Business Car Trailblazer: Volkswagen Golf GTI
12 August 2021
Author: Simon Harris
The car that defined what became known as the 'hot hatch' lives on into its eighth generation. But we get reacquainted with the model that started it all.
|14in alloy wheels - Pirelli 'P' Campaign, lowered suspension, front spoiler, front and rear anti-roll bars, red trimmed front grille, twin halogen headlights, internally adjustable door mirrors, front bucket seats with head restraints, three-point seat belts for front and rear passengers, multifunction computer, folding rear seat, rear window wash-wipe system.|
Most of us are familiar with the term 'hot hatch', derived from a high-performance engine and race-influenced styling bestowed upon a lowly volume hatchback.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI was first shown in 1975, launched in Europe in 1977, but it wasn't until 1979 that versions were produced specifically for right-hand drive markets.
The template for every high-performance hatchback today was set with this model, including lowered suspension, special alloy wheels, as well as other visual cues.
The first Golf GTI came with a 110hp 1.6-litre petrol engine and offered a 0-62mph sprint time of 9.1 seconds through its four-speed gearbox. The now characteristic check pattern on the seat fabric was here, more than 40 years ago, as was the red trim around the radiator grille.
We refreshed our memories with a late mk1 example, using the slightly more powerful 1.8-litre engine, producing 112hp but much more driveable with its five-speed gearbox. This upgrade allowed almost a second off the 0-62mph time, and a figure that wasn't bettered until the 180hp turbocharged mk4 arrived much later.
It's well documented that the original Volkswagen Golf was outgrown in dimensions by the Polo, in the class below, at the latter car's fourth generation, and approaching an early Golf GTI in 2021 really does give you the impression of how small it is by modern standards.
It's a solid car though, even by early 1980s build standards, with a sturdy feel inside and this example feeling almost as fresh as the day it was built - although, no doubt having had huge amounts of care lavished on it over the past 38 years.
It feels nimble on the road, despite its cornering ability showing its age with a great deal more lean when cornering than in a modern hatchback, as well as quite narrow tyres. This is down to the informative steering feel and its kerb weight of less than 900kg.
The first GTI was intended to be a limited production run of 5,000 units, but it eventually sold almost half a million. Although we didn't see a quick diesel version here until the fourth-generation Golf and its GT TDI, Volkswagen also launched a GTD version of the original that was only destined for left-hand drive markets. Even that diesel version has a successor in the eight-generation model on sale today.
The Golf GTI grew in size and stature with the second-generation version in 1984 and, although power increased, it wasn't until the fifth-generation Golf GTI that driving enthusiasts felt the magic of the original was recaptured. However, its legacy is still secure and look how many other manufacturers now offer hot hatches based on the same principles.