You know, I’ve been driving my 2010 VW GTI for over two years now. I acquired the car I now call Six Iron on New Year’s Eve of 2019 and have modded and honed it into the everyday driver I’ve always wanted over 45,000 miles. Even with my Mk6 faith, I still have always wondered about the experience of the newer Mk7 GTI. So I finally went about borrowing a 2015 Mk7 and learning some crucial reasons why I should keep and modify my Mk6 further.
The new-for-’22 GTI generation is the Mk8. The Mk7 generation spans 2015 to 2021, and Mk6s like mine ran from 2010 to 2014. And in case you’re encountering this nomenclature for the first time, those codes are spoken as “mark six, seven, eight…” and so on.
I know it seems like I just wrote about fixing Six Iron at great cost but the truth is I did that entire journey a few months ago now. I’ve put about 4,000 miles on the reborn Six Iron and I still enjoy it very much, but a feeling was starting to tug gently at my mind. I desired more power and more grip from the car, so I did some research.
As much as I love my car as-is, I still have the desire to modify it. I priced out the true cost of giving my GTI a larger K04 turbocharger (compared to my stock IHI unit, sometimes called K03), upgraded intercooler, single-mass flywheel, clutch, and limited-slip differential it deserves and quickly figured out that it would cost me about $6,000 to execute these mods. Even then, I’m not sure my cooling system (which already gets hot on track… and no real aftermarket upgrades seem to exist) can handle that extra power. So naturally, this has me thinking: Should I just use that money on a newer car?
Just for comparison’s sake I started researching Mk7 modifications and got myself into a real conundrum. For the price of entry into a newer, nicer, and more reliable Mk7, I could have a car that was as powerful as a K04-turbo’d Mk6. On top of that, I’d have the headroom to do more mods to it thanks to its MQB roots which means it can interchange parts with faster Audis and Golf Rs and widens the engineering base for aftermarket parts. I could get an aftermarket radiator that would keep coolant temps down on hot track days where I can’t on my Mk6. Also, the $600 Mk7 APR Stage 1 tune makes nearly the same power (300 ponies or so) as the $1,500 K04 turbo upgrade and doesn’t require a new $1,000 clutch to hold the power. Finally, it can be had with a factory limited-slip differential, and some of my current go-fast parts like my big brake kit and Fluidampr fit on the Mk7.
When the math of the swap is laid out, it almost feels like a no-brainer: I should sell my Mk6 and buy a Mk7. The problem is that I love my car and have a deep emotional attachment to it. Not that this is a forever car, because no car is forever. But I haven’t finished my business with Six Iron yet. Still, the only real way to know where to go from here was to spend some time behind the wheel of an Mk7.
I couldn’t find any on a car rental app, but I luckily have a buddy who just bought a used but perfectly stock 2015 GTI manual two-door. It’s a non-performance pack so it does not have the VAQ limited-slip differential, but it was a well-kept example of a car I would buy with 66,000 miles. Zeke, my friend, tossed me the keys and I left him with my car to enjoy for the day. He gave me no mileage restriction and told me to drive as much as I pleased, as long as I didn’t move the odometer beyond 69,420 miles because his son wanted that, uh, milestone for himself. Hey, whatever brings you joy, man.
I wasn’t going to do anything close to even 1,000 miles in the car with a day’s worth of driving. Still, I plotted a simple route taking 60 miles of canyons and 30 miles of highway driving to get lunch on the Pacific Coast and went on my way, driving my favorite canyons to get a feel for the Mk7 compared to my modified Mk6.
On The Engine and Gearbox
There is a general attitude of the overall GTI experience not changing from Mk5 to Mk7; that the feel is generally the same and it is not worth upgrading because there is nothing to upgrade from. I defy that notion just with the first few yards I drove the Mk7.
