Though others may have used it, VW has made the ‘GTI’ badge its own. Regardless of there being more powerful, faster, quicker hatchbacks on the market at any given time, the Golf GTI remains the benchmark in the segment. With the imminent introduction of the eighth generation hot hatch into the local market we thought we’d take a look at the VW Golf GTI generations from the very start of this success story… which almost didn’t happen.

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Mk1 Golf GTI (1976-1983)

The first generation Golf was launched in Germany in 1976, but a performance version was not on the cards, initially anyway. A six-man skunkworks within the company covertly worked on the project after hours. When board members were eventually presented with the ‘Sport Golf’, they were suitably impressed to greenlight its production. The GTI upended the world of sportscars and redefined what econoboxes were capable of. Early models featured an Audi-sourced 1,6-litre fuel-injected motor; this was later replaced by a 1,8-litre 82 kW version; as first received in SA in 1982. With impeccable handling and a 182 km/h top speed the first GTI was a giant killer. Golf Mk1 production ceased in 1984 but the ethos of the Mk1 GTI would live on in SA as the Citi Golf CTi and later as the Citi Golf R-Line.

Mk2 Golf GTI (1984-1991)

Mk2, or Jumbo as it is known by some, would take over where the original left off. GTI was now a firmly established performance badge for Volkswagen. Mk2 made its SA debut in 1986 with the same 1,8-litre 8-valve engine as used in the Mk1 and it was soon joined by a 102 kW 1,8-litre 16v. The latter was the very first Golf to feature four-valve technology. The Mk2 was facelifted later in its life with the addition of larger bumpers and different alloys. A 110 kW 2,0-litre 16v was the final iteration of the GTI badge in Mk2 guise. Other performance models in Mk2 shape included the supercharged Rallye Golf G60 and Golf Limited G60. 

Mk3 Golf GTI (1991-1998)

The VW Golf GTI Generations story continued with the Mk3, which is considered by most enthusiasts as the point at which the GTI floundered. Mk3 was a larger, heavier car and this generation spawned a lacklustre GTI with a lazy 2,0-litre 8v powerplant for SA in 1992. However, this series gave birth to the popular VR6. It was the very first time a Golf body housed a six-cylinder engine. The 128 kW ‘Voora’ has been lifted to iconic status in Mzansi thanks, in large part, to its evocative soundtrack. In 1997, the third generation was phased out of production. Incidentally, Volkswagen SA had the unusual honour of producing Mk1, Mk2 and Mk3 Golfs concurrently at the Uitenhage plant.  

Mk4 Golf GTI (1998-2004)

Though conservatively styled, generation four ushered in many technological firsts for VW’s perennial hatch. The Mk4 was launched in SA in 2000. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and brake assist safety systems are just two notable features. For the very first time the GTI featured a turbocharged engine. In 1999, the first Golf with a six-speed gearbox was launched. The 132 kW Golf GTI Edition 25 was created to celebrate the badge’s 25th anniversary. In 2002, Volkswagen also introduced the R32, the first Golf available with an automated dual-clutch transmission or DSG (for Direkt-Schalt-Getriebe or direct shift gearbox) in VW speak, as well as all-wheel-drive. 

Continued below the gallery…

  • VW Golf GTI Generations
  • VW Golf GTI Generations
  • VW Golf GTI Generations
  • VW Golf GTI Generations
  • VW Golf GTI Generations
  • VW Golf GTI Generations

Mk5 Golf GTI (2004-2009)

Golf Mk5 heralded a return to sporting form for the GTI. SA fans could buy the Mk5 from 2005. The Golf Mk5 offered high levels of comfort and elevated dynamics thanks to new features such as independent rear suspension and the option of a DSG transmission; a six-speed manual was standard fitment. Another first was the debut of the first direct injection turbocharged petrol engine in the GTI. The new powerplant was a revelation. 147 kW of power and a wide usable torque curve, once again, lifted the GTI to the top of the hot hatch class. 

Mk6 Golf GTI (2008-2012)

The Mk6 Golf was more of a facelifted Mk5 as witnessed by its short production run. Sharper styling was the key differentiator to onlookers; the pair of tailpipes was now split and moved to either corner of the rear bumper. From 2009 SA fans could enjoy the same 2,0-litre engine now with peak power raised to 155 kW. Buyers could choose between manual or self-shifting transmissions. An electronic locking differential (XDS) was fitted to help curb understeer. For the very first time GTI is offered in a cabriolet body style. VW had, until that time, not offered many special editions. But a 35th birthday is worth celebrating and the Edition35 boasted bespoke wheels, more power (173 kW) and torque (300 N.m) than a ‘regular’ GTI.

Mk7 Golf GTI (2012-2020)

Mk6 was a ‘facelift’ because Volkswagen knew what was coming… Modularer Querbaukasten or MQB. The modular transversal toolkit underpins a raft of front-engine/front-wheel-drive VW Group products. Importantly for the Golf, Mk7 was the first to be lighter than the model it replaced. From its debut in 2012 (and a year later in South Africa) the 162 kW Mk7 GTI has been at or near the very top of its segment. Success tasted with the Ed35 led VW to create a number of special-edition GTI variants. These included the Performance Pack (169 kW), 195 kW Clubsport Edition40 (to celebrate 40 years of the badge), Clubsport S and lastly the 213 kW TCR. With 228 kW the Clubsport S is the most powerful Golf to ever carry the GTI badge, and one-time record holder of the quickest FWD car around the Nurburgring Nordschleife. With only 400 units produced, it is also the rarest GTI ever made.

Mk8 Golf GTI (2020-)

The VW Golf GTI generations story continues with the imminent launch of the Mk8 GTI here in SA. The latest version sticks to the tried and trusted recipe: a four-cylinder engine powering the front axle. In the Mk8 GTI the turbocharged motor produces 180 kW and 370 N.m of torque. Power is sent to the wheels through a DSG transmission. You can check out the local spec and pricing for the Mk8 Golf GTI at this link.