Johannesburg - Such a polished machine was the Golf 7 GTI, it’d be foolish for Volkswagen to toy too much with the recipe for the newly updated 7.5 version. And they haven’t, thankfully.

The exterior preening is so mild you might miss it, with only a set of now standard LED head- and tail-lights, some fresh wheel designs and a slightly tweaked bumper shape differentiating old and new. 

Changes here have mostly happened inside, where the infotainment systems have been upgraded with bigger touchscreens and the instrument cluster is now available as an optional digital ‘Active Info Display’ just like the ones in Passat and Tiguan. The 2-litre turbo engine’s been squeezed for a bit more power too, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Our test car’s standard fitment 20.3cm colour touchscreen was swapped out for a R22 000 optional Discover Navigation Pro system, meaning it grows in size to a 23.4cm unit and gains 10GB of music storage, gesture control and Apple Carplay compatibility.

That giant display measurement is a bit misleading though, because while the glossy black panel is indeed 23.4cm wide, a good portion of it is taken up by flush, touch-sensitive glass buttons on one side. The actual touchscreen portion is smaller.

Still, it’s a sexy device that adds a hefty dose of sparkle to the GTI’s cabin, and its resolution is as crisp and colourful as anything you’d find on show in an iStore. The gesture control function is a gimmick we’d never use, because it’s just as easy to just swipe icons with a finger on the screen rather than with a waved hand at a distance. The move away from a rotary volume knob is also a step backward in our opinion, because poking repeatedly at a pair of tiny buttons can be tricky when on the move.

It’s nice that VW has made its Active Info Display available as a standalone feature, and not bundled it with expensive satnav as Audi’s done with its very similar Virtual Cockpit. In the VW it’s an R8000 option that further elevates techno-ambience with whizbang digital graphics instead of conventional needle gauges. We’d spring for it given the choice.

You get the feeling that VW and Audi’s 2-litre turbo engine, which is sold in a huge variety of vehicles, is adjustable for outputs with a simple turn of a screw at the factory. This same motor has been tweaked and tuned to all sorts of power specifications depending on application, and here it makes 7kW more than it did pre-facelift, with the same 350Nm torque figure. In this state it’s actually identical to that in 2015’s GTI Performance Pack.

Can you feel the 7kW difference on the road? No, not really. But we did go faster in this GTI than we have with any previous versions at our test facility. The launch control function within the six-speed DSG gearbox (manual GTIs are now extinct in our market) makes for metronomic standing start times, and after a handful of nearly identical runs we set a fastest 0-100km/h dash of 6.49 seconds (VW claims 6.4) with a best quarter mile time of 14.63 secs.

These figures mean the GTI 7.5 is a shade quicker than the now discontinued Performance Pack (a new one’s likely on the way) which achieved 6.62 and 14.79 seconds respectively two years ago. It’s also quicker than the previous 162kW version (6.60 and 14.85 secs), though the model we tested had a manual gearbox and no launch control.

Just as we said in previous road tests of older models, traction is the limiting factor. This GTI, and all others, would probably be quicker if it didn’t wheelspin so much off the line. Launch control works well to keep revs up before the clutch dumps, but from there it fights for grip and loses precious time to spinning, and sometimes hopping front wheels.

Regardless of particular power spec, this is a fine powerplant with a velvety spread of boosted gusto right across its rev range. Gushes of acceleration are available at any moment thanks mostly to one of the best autoboxes in the business, and there’s always a smooth exhaust note accompanying engine speed. Some of it is, however, produced electronically, and its intensity can be turned up and down via the central display screen.

A variety of drive modes transform the GTI’s on road behaviour with preset gearbox shift maps, damper firmness and throttle sensitivity, and I was particularly impressed with how it hovered along in the softest Comfort setting. Our car rolled on optional 19” wheels (the biggest available), and while we often advise against low profile rubber for its adverse effect on ride quality, the GTI copes with rubber band-sized tyres just fine. Just beware those nasty potholes.

VERDICT

It’s still the benchmark front-wheel drive hot hatch. The already well sorted GTI is now just a little bit better with new tech and a tad more power. That push button volume control is a tiny blotch on an otherwise near-perfect package.

FACTS

Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Gearbox: 6-speed automated dual clutch
Power: 169kW @ 4700-6200rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1500-4600rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng):6.49 seconds
Quarter mile (tested, Gauteng):14.63 seconds
Top speed (claimed):248km/h
Price: R545 800
Warranty: 3-year/120 000km
Service plan: 5-year/90 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Ford Focus ST3 184kW/360NmR481 900
Renault Megane RS 275 Finale201kW/360NmR489 900
Volvo V40 T5 Momentum180kW/350NmR499 238
BMW 125i 5-door auto165kW/310NmR525 140
Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG169kW/350NmR545 800
Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport160kW/350NmR554 822

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