Road Tests

New Golf GTD is a quick long distance athlete

Americans prefer it in their trucks, not cars. South Africans prefer it in their bakkies, instead of hatchbacks. And most of Europe is planning to ban the use of it in cities by 2015. Diesel is dying.

It’s a dozen decades since uncle Rudolph engineered his alternative to the steam engine, revolutionising industries and creating potentially disastrous acronyms. VW’s Golf GTD is not one of them – unlike Ford’s STD. After waiting since 2012, Golf GTD has finally arrived in a market obsessed by the conquering excellence of GTI, but generally indifferent to diesels – unless it’s in a double-cab.

Cynicism crafts the suspicion that Golf GTD is being dumped in South Africa, because demands for diesel cars are waning in other RHD markets – such as the UK and Australia. Unless it involves Wits F.C. player transfers for the 2018 season, I’m not given to cynicism – analysis is preferable.

What to make of a diesel powered GTI? In principle it’s a neat idea, all the five-door family performance car characteristics which make GTI a phenomenon, benefitted by additional range and potentially lower running costs. That last point is crucial, because unlike all other markets where it’s sold, and an inversion of the accepted petrol/diesel engine pricing structure, GTD is cheaper than GTI in Mzansi by nearly R40 000.

Undoubtedly the public’s perception is of GTI performance and better range for less outlay. Stupendous deal, or is it? Besides red grille detailing, scarlet brake callipers, wheel design and exhausts exiting under each corner of its rear bumper, instead of both bunched on the left, GTD and GTI are the same car. The only clues to their different powertrains are when you flip the fuel flap, you’ll notice the yellow diesel symbol, and inside a rev-counter that is more conservative by 2000rpm – with red paint at only 4500rpm.

Expectations can be dangerous (ask Pirates fans) and assumptions even more so (didn’t expect 11th place, Buccaneers?). There’s a risk that the familiarity of Golf GTI’s superiority, will allow GTD to leverage the VW hot hatch legend without scrutiny. But we’ll never allow that here at TopGear. It’s the reason we’ve gathered both, in the Eastern Cape, home of VWSA, to see if you can substitute the letter ‘D’ for ‘I’ in the most regarded Mzansi automotive acronym.

Compare statistics and the conclusion would appear simple. GTI’s got 30% more power at 169kW, whilst Golf GTD counters with a mere 8.5% torque advantage, at 380Nm. The mass difference is marginal (31kg) but with both scrabbling for speed through a similar six-speed DSG, the GTI’s a full second quicker to the 0-100kph benchmark. The balance of performance is GTD’s 30% superior consumption.

We all know that statistics are sophistry. Numbers are often numbed in their perceived value, when tested by experience in the real world. It’s why I’ve set the GTD’s SatNav for a route that reveals all, dropping down into the Gamtoos river valley, where the roads are tight, surfaces unforgiving and a hot hatch is expected to excel.

I attempt to concentrate my criticisms during the journey’s first 100km, before the turnoff to Hankey, with very little success. Golf7.5 is such an excellent vessel, and with its latest raft of digitation, you revel in the refinement of it all. The only truth my N2 travel reveals is that GTD’s capable of very swift, expletive-free truck overtaking; hardly a surprise with that DSG transmission always having pre-engaged the correct gear and 380Nm to boost you out of trouble.

Then there’s the noise. I’d expected a diesel drone, but each time I’ve pulled back on the left paddle shifter, the sound resonating was not at all diesel-like. It sounds, peculiarly, like a muffled five-cylinder Audi. If ever there is a diesel hatchback you could fool petrolhead mates into thinking it was not, it’s Golf GTD. Tellingly, part of this sound signature is trickery, courtesy of a sound actuator, which amplifies the clarity of certain engine noises into the cabin, via the speakers. Naughty, but if BMW could do it with M5, then I guess there’s no blaming VW for using similar technology in GTD.

Heading north, off the N2, the Gamtoos mountains frame a brilliant horizon beyond the GTD’s digital dials. For the next 40km it will be a succession of devilishly tightening corners, with thick growths of Aloe hiding the consequences of getting it wrong – which are mostly, quite severe drop-offs, into the Kouga river below.

There’s no fiddling at the helm, no uncomfortable writhing of the hips. Typically Golf, GTD’s driving position is flawless, allowing you perfect leverage over the steering wheel and pedals. As I find a rhythm after the first few corners, gaining confidence in GTD’s almost mercurial ability to ride through bumps and imperfections only a rainstorm away from becoming potholes, the issues start clarifying themselves. There’s a bit too much of something above that front axle, and also, too little of something else.

It might only be a bit more than what a bag of potatoes weigh, but carving down the R330 you feel the burden of that heavier diesel engine, adding momentum to the arguing reality of understeer – scrubbing away at your intended line-choice. Unfortunately, it’s not the only GTD debit this Gamtoos valley descent is revealing.

With a GTI there’s greater corner-to-corner accuracy and you feel the pull of every one of those 169kW; it’s a desperately fast real-world car, blitzing apexes. GTD’s combination of 130kW and 380Nm makes for a spectacularly accomplished high-speed cruiser, but it’s a numb experience, the DSG transmission feeling ill-suited to its turbodiesel asthma above 3500rpm. Ultimately, a 30% power deficiency can never be balanced by an 8% torque gain.

As the road levels I enter Hankey and cruise past Patensie, stopping briefly to admire the mountain, before attempting the return journey. It’s nightfall as I roll into Port Elizabeth, fiddling with the trip computer. Following an afternoon of spirited driving, the read-out is remarkable: 8l/100km.

Double-cabs have created great acceptance for diesel amongst South African buyers and if you have an Amarok 3.0 V6, a Golf GTD makes for a brilliant second car. But a diesel GTI? There’s simply no such thing.

  • Price: R506 700
  • Engine: 1968cc 4-cyl turbo diesel 130kW, 350Nm
  • Transmission: 7-spd DSG, FWD
  • Performance: 0-100km/h in 7.4secs, 230km/h
  • Economy: 5.3l/100km, 139g/km
  • Weight: 1377kg
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