Many say that the Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI is “just a Mk5” with a facelift. It’s not; there are subtle but significant differences, as we’ll discover throughout this report – but even if it really is just a facelift, is it that bad considering the Mk5 GTI was such as great performance car, one that re-energized the hot hatch segment and revived the legendary GTI lineage?

Continue reading the review after the jump.

I remember very clearly my first experience with the Mk6 Golf over a year ago. Driving the 158 bhp Twincharger GT variant on coarse Icelandic roads in poor weather I caught myself saying: “This is all the car I need”. Yes, it didn’t look very different from the Mk5, and much of the old car’s underpinnings were carried over, but VW has every reason to play the subtle evolution game.

The Mk6 doesn’t change the template, but just by improving on the things that the Golf does well – superb refinement, that unshakable feeling of solidity and stability, segment leading quality, understated class – plus the most high tech drivetrain in its class, and it becomes a superbly satisfying car to drive and own.

The hot GTI version here faces the exact same questions – it’s not seen as a major step from the old model. That’s fully understandable if viewed from the outside, as the Mk6 retains the familiar profile and size of the Mk5 which contributes the floorpan and platform to the car you see here – wheelbase is identical at 2578 mm.

What sets the Mk6 apart is the new VW family look which started with the Scirocco, in comes a flat and long black grille (trimmed here with signature GTI red piping and honeycomb grille) and slim headlights that stretch far back into the front fender. These changes, plus the vertical fog lights placed at the extreme ends of the bumper, successfully creates an impression of added width. The inner elements of the headlights are stylish, but the rear lamps are a little mundane and SUV like. We reckon that this more dynamic stance becomes clear with both cars parked side by side. Which do you prefer?

The GTI is never about shouting, so there’s a discreet rear spoiler, twin pipes (one on each side now) and 17-inch telephone dial alloys with red brake calipers hiding within. Looks good in red but our tester’s solid white helps the new features standout.

The new car’s upgraded interior alone is worth the price of admission as such high quality is rarely seen in cars with mass market badges – the quality of the materials, how solid everything feels, the tight panel gaps and classy touches such as the pinstriped piano black trim and the little splashes of shiny bits – all combine for a great ambience. It’s supremely comfortable too, with great insulation from wind/road noises and good support from those heavily bolstered seats.

Nothing spectacular design wise, but things like the new instrument cluster (now illuminated in white) and the more slimline centre console lifts it above the Mk5. In my opinion, the biggest improvement is the steering wheel – still flat bottomed, but the four-way buttons, chunky feel and design all combine to scream premium. It’s one of the nicest wheels we’ve held in recent times in fact. Too bad our market doesn’t get VW’s excellent full colour touch-screen ICE system.

Anything we miss? The “holes” at the base of the Mk5 centre console to brace knees is one, and the column stalks could tick with more smoothness (Honda stalks work with a high quality feel for instance) but we’re just nit picking in a wonderful cabin. Oh yes, tartan seats should be an option too!

Although a glance at the spec sheet might show identical displacement, bore and stroke with the Mk5′s EA113 motor, this car’s engine belongs to the new generation EA888 family – as does the 1.8 TFSI engine in the Audi A4. Chain driven camshafts and a lower compression ratio are among the differences, although there’s no variable valve lift in this application, unlike in Audis. The more compact and lighter engine packs extra power, 207 bhp to be exact, 10 horses more than before, now produced 200 rpm higher at 5300 rpm. Torque remains the same at 280 Nm from a diesel like low of 1700 rpm. Fuel efficiency is enhanced as well – VW’s claimed combined figure is 13.5 km/l. We managed to hover between 10.5 and 12 km/l, which is good for a car with this much performance.

In practise, the drivetrain experience is familiar. There’s almost zero lag as the boost spools up, the wave of urge that comes is strong and sustained fairly long (older turbo engines tend to fade a liitle at high revs), and there’s plenty of incentive in revving all the way to redline (cut out at about 7000 rpm). Best of all, the flexibility of it all allows you to hang on to high gears comfortably – 60 km/h in sixth anyone? – with power in reserve to overtake. This, combined with the fact that the engine is refined and silent when you’re not extending it makes for a good long distance cruiser that’s on par with the compact exec segment.

As usual for a DSG equipped VW, the twin-clutch gearbox plays a big part in the appeal of the drivetrain. No matter how you drive, or in what situation, it never makes a miscalculation, the right gear is less than a second away, it’s blindingly quick in shifts and smooth to go with it.

It’s so good in ‘D’ that it gives nothing away to a good automatic, but with the immediacy no torque converter auto ‘box can match. If you just stepped out from a Selespeed car into a DSG car, you’d think that they are a century apart – even when you take into account Mitsubishi’s SST and BMW’s DCT, DSG reigns supreme.

The potent combo of the best gearbox in town with a powerful and efficient engine makes for a deadly partnership that goes about its job like a professional hitman. Not much drama (engine doesn’t sound that evocative or lusty, power delivery is very linear, no mechanical thump when changing gears), but Mr GTI gets the job done fast and without fuss.

“Not much drama” also well describes the driving experience. The GTI has plenty of grip in reserve when you’re going for it and will stick on the chosen line unless you’re really being senseless. Steering it is a joy too, as there’s reasonable feel, perfect weighting and speed to accompany. Torque steer is not an issue, just little tugs at the wheel on full power, and there’s not much kickback on poor roads either.

With so much torque at disposal, a front driven car can struggle to transfer it down to the tarmac cleanly, and this is where the Mk6 GTI’s standard XDS electronic differential comes in. We’re not talking about heaven and earth difference here, but the Mk6 can power out of corners slightly earlier than its predecessor, which at times can scrabble for grip when you’re being impatient.

Another welcome addition is the DCC Adaptive Chassis Control system, where you can choose from Sport, Comfort and Auto modes for the electronically controlled dampers. The system is fed data from wheel and body movements, steering, transmission, throttle and brakes to come up with the optimum damping force for individual wheels. Not just for show, there’s a discernible difference between modes: Sport is best for twisty but smooth roads as you’ll pick up more of the road while Comfort is good enough for moderately fast driving; Auto is the best compromise and we’re happy to leave it there most of the time.

Also available in the Scirocco, DCC is a much better resolved system than the comparable Audi Drive Select, where it’s either acceptable steering weight/very brittle ride or decent ride comfort/super light steering.

The blend of tight body control plus good ride comfort is what makes the GTI a joy to drive on trunk roads. Combine this with strong, effortless performance and class leading refinement and quality that VW infused into the Mk6 Golf and you get a great all round performance car that’s not short on practicality as well.

I’m a great fan of the Scirocco for its looks, but for a substantial RM34,000 less, the RM209,888 Golf GTI offers a newer engine with more power, XDS and a better cabin. If I had that amount of money to spend on a car, it would be sleepless nights of decision making!