It is so blindingly evident where Volkswagen spent money on the Mk7: Everything is in engine and input calibration. The clutch, while light and not quite perceptive of the grab point, is impossibly well-calibrated to the top-hinged throttle pedal. Where my Mk6 is somewhat frustrated at low speeds and can be jerky, the Mk7 never betrays so much as a vibration in any clutch engagement. It is brilliantly smooth and easy to use in all situations. My only complaint is that the top-hinged throttle pedal is far less easy to heel-and-toe downshift with than the floor-mounted part in the Mk6.
The shifter itself is also a mechanism of great improvement. Much as I have tried with motorsport-grade hardware and fresh parts, my Mk6 still has a decidedly fictile shifter feel, devoid of any of that oleaginous metallic magic that makes up the best shifters. The Mk7 takes all my dumb aftermarket tuning and sneers in its face with an expertly weighted and dampened mechanism that is infinitely pleasurable to actuate. It feels substantial but requires only light effort to use.
But there was one thing I did not expect: The third-generation EA888 engine is not as radiantly excellent as I thought it would be. It runs out of breath at 5,500 rpm and feels much less eager to rev than my APR Stage 1 tuned and Fluidampr’d first-generation EA888. The Mk7 is much smoother, though a lot of that is the stock engine mounts compared to my 034 Motorsport hardened rubber mounts. I think the third-gen engine could be made to rev with simple mods, but it is unimpressive in stock form. I much prefer the character of my modified old powerplant. A stock first-gen EA888 also feels similar to the Mk7, which is why I modified it in the first place.
Then there is the colossal disappointment of the Mk7s manual gearbox ratios. It is unbelievably tall, with a huge ratio spread from first to second. Shifting at 6,000 rpm in first to second results in a 2,000 rpm drop to 4,000 rpm. If it wasn’t for the prodigiously whole powerband of the third-gen engine, it would be the scariest and nastiest bog monster west of any Louisiana bayou.
It doesn’t get better from there. You don’t actually shift the Mk7 much at all, which is such a shame for its great inputs. In the tight radii bends of Malibu and the eastern Angeles Forest, I was stuck in a tall second gear, often at the southern end of a deep powerband. On the highway, I struggled to find a reason to use the incredibly tall sixth gear that dropped the engine down to nearly idle.
Screw all of that. I want to be shifting, I want to be using the manual gearbox, not going from 2,500 to 6,000 rpm repeatedly on some of the best driving roads on earth. Nor do I want to bog down at 65 miles per hour in sixth gear at 2,000 rpm. Second gear should never wind up to 73 mph. What the hell is the rest of the gearbox for?
This is where my Six Iron shines. It is geared as short as Miata, with 60 miles per hour arriving near the middle of third gear if shifted correctly, or at the 7,000 rpm rev limiter in second. Sixth gear is good for 2,800 rpm at 65 and feels usable for passing. Best of all, I’m using the gearbox constantly, always deepening my connection to the driving experience. In those same second-gear roads, I use second and third, maybe fourth in Six Iron.
This gearing is a huge loss for the Mk7. It’s a shame too, for such a decent shifter and engine.
I’ve mentioned this in past articles — my least favorite thing about Six Iron is the lightness of the steering. At times, it has great feel and acceptable weight. Other times, it feels too light and lacks feedback. But, I have drastically changed the overall dynamic profile of my car with a host of mods: aluminum control arms and hubs from a Passat up front, a set of 24mm sway bars front and rear, camber plates, an anti-lift kit that adds caster, Tyrolsport rigid collars for the front subframe, and a Stoptech ST41 big brake kit. Not to mention the tire compound stagger I run that lets Six Iron rotate on demand, where it would understeer before.
So comparing the stock Mk7 to the heavily modified and tuned Mk6 in dynamics is unfair. But that is not the point I’m trying to illustrate. What I was immediately struck by in the first 10 miles of driving the Mk7 is how great it is, even compared to my lovingly massaged Mk6. The most evident difference is in the steering.
Where the Mk6 constantly reminds the driver that it has electrically-assisted steering, the Mk7 defies it. There is actual feel and feedback coming up the column-like gentle chills, which is something of a revelation to my hands. It isn’t brimming with texture but it has enough and it is calibrated several orders of magnitude better than the Mk6. At higher speed, the steering loads with robust resistance and offers substantial confidence around wide bends. I can feel the limit of the tires arriving long before they get overwhelmed, all through the steering.
