can have the performance pack, which takes the output up to 227bhp. I tried that version and after a short time knew that in the real world this car could keep up with just about anything.

Quietly. There’s no fuss with this GTI. No drama. No rorty exhaust noises. You see a gap. You put your foot down. The overtaking manoeuvre is completed. You reach a bend. The electronic front diff makes sure there’s no understeer and no unseemly tugging at the steering wheel either. You come out on the other side. It is a machine built to make speedy progress. It is German.

There’s more too. It costs just £195 more than the previous model and, thanks to a camera-based emergency braking system, it has fallen five insurance groups. And for a 150mph-plus car it is also extremely economical.

What we have here then is a bundle of pure, undiluted common sense. Except for two things. First, you can’t buy it with optional 19in wheels in combination with a sunroof — no idea why. And second, you can choose between Comfort, Normal and Sport settings for the front differential, the suspension, the gearbox and the steering, so I did a test. I took the car to Top Gear’s test track, put it in Normal and asked the Stig to do a lap. He did it in 1 minute 29.6 seconds. I then put it in Sport. This time he did a lap in 1 minute 29.6 seconds. So then I put it in Comfort, which softens everything up. He did it in 1 minute 29.5 seconds.

Adjustable suspension and gearboxes are fitted to many cars these days and I’ve long harboured a suspicion they make no difference to how fast a car goes. And here’s proof. Sport makes the ride uncomfortable but provides no benefit at all. In its Normal setting the GTI is tremendous. The sportiness is still there — the times prove that — but Comfort mode is sublime. It’s phenomenal and brilliant.

Inside, it’s as logical and as sensible as a German’s knicker drawer and you have the impression that everything will still be working perfectly in 10 years’ time. Except for the radio, which broke after two days. And a bit of trim round the rear window, which fell off. But to be fair, I was testing a pre-production model. And the man responsible for these mistakes will have been shot by the time the lines start to roll for real.

Best of all, though, nobody took my picture as I drove along. I had a car that can rip holes in the physics books, that can scream to 62mph in just over six seconds, that slices through the bends like a well-drilled monoskier and that is as comfortable as having a nice lie down. But nobody looked at it twice.

The only thing that annoyed me was the double-clutch flappy-paddle gearbox. It was impossible to set off from the lights smoothly and by the fourth day I was being driven mad. By the seventh I was so angry my nose was beginning to itch. And then I discovered the “auto hold” button.

Fitted to stop the car rolling backwards when you are doing a hill start — you can’t ride the clutch with a flappy-paddle box and there’s none of the in-built “creep” you get from a traditional automatic — it applies the brake whenever you stop. And then, when you put your foot on the throttle, it takes the brake off again. But not fast enough. Hence the jerk.

I turned it off and all was well. Very well. For me this car is perfect. And if you’re honest, it’s perfect for you too.



Verdict ★★★★☆

As fiendish as a Klingon cloaking device


Release date:
On sale now
1984cc, 4 cylinders
227bhp @ 4700rpm
258 lb ft @ 1500rpm
6-speed semi-auto DSG
0-62mph in 6.4sec
Top speed:
44.1mpg (combined)
Road tax band:
F (£140 per year)
L 4268mm, W 2027mm, H 1442mm




Search for and buy a Volkswagen Golf on 






Published July 16, 2013

Follow @ST_Driving