The right stuff. Remember the ad from the eighties? The one with the Mk2 Golf GTI going through a corner with one rear wheel in the air, followed by shots of it completely airborne? It was a legendary ad that sent shivers down my spine - the more so because I was twelve and this was undoubtedly my favourite car at the time.
My brother had an 1800 eight-valve Mk2 GTI, and I remember a certain DNA to that car, from the way it was put together, to the way the power was delivered to the front wheels, to the iconic look. And having later on driven a Mk1 GTI, it became clear where that purist sensation started, although the Mk2 was certainly more revolution than evolution.
Without getting into too much detail, and I guess everybody has their own opinion, the Mk3 and Mk4 Golfs, including those that carried the iconic GTI badge, seemed more family focused and never really carried that spirited torch forward.
SHARP, EDGY DESIGN
The Mk5 GTI revisited “the right stuff” drawing board with a sharp, edgy design, a free-revving force-fed engine (the force-fed part had already become a GTI thing), seriously sorted handling, and upper-class fit and finish.
Which brings us to the present, sixth-generation GTI, which thankfully didn’t stray too far from number Five (even the alloy wheels stayed the same) but added more power, threw in more handling gizmos, and again improved on the fit and finish.
Now before you start wondering why I’m getting all nostalgic on you, it’s because I recently found myself behind the wheel of a model called the Golf GTI Edition 35, which celebrates 35 years of the nameplate and makes it impossible for you to not go spinning down memory lane.
And the good news about the special edition is that it’s not just a 35 badge here and fancy spoiler there.
There’s been the odd mechanical tweak too.
Buyers can expect 173kW (18kW more than the current GTI) and 300Nm (20Nm more), with VW claiming 6.6 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint. And the boys from Wolfsburg have tuned the exhaust a little for a raspier sound.
Visual venom comes in the form of a different front bumper, new winglets (VW promises aerodynamic gains), and the front spoiler finished in black. Side-mirror housings are also black, side sills are finished in body colour, and 35 badging runs along the front wings. Tail lights and rear windows are tinted too. The biggest tell-tale sign though are the exclusive 18” wheels. They’re called Watkins Glen after a racetrack in New York and, shod with low-profile 225/40 rubber, really do look the part.
The gear lever with the classic golf-ball look from the first generation GTI is a truly classic touch, accompanied by 35 branded sill plates and seats, and safety belts with red stripes.
Look closely and you may also notice that the centre seat panels mimick the honeycomb pattern of the GTI’s radiator grille – while the steering wheel, handbrake lever and floor mats are all slightly different to the standard GTI too.
We had the six-speed manual on test (R370 900), but there is a DSG version (R385 700) – either way you’re in for around thirty grand more than the respective standard GTI models.
But before you start getting all excited about being an owner of the limited edition, there’s a chink in that nostalgic armour which surfaces on the performance front.
The best times we managed at our test facility were seven seconds flat for the 0-100km/h sprint (and 15 flat for the quarter mile) – which seems reasonable when compared to the 6.6 claim.
But two years ago we slaughtered that 0-100km/h time with the lower-powered 155kW GTI by running a 6.3-second 0-100km/h – granted that was with the seamless DSG ‘box but it was also with 18 less kilowatts and thirty grand less spend (in today’s terms).
Details aside though, the 35 gets the same suspension setup as its Mk6 GTI sibling which includes an electronic diff-lock called XDS. XDS works like a mechanical limited-slip differential but uses the front brake callipers to brake the unweighted inside wheel should it lose traction in the corners.
It’s fun to drive, and is such an awesome car to push the boundaries in. It was a treat to have a manual box and to just be able to enjoy the clutch, choose a gear, point the nose at a corner, and work the boost through the front tyres with the nannies put to bed.
Even with those big wheels the ride in the 35 was pleasant and feedback from that squared-off steering wheel was pin-point accurate. The gearbox was like a hot knife through butter, and the engine free-revving with boost available in just about any rev range.
VW calls the GTI the most successful compact sports car in automotive history, and it really isn’t hard to understand why. Would I spend the extra money on the 35? It comes down to whether I was buying with my head or my heart.
Happy 35th GTI. -Star Motoring
Follow Minesh on Twitter: @Mineshbhagaloo
VW Golf GTI Edition 35 (173kW) - R370 900
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1750 TBi (173kW) - R351 800
Audi S3 Sportback quattro (188kW) - R423 855
Mazda3 MPS 2.3 DISI (190kW) - R343 140
Renault Megane RS Sport (184kW) - R359 900
Renault Megane RS Cup (184kW) - R399 900
Volvo C30 T5 R-Design (169kW) - R345 900