In the Mk6, I rely more on movement and cues from body movement to tell me if the front end is nibbling away where the steering offers me next to zero feedback. This improvement alone nearly spelled doom for my beloved car.
Admittedly, the Mk7 felt softer than I’d like and not quite as responsive as I want at low speed, but it is impressively sorted at higher speeds. It also made the roughest, most punishing roads actually fun and comfortable. Think rally car vibes.
On The Interior
The cockpits between these cars is something of a straight toss-up forme. After getting past the newer-car shock of the Mk7, I generally found the Mk7 and the Mk6 to be comparable in the interior department. I would say the Mk6 has an edge in overall material quality and texture choices thanks to its gratuitous soft-touch plastic surfaces and complete absence of glossy piano black adjacent plastics that the Mk7 has a little too much of.
The controls, knobs, and switches are a touch more satisfying in the Mk6. The AC knobs in particular have a more positive engagement and the steering wheel controls feel higher quality compared to the retirement home telephone-sized buttons on the Mk7 steering wheel. That isn’t to say the Mk7 is bad, but there is something to be said for the quality of the Mk6’s cabin for its age.
Functionality is the same across the two cars. The Mk7 gets a color multi-function display in the gauge cluster where the Mk6 works with black-and-white and my car has the eight-button RNS510 navigation unit from a late Tiguan. There is no increase or decrease in practicality between the two cars, but there are some choice aesthetics that deeply bother me.
The grave mistake of the Mk7 cabin (besides the idiotic and painterly application of glossy plastic) is the white backlighting for the gauge cluster and all controls. The Mk6 had it nearly perfect in 2010: all controls are backlit red, with the unfortunate exemption of the gauge cluster. Every Golf since the Mk4 has had this philosophy. Why change now?
This makes the nighttime ambiance of the Mk7 substantially less vibey than the Mk6. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Where I can (and have) driven the Mk6 through the dead of night with near-zero eye fatigue, the Mk7 bothers my eyes just a little more during the night stint.
Then there is the omission of the red ambient lights in the overhead console. I love — and I mean love — how that gentle red glow cascades around the center console of my Mk6 at night. I love it so much that I soldered in brighter red LEDs from an E60 BMW 5 Series for just the right tone. This is another feature that every GTI has had since the Mk4 and I again ask: Why change now?
Instead, the Mk7 gets some nifty ambient light strips in the doors and no overhead ambient lights. Again, the Mk7 interior isn’t bad. In fact, it’s astoundingly good. But somehow, it feels less like what I want and more about modernizing the car for modernizing’s sake. But I think I’m just a rambling 24-year old car boomer. Bring back red backlighting, damnit.
The first miles of the Mk7 did wow me, I won’t lie. But as I deepened my connection with the new car, I did find kinship in its mannerisms. I planned to drive the car 100 miles and I ended up driving it 267 miles. I may have been somewhat harsh in my earlier words but that is not to say I hate the Mk7. Much the opposite.
I’m comparing this stock Mk7 to my favorite and most beloved driving experience in Six Iron. This is a serious yardstick, and the Mk7 compares favorably. I really enjoyed driving the thing and I think it’s an impressive achievement of everyday usability. I did not want to put this car down. I wanted to keep using it, marveling at it, and learn its secrets. Even if it ended with me just having more ideas for Six Iron.
The Mk7 is brilliant. Perhaps even the last brilliant GTI we will ever get. I really considered getting one, but it does fall short in crucial ways that I enjoy. The gearing was a major disappointment and it basically killed my desire for a Mk7 GTI. I could live with the white backlighting, even if my psychotic analysis says otherwise. Though I do hear that the Mk7 Golf R has short gears.
For any prospective GTI buyers: you cannot go wrong with a Mk6 or Mk7. Both are fabulous, but I think most of you should go with lucky number seven.
I’m going to hold down camp Mk6 for the rest of us.
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