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posted on March 27th, 2017

The original hot hatch still sizzles

The venerable Jeremy Clarkson once said the Volkswagen GTI is “all things, to all men.” And there’s really no better summary of the car. It’s a nice car, yet classless. You’re just as likely to see a businessman behind the wheel as a teenager. It’s sporty, but as comfortable and relaxing to cruise down the highway as any other car. There are enough styling cues to differentiate it from its Golf siblings, but they’re subtle enough that a casual passerby wouldn’t notice the difference.

A legend is born

The original MKI GTI was a revolutionary blending of the concepts of a sports car and family car. Something fun to drive, especially in European markets, usually came in the form of a 2-seater roadster. A blast to drive, but not exactly a practical option for a family, or anyone that needs to travel around with more than a briefcase. All that changed in 1976 when Volkswagen engineers cobbled together the first GTI with components from the VW/Audi parts bin. They borrowed a high-revving  8v 1.6L turbo engine from the Audi 80 and stuck it in the Golf’s featherweight 1800 lb. chassis, resulting in a 0-60 time of 9.0 seconds and a top speed of 110 mph, comparable to high-end sedans of the era.

1991 Golf GTI (Image credit: vwgolfmk2.co.uk)

Losing touch

Debuting in 1984, the MKII swelled slightly in proportions and sported an new quad headlight front fascia. The original 8v engine was eventually replaced with a more powerful 16v, but also came with a slightly more buzzy and harsh driving experience. The charm of the original model remained but its luster began to fade.

The MKIII and MKIV generations continued the weight-gain trend, but the powertrains didn’t offer increased performance to match. It almost seemed like the very spirit of the engineers designing the car had been lost. Their suspension was soft, the styling unmemorable, even the gear shifters felt vague. They offered a nicely designed interior compared to the competition, but really that was about it.

Recapturing the original spirit

By the time the MKIV was due for a refresh, someone at VW realized what had gone wrong and set about fixing it for the MKV generation. While modern safety standards and consumer demands required that the MKV be nearly double the weight of the original MKI, the all-new 2.0T power plant also offered about double the horsepower. Featuring bold new styling, funky plaid seats and a chunky flat bottom steering wheel, the styling was daring but still subtle enough to maintain the GTI’s ability to transcend class.

The MKVI generation built on the newfound success of the MKV and refined the formula. The exterior styling was chiseled into a more mature shape than the MKV’s happy-go-lucky appearance, although the hate-’em-or-love-’em plaid seats remained. The interior quality was significantly improved and the GTI began to enjoy the reputation of a “budget Audi.”

2015 Golf GTI (Image credit: motortrend.com)

The latest chapter

The MKVII generation grew considerably in size from the previous platform, but thanks to new manufacturing techniques also managed to shed weight. It also offers a limited-slip front differential for the first time, which mitigates many of the compromises of a front-wheel-drive car. The interior continued its trend of improving quality and passenger comfort, offering significantly more space around the driver. It embodies the original spirit of the MKI’s Jekyll and Hyde nature, a sedate and fairly luxurious family car with ample cargo space that turns into a hair-raising performance car the moment you show it a corner.

Joey is a freelance writer who loves everything about interesting cars and the people who drive them. He can most often be found lying under an old car or playing with his golden retriever, Molly.