Munich, Germany – The Volkswagen Golf GTI is considered the model that virtually single-handedly launched the compact sports car segment after it launched in Europe in 1976. This version of the little Golf reworked by VW’s engineers didn’t just get more horses to play with than the regular model, other adjustments to the chassis, brakes and suspension sent its driving dynamics to unique levels for an economical small car.
Oft imitated but never quite matched, the GTI has retained its status as a reference in the category, and in just a few months’ time Volkswagen will roll out the 8th generation of the Golf, and along with it the 8th generation of its sportier sibling.
The perfect excuse
The cult that has developed around the GTI long ago busted out beyond Germany’s borders, especially in Europe where the model is far more widespread than it is on this side of the Atlantic. And so it is that for the past 38 years, first a handful and then huge numbers of fans of the GTI have gathered annually on the shores of Lac Wörthersee, in the small town of Reitnitz, Austria.
First organized in 1981, what is now known as the GTI Treffen starts each year on the last Thursday of May and wraps up the following Sunday, in loose connection with Father's Day. In recent years, the town has become a place of pilgrimage for those in love with the GTI, so that the event starts long before its official dates at the end of May.
Volkswagen has not failed to notice this outpouring of love for its little sports model, and has become more closely involved with the event over the last decade, even unveiling prototypes there.
This gathering-cum-mini-Woodstock even inspired the Canadian division of the German automaker to invite a few automotive journalists to take it in this year. We didn’t need to be asked twice. But to get there, we could only take one car: the Golf GTI, dressed for this occasion in the Performance package. Actually, we could also have taken a Golf R for the drive from Munich to Wörthersee, but it was only fitting that we would make our pilgrimage in the car that started the whole thing nearly four decades ago.
That pilgrimage started officially at the Munich airport, where a blue Golf GTI awaited my colleague and me. After a strong cup of coffee to shake off the cobwebs from our overnight flight, we hit the road in the direction of Kitzbühel, the Austrian town known as a famous stop on the World Cup alpine ski racing circuit. This immensely likable alpine town constituted out first stop.
After but a few kilometres on the German autobahn, the rain joined in, and it didn’t leave us until the next day. How little that mattered, given I was at the wheel of a speedy, nimble and responsive car, cozy in my comfortable and enveloping seat, which as you can see from the photos featured the celebrated Clark checkered motif. A few (million) measly little raindrops weren’t going to stop me!
The Golf GTI is a totally different creature than it was on its debut nearly 45 years ago, but I have to say the engineers at Wolfsburg found a way to reinfuse the model with its original spirit, particularly starting with the fifth-generation Golf. And they’ve been perfecting it even more ever since.
The car we were given for our trek of a few hundred kilometres came with a manual gearbox, controlled by a stick topped by a fantastic golf-ball-shaped knob. Light and precise, the gear lever is a joy to use to climb up and down the six gears of the box. Manipulating the clutch requires no particular effort on the part of the driver, and the placement of the pedals is virtually perfect making it easy to use the old heel-and-toe system for downshifting.
A few years have passed since I last test-drove the GTI, so it took a few kilometres for me to properly get my bearings. Fortunately the excellent ergonomics of the interior made that process short and easy. I was back in the GTI universe. The steering wheel is inviting to hold, whether you’re ambling around town or tearing off bits of asphalt on a closed track, and the dashboard is very intuitive like in most of the brand’s products. The massive screen displayed in front of me is not actually available as an option in the Canadian GTI, however. Though that was the only visible difference I could make out.
In case you didn’t know, the several sections of the network of highways in Germany have no speed limit, which of course is a green light to squeeze the most possible oomph from the 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo engine and its 228 hp. Alas, reality set in in the form of traffic buildups that often dashed any hope of taking the car to 200 km/h. Besides, we’d been given instructions to stick together in a group for this first part of our drive to Wörthersee.
Cruising at “only” 160 km/h
So I contented myself with cruising at 160 km/h, with gusts up to 170 km/h when the conditions allowed! I can tell you that even at that speed, I was being passed by more-aggressive drivers, so I periodically had to move over to the right lane. Still, it felt pretty darn good to drive at that speed without worry my driver’s licence was about to be forfeited. As for the car, it never faltered even with the wet road surface.
So far, so great from the GTI. Even if the suspension is calibrated for sporty driving, the car absorbed the road’s small imperfections painlessly. Those occasions when I had to slow meant I had to downshift, at which time the mechanics started to sing; I would intentionally speed up again to keep the pace, but also to get another earful of the throaty singing coming from the exhaust at high RPMs. Once back up in sixth gear, however, the car grows fairly silent once again.
We finally made our way to the back-country, where winding roads allowed us to discover another aspect of the GTI: its incredible agility. As in previous generations, the GTI demands engagement from the driver, especially when compared with the Golf R, which is heavier and more mature. The GTI doesn’t have 4Motion all-wheel drive like its sibling, but this is a technical detail that takes nothing away from its ability to fly though curves with ease, even though the asphalt continued to be as rain-soaked as ever. Thank you limited-slip differential!
Once we made it to Kitzbühel, it was time for another face-slapping coffee and an excellent sandwich made on site. Revived and refreshed, we headed within the convoy of Golfs a little deeper into the Austrian countryside at the foothills of the mountains (which we couldn’t actually see due to the dense fog around us).
By that time I was at the wheel of a Golf R, which I have to say is an amazing car in its own right, even if the dual-clutch transmission does irritate some purists who have eyes (feet?) only for three pedals on the floor. I was still at the wheel of a sport-minded VW Golf, but really, the feeling wasn’t the same. I was missing that spark that only the GTI can deliver, still after all these years. It makes you understand how and why the GTI Treffen exists.
The last word
This European pilgrimage allowed me to understand anew what a Volkswagen GTI is and what it needs to be. Since the 70s, the little compact sports car has managed to offer high-level performance on a small platform, without compromising for the sake of practicality or comfort. We can only hope that as Volkswagen turns its big ship in the direction of electric mobility, the personality of the GTI is not lost in the translation. Meanwhile we keep our fingers crossed for the next generation coming in just a few months.
Before any of that happens, of course, I wouldn’t have chosen anything other than a Golf GTI to take me to the shores of Lac Wörthersee for this special event. Rain-soaked as it was, the visit - and the drive that took me there - confirmed to me once again my affection for the Golf and all of its iterations.