Today, if you want a car that’s sporty, practical, and affordable, you’re spoiled for choice. You have your pick of the Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST, Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper S JCW, Fiat 500 Abarth, and even the Hyundai Elantra Sport. But all of these cars have a common ancestor: the Volkswagen GTI, the father of all sport compacts. The GTI single-handedly created the segment, and has been the king of sport compacts ever since – and possibly one of the most influential cars of all time.
Back in the mid 1970s, you could either buy an expensive, impractical sports car like a Porsche or a Ferrari, or a practical family car. There just wasn’t anything for the common man who wanted a fun driving experience. Some may point out the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro, but both of those cars were so heavily hampered by new emissions regulations at the time that they could barely be considered “performance” cars at all. The Golf GTI changed all that.
After releasing the Mk1 Golf as a replacement for the Beetle in 1974, a marketing executive at Volkswagen named Anton Konrad realized the Golf’s potential as a sporty car that was also affordable and practical. Even though he was told “no,” Konrad put a team together and shoved a bigger 1.8 liter engine into the little hatchback, giving it 110 horsepower instead of the original 85 horsepower. That may not seem like a lot of power, but the original Golf only weighed about 2,000 pounds. It was quick, it handled great, and it still retained all of the practicality of the original Golf.
The GTI was a huge success. Volkswagen planned to only make 5,000 Mk1 GTIs, but instead ended up making over 420,000 between 1975 and 1983, as the Mk1 GTI consistently ranked among the best-selling cars in Western Europe during that time. The GTI provided people an alternative to the dull cars of the 1970s, and ushered in an era of new hope for a struggling automotive industry.
Unfortunately, Americans didn’t get to enjoy the new hot hatch immediately. VW gave the U.S. market the Rabbit GTI in 1983, but it barely had any more horsepower than the regular Golf. However, in 1985 Volkswagen released the Mk2 GTI in the U.S., to much fanfare. With a new twin-cam 16 valve engine that put out up to 137 horsepower, it was even better than the original. It won award after award from car magazines, and became the new face of Volkswagen. Volkswagen was no longer the company that built slow and ancient cars like the Beetle, but rather a company that built fun, affordable, and sensible cars for the masses.
Volkswagen replaced the Mk2 with the Mk3 GTI in 1993. It was bigger and heavier, but it could be had with a wide variety of engines, including the now-legendary VR6. The VR6 was a 2.8 liter narrow-angle V6 that put out 172 horsepower. In 1999The Mk3 was replaced by the Mk4, which featured a redesign that moved the car upmarket, and the introduction of the 1.8t turbo in addition to the VR6. It also featured the introduction of the first high-performance Golf R, the R32, which came with a 237 horsepower 3.2 liter VR6 engine, all-wheel drive, and the first dual-clutch transmission fitted to a production car.
In 2006, Volkswagen introduced the Mk5 GTI to the United States. The Mk5 was a huge step forward for the Golf platform, featuring a new standard 2.0 liter direct injected turbocharged engine that put out 200 horsepower, a stiffer chassis, independent rear suspension, the now-iconic plaid seats, and a choice of either a dual-clutch or manual transmission. An R32 variant was also offered with a 250 horsepower VR6, AWD and a DSG gearbox. Overall, the Mk5 was well-received and helped move Volkswagen into the 21st century.
The Mk6 replaced the Mk5 in 2010, introducing an updated design and some engine improvements that netted an extra 10 horsepower, but overall it wasn’t a radical departure from the previous generation. Volkswagen also changed up their high-performance Golf offering by offering the Golf R, which featured a turbocharged four cylinder engine that produced 267 horsepower instead of the previous VR6.
Finally, Volkswagen replaced the Mk6 with the current generation Mk7 in 2015. The Mk7 features the same engine as the Mk6 but with a bit more horsepower and quite a bit more torque. The most dramatic change for the Mk7 are the car’s underpinnings: it’s built on a new Volkswagen modular chassis platform known as MQB, which allows the GTI to handle better than almost every other sport-compact on the road, while maintaining comfort and ride quality.
Even with a large number of competitors nipping at its feet, the GTI is still the king of sport compacts. It perfectly balances sportiness with comfort, affordability, and practicality, just like the original did back in the mid-Seventies. Frankly, it’s possibly the best all-around car you can buy, and it will likely continue to be the best into the future generations as well.