Volkswagen celebrates 45 years of Golf GTI with special Clubsport model

Despite its chequered history, the hot hatchback remains a fan favourite. We look at the ups and downs, and the model’s remarkable origins

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In 1974, half a dozen Volkswagen staffers hatched a plan to develop a sporty version of the Golf. What’s extraordinary is that the model was not approved by management – it was essentially a secret project. However, what emerged from this is quite possibly one of the best known automotive nameplates in the world: the Golf GTI.

The car launched in the summer of 1976, which makes 2021 the 45th anniversary of the badge. Naturally, Volkswagen has done more than cake and candles, and launched a commemorative model dubbed Golf GTI Clubsport 45.

The new Volkswagen Golf GTI, Clubsport 45. Courtesy Golf GTI
The Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport 45 is a commemorative model marking the badge's 45th anniversary. Courtesy Golf GTI

The exclusive model packs a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine worth 296 horsepower channelled to the front wheels via a dual-clutch automatic gearbox. While it has the underpinnings of the previous Clubsport model, it has been fine-tuned for improved performance and handling.

Cosmetically, you get a host of 45 badges and special 19-inch wheels to identify this is a special-edition GTI. Also available is a Race package that adds Akrapovic exhausts for a more raucous engine note. Interestingly, Volkswagen has removed the 250 kilometres per hour speed limit, but is yet to disclose the top speed.

Given this is the GTI’s big 45th, we celebrate the hot hatchback with a full-throttle blast down memory lane. Here’s how it all started…

Genesis: Mk1 GTI – 1976

Despite a successful launch at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Volkswagen initially intended to produce only 5,000 cars to recover development costs and investment. However, things didn’t exactly go to plan. With its top speed of 182kph and black wheel arch extensions, black body accents and the now famous tartan sports seats, the GTI gained such an immense following that VW eventually ended up building nearly 500,000 of these cars.

Thanks to its nippy handling, unconventional styling and a relatively affordable price tag, the GTI was an unprecedented hit. The Mk1 GTI still remains one of the rarest and most coveted models in the range, with some examples exchanging hands for a quarter of a million dirhams.

Two steps forward: Mk2 GTI – 1984

Courtesy Golf GTI
The 1984 edition of the Mk2 GTI featured a 112hp engine, followed by a 16-valve engine making 129hp in 1986 and 160hp in 1990

Despite the runaway success of the original, it took Volkswagen nearly eight years to develop the follow-up. Launched in 1984, the Mk2 GTI initially featured a 112hp engine like its predecessor. Importantly, though, it retained the design and performance DNA of the original. In 1986, Volkswagen introduced a new 16-valve engine making 129hp, while the range topper came in 1990 with a supercharger and an output of 160hp.

One step back: Mk3 GTI – 1991

The third iteration of the GTI took a slightly different styling approach. While the proportions remained similar, the angular lines were replaced by a more rounded appearance. Even though it developed up to 150hp thanks to a new 2.0-litre engine, it was also heavier. The base vehicle developed a measly 115hp, which made it slower than the car it replaced. Expectedly, the Mk3 didn’t quite capture the magic of the original, and serious GTI enthusiasts were not at all impressed. And things were about to change for the worse.

Missing in action: Mk4 GTI – 1998

Courtesy Golf GTI
With a sluggish engine and bulbous design, 1998's Mk4 GTI also failed to impress 

This was quite possibly the most maligned model in the GTI family. It was heavier than before, which meant that the 150hp engine wasn’t quite enough to provide the required motivation. Although it was more practical and noticeably comfortable in daily use, the GTI zing was missing.

The design was updated yet again and, depending on your perspective, it was either modern or bulbous – most agreed with the latter. Even though Volkswagen tried to remedy the problem with a 180hp 25th-anniversary special edition, the damage was done.

Five alive: Mk5 GTI – 2004

This car was a turning point in the history of the nameplate; armed with a powerful 200hp engine, the Mk5 model rekindled the GTI magic. The compact car delivered the same agile handling and driving dynamics that buyers had come to expect from a GTI.

It looked significantly sharper than the previous model, too. Mated with a manual gearbox, the turbocharged engine had enough grunt to propel it to the benchmark 100kph in a shade over seven seconds. The model with a new dual-clutch gearbox – or DSG in VW parlance – was even quicker hitting 100kph in just 6.9 seconds.

Sixth sense: Mk6 GTI – 2010  

The Mk6 GTI initially received a mixed response, which was largely because of the dowdy styling. It was criticised for being dated, even before it left the showroom floor. However, what it couldn't achieve in design it did in dynamics. With better power-to-weight ratio and up to 235hp, it was a worthy follow-up to the Mk5.

The model was honed by racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck, which was evident in the handling and its ability to dart through corners. The standard GTI had a turbocharged engine worth 210hp and was one of the most entertaining cars at its time. With a power-to-weight ratio of 6kg/hp, the GTI was quicker than ever, smashing 100kph in just 6.6 seconds.

Magnificent seven: Mk7 GTI – 2013

Volkswagen Golf GTI. Courtesy Golf GTI
The high-performing Mk7 GTI was the first to reach a top speed of 250kph

The GTI had rediscovered its mojo, and the seventh-generation model was offered in two output versions. The entry-level model was worth 220hp, while the GTI Performance variant offered 230hp. It was also the first GTI to be based on VW’s modular transverse matrix (MQB). The latest iteration, thanks to the new platform, was up to 42 kilograms lighter, enhancing its dynamic abilities. Armed with the 230hp engine, it was also the first Golf GTI to reach 250kph, while 0 to 100kph came in a brisk 5.9 seconds, making it the fastest accelerating GTI until then.

In fact, the eventual Golf GTI Clubsport S developing 310hp set a record for front-wheel drive vehicles around the feared Nurburgring Nordschleife loop in Germany. Clocking a time of 07:49:21 minutes, it once again cemented the GTI name in the automotive hall of fame.

Fashionably eight: Mk8 GTI - 2019

Aggressive yet, arguably, chintzy, the Mk8 GTI is an evolution of its predecessor mechanically. It still uses the same platform, albeit updated; it's powered by VW's EA888 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine. However, thanks to higher pressure fuel injectors, it now develops 242hp. The grunt is transmitted to the front wheels via a seven-speed automatic DSG gearbox, although happily there is an option for a six-speed manual - a rarity these days.

Happy anniversary, Golf GTI. Here's awaiting the Mk9.