Time really does fly when you're having fun, and it's hard to believe the legendary Golf GTI is now in its seventh iteration, set to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2016.
The GTI timeline can also read like a description of the way cars in general have evolved to address safety and emissions legislation, as well as the demands of increasingly sophisticated buyers with more and more lifestyle-led requirements. So where the original weighed just 1,852 pounds, its successor tips the scales at 3,020 pounds—a 39 percent increase. Not only is the new Golf physically much larger but, as with all modern cars, it's also laden with safety and convenience features.
Making appreciably more power and torque but with better economy and lower emissions is a modern trick enabled by electronics. Some rudimentary electronics in early GTIs controlled the ignition, but the ECU of today's average family car is far more powerful than the room-sized super-computers that sent man to the moon in the 1960s. Directing everything from direct fuel injection, ignition curves, and active suspension damping, many of these microchips work in a closed-loop system. This means having to know exactly what happens whenever parameters of one aspect are altered because of the possible knock-on effect elsewhere.
Abt Sportsline is a partner of Audi and VW (the former at official DTM race team level), and so it's one of the few aftermarket tuning houses with direct access to information from the factory development department. Because of this close co-operation, Abt's enhanced outputs are relatively restrained and take longevity into account—along with OE and Abt full vehicle warranties. In this respect, Abt upgrades for the GTI are an almost classic case of conservative tuning.
The MkVII GTI's 1,984cc, direct-injected motor makes 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. That's almost double the horsepower and more than double the torque of the original GTI of 1976, whose 1,588cc SOHC engine made 110 hp and 103 lb-ft. With the Performance Pack, the GTI hits 220 hp between 4,700 and 6,200 rpm (torque remains the same). This delivers a brisk zero-to-62-mph time of 6.4 seconds, plus a top speed of 150 mph.
The Abt Sportsline conversion uses a remapped ECU to match the factory R version and now produces 300 hp between 5,000 and 6,200 rpm, with a lusty 310 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 4,600 rpm. This 30 percent increase in power and 20 percent increase in torque was engineered while heeding factory advice on safe tolerances for mechanical components, particularly the DSG transmission.
Even so, these hikes are sufficient to make a big enough difference to the way the car drives that belies the stopwatch numbers. So while the zero-to-62-mph sprint is reduced to 5.8 seconds and top speed goes up to 160.3 mph, the real gains in everyday driving are in the low and middle ranges, where that extra torque brings improved driveability.
Comparing the power and torque curves of the stock versus tuned cars, it's immediately apparent that the outputs of the Abt-tuned motor mirror the standard curves, just at a higher level. Some tuners ramp up the torque of the lower rev range in particular (which is easy to do with a forced induction motor), but this puts extra load on the drivetrain. Maintaining the factory characteristics gives more of everything at a given engine speed, but with the kind of smooth and seamless delivery for which GTI is renowned.
All this is done with the standard intercooler, although it is possible to fit a high-efficiency replacement and even reduce boost pressure to achieve the same outputs with less thermal stress. But this would cost more. Of course, a customer could do this as an individual modification. As it stands, though, the conversion kit is fully type-approved by the German TÜV authorities as a dealer-fitted bolt-on with carbon dioxide emissions of 149 g/km being identical to the standard car.
Driving Abt's GTI on country roads and at higher speeds along the local autobahn, the power and torque increases make for an even more enjoyable experience. The extra punch for overtaking or simply joining the autobahn is extremely useful. And thanks to a clever factory electronic differential, this extra clout does not induce any of the wheelspin or torque steer histrionics that afflict so many front-drive cars.
Ah, front-wheel drive. Unlike the factory Golf R (whose 300hp power output this car mirrors), the Abt car lacks the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. And that's why it's 0.8 of a second slower to 62 mph. Ultimately, there's no substitute for putting big horsepower through all the wheels for perfect traction off the line.
In its ECU re-mapping, Abt also takes variable fuel quality into account. So those who live in a country where it is hot and/or has poor fuel quality, the sensors will retard the ignition timing to protect the engine. Of course, power output will be reduced commensurately, but at least the motor will be safe.
Applied to a standard GTI, this is a great conversion, but Abt Sportsline does not hide its proverbial light under a bushel, so it decided to do something different for the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, where this particular car made its international debut.
The special theme here is the Dark Edition, a limited edition of 50 cars featuring metallic black paintwork with color-coded 9x20-inch ET40 wheels wearing 235/30 Continental SportContact 3 tires, sports suspension, Abt Sportsline aero kit, plus the 300hp power upgrade with a four-exit sports exhaust system.
Abt's proprietary aerodynamic styling kit consists of grille, front spoiler, headlight covers, side skirts, rear valance insert, rear hatch roof spoiler, carbon-look mirror caps, darkened taillights, and Abt decal set. Contrasting red accents are also applied to highlight the shapes of the aero kit and wheels.
The height-adjustable sports suspension is made for Abt by KW from the company's DDC range, specifically tailored for cars with adaptive damping like the GTI. It features a button fitted to the dash that alters settings among Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. In this car, it's set up to ride 1.4 inches lower than the factory height. Abt also supplements the uprated spring and damper kit with larger-diameter antiroll bars.
The coilovers and the 20-inch wheels with their ultra-low-profile rubber seem like the perfect recipe for a rock-hard ride, but the amount of compliance in Comfort mode comes as a pleasant surprise, at least on German roads. However, 20-inch wheels in places with less well maintained roads are a potentially expensive mix.
In Sport mode, the handling is noticeably tauter. The car turns in crisply and chases apexes like a foxhound, while still retaining a fair measure of comfort for the inevitable imperfections of real-world roads. The Sport Plus setting, on the other hand, might as well be called the Hockenheim setting, only doing its best work on billiard table-smooth tarmac. Overall, the Sport setting is the best compromise for a twisty road. The combination of potent motor, quick steering, perfectly tuned suspension, and the lower mass of the MkVII (154 pounds lighter than its predecessor) delivers rapid point-to-point times with deceptive ease.
The cabin already wears a black-and-red GTI plaid cloth seat trim theme from the factory, so the finishing touch is a set of Abt Sportsline mats in black with red piping and the word "Dark" in red. Beyond that, the Abt logo is stitched in white into Alcantara-covered headrests.
While competing hot hatches show occasional sparks of genius, the Golf GTI (with the arguable exception of the MkIII) is the only one that has been consistently well honed from day one. The latest GTI is a brilliant all-rounder and the perfect platform for well-executed aftermarket tuning. The Abt Sportsline Dark Edition is a prime example.