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The Long Goodbye: VW Golf GTD

The GTD has been around for nearly 40 years. It won't be around for 40 more

By Nic Cackett / Monday, October 29, 2018

You can't buy a Golf GTD at the moment. Or rather you can't order one. The model is a victim of the more stringent WLTP standards, and, to a lesser extent, the fallout from Dieselgate. Volkswagen will wait for the Mk8 to reintroduce a Golf with a more powerful oil-burner - a not inconvenient delay when you consider the amount of dust there is left to settle.

The model's abrupt relocation to the back-burner is symptomatic of the wider backlash against diesel. Not so very long ago it could claim to be one of the most popular variants of one of the most popular hatchbacks in the country. Its meteoric rise to favoured status - much like its recent downfall - mirrored the dramatic escalation of the diesel-powered car market in Europe. But it was not a new idea.

Volkswagen first presented the GTD formula to the public in 1982, and its appeal hardly needed explaining to the domestic market: the combination of GTI packaging and chassis mods with a turbocharged 1.6-litre diesel engine made perfect sense to anyone with a lot of Autobahn to cover. The Mk1 variant had rather less outright power than the contemporary GTI, but almost as much torque, and would crack 100mph with a fair wind.

A Mk2 followed, and a Mk3, but the UK derv market a the time was deemed too shallow to bother importing the idea of a go-faster badge. It deepened in subsequent years, although the Mk4 and 5 still loitered under the 'GT' designation in diesel format. The rebirth finally came in 2009 with the Mk6 and a distinct 170hp 2.0-litre unit that furnished the GTD with the same 258lb ft of torque that Golf R owners were privy to.

Unsurprisingly, this proved manna from heaven for a generation of business users enthralled with the idea of getting maximum forward bang for the lowest CO2 buck. By 2012, its follow-up, the outgoing Mk7, delivered 184hp and 280lb ft of twist from 1,750rpm and was only a second slower to 62mph than the more powerful (but less torquey) GTI, even as it promised 60.1mpg combined economy and lowly 124g/km emissions.

Of course that was graded on the NEDC cycle, and therefore about as relevant to the real world as a Seurat painting is to a Sunday afternoon - but this did not dilute the core message: have it all, for longer and for less. Alongside the closely related Skoda Octavia vRS, the premium-priced GTD was custom-built to hoover up sales from anyone impervious to the charm of a BMW 320d or else fed up with the dirge of a mainstream three-box saloon.

Naturally its success was part founded on the notion of edgier performance, though the idea didn't necessarily earn it much respect among diehard hot hatch fans. When all was said and done, the diesel engine remained - a lesser, dirtier and drabber thing than any one of half a dozen petrol-powered units available elsewhere. The GTD could move you along fast enough, sure - but move you? Spiritually and emotionally? No. It is intended to stir common sense, not the soul.

Consequently, the 2.0-litre motor beneath - a derivative of the stock EA189 unit slap bang at the centre of the Dieselgate scandal - has always been halfway between hero and villain. Back in the 'not so long ago', a no lesser figure than Mike Cross, Jaguar's Chief Engineer, told PH that he'd driven a current Golf GTD for reasons not connected to work and thought it exceptionally good. And, if you play to its strengths, it's easy enough to see what he was talking about.

Like, for example, if you need to drive from Reigate in Surrey to Innsbruck in Austria. In one sitting. And then come back again. Being able to do 750km to a tank is a useful commodity against such a large backdrop; Innsbruck being (roughly speaking) about 1,100km from Calais. Which means you fill up once. Which is pleasing. Doubly so when your plan B is a Hyundai i30 N which, to date, has struggled to muster more than 35mpg.

The Golf, through France and Belgium at a respectful 130km/h, nudges 52mpg. And even with Germany traversed at German speeds, the trip computer claims 47.1mpg for the outward journey. Return? With French tolls suffered all the way from Strasbourg, 49.8mpg. The cost? A large McDonalds bill less than €200 in fuel. About the same as EasyJet quoted for two return tickets.

The physical cost? Negligible. Sure, a Range Rover or Mercedes S Class would have compressed the journey further still, but from the B or C segment where most of Britain buys its cars nothing rivals the nice-to-sit-in, nice-to-interact-with and nice-to-drive niceness of a high spec Golf - especially one that exudes Golfyness with its GTI clone look and feel. The GTD's idiosyncrasies are not all skin deep either; on 18-inch wheels (and the optional adaptive dampers) it rides with same the assured, plush response that you only find in performance derivatives of the Mk7.

Then there is that engine. Guilty of way too much D and too little GT from a standing start - where the modest cylinder count is betrayed by a rattling inadequacy at low revs - it threatens to underwhelm even generous assessment before livening up considerably at the turbocharger's insistence. From there it's the industrious mid range, and the torque delivery that comes with it, which provides the kind of easily-won shove that makes a rule-bending common-rail oil burner so easy to live with.

More often than not, it feels neither fast or slow. The GTD is endowed instead with an oily sort of expediency, one that never quite pins the ears back or quickens the pulse, but leaves you no time to dwell on either drawback because it's thrusting you so relentlessly onward. And because it's all hooked up to the running gear of the world's most accommodating hot hatch, you drive virtually everywhere in a perpetual state of brisk - which, in the real world, more often than not, is just dandy.

In fact, the GTD requires so little of your effort, money or attention - and fills out the outside lane of a derestricted Autobahn so convincingly - that before long you think less on its merits than you do on the inevitability of its passing. Any way you cut it, there can't be too long left on the life span of the go-faster diesel hatchback - the concept already seems mildly anachronistic in the second half of 2018, and there's plenty worse to come.

Perhaps that's no great loss. It always was not quite one thing or the other. But the concept was no more half baked than the petrol-electric hybrids that will likely replace it down the road. Moreover, it - and several other cars like it - did at least pull off one legitimate GTI-style trick: they successfully repackaged and democratised some of the performance from the diesel-drinking class above.

The GTD is obviously not quite the smooth-talking, all-singing six-cylinder Exocet that a BMW 335d is - but it at least delivers a passable lower cost version of the same distance conquering abilities, and does so in a way that doesn't seem drastically less desirable from behind the wheel. Insufficient for the legendary status afforded its petrol-powered sibling, maybe, and certainly less thrilling - but significant enough nevertheless for us to salute the Mk7 variant as it sails somewhat ignominiously out of existence.

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