The icon has evolved considerably over the years.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the benchmark of its segment, just like the BMW M3 sedan and Porsche 911 are for their respective niches. It's a remarkable car that jumpstarted the hot hatch revolution, and its creation inspired everything from the Renault R5 Turbo to today's wild Mercedes-AMG A45 S.
This year, the Golf GTI celebrates 45 years of existence with a special edition, so what better time to look back on the legendary hatch's forebears? Volkswagen rightly calls this a cult car, but although the technology and performance of the car became better with each new generation, the same styling principles have always been applied.
We start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, as a young Julie Andrews once famously yodeled. The Mark 1 Golf GTI landed in Europe in 1976 and set the tone for every generation since. Its grille is framed in a red lipstick, and while those grilles have changed over the years, a red accent has always remained. The first GTI also set a trend by placing the headlights right at the end of the front fascia, something that has been mirrored on every model since.
The Mk. 2 Golf swelled a little and featured twin headlights like its predecessor before it. It got bigger and more comfortable but was still clearly a GTI.
The Mk. 3 generation "is somewhat softer", and although it is one of the least-loved variants of the GTI, it set many precedents. The double headlamps were now housed in a single casing on either side of the grille, and although red pinstriping was absent from the grille, it still appeared on the bumper like the Mk. 2 before it. Body-color front spoilers featured on these for the first time and the lower grille got a split intake - something that would remain a feature until the seventh generation. The GTI emblem was also made red for the first time.
In 1998, the Mk. 4 arrived with a "more modest appearance". It is the first and only GTI not to sport a red pinstripe on the front fascia but "is celebrated to this day as the starting point for a new, clean era of vehicle design." More body-color elements featured too, and even today's Mk. 8 GTI design clearly draws from the trademark style of the fourth GTI.
Next up was the Mk. 5, and although the biggest and heaviest of the lot, this car solidified Volkswagen's name as the purveyor of the ultimate all-day, all-season hot hatch. Its performance and quality improvements were a huge step up from everything that came before, but the past was harkened back to with the revival of the red stripe around the grille. The new honeycomb grille set a trend of its own as well and has been implemented on the GTI ever since.
Quality fell slightly for the Mk. 6 version, but it was still a looker. This model became the first GTI with a front splitter, and LED lighting featured as an option on either end of the car.
Head of Exterior Design for the new Golf GTI, Marco Pavone, says that the seventh-generation GTI "was the first GTI on which I was allowed to let my creative juices flow as a designer. For me, it remains the very best, with an iconic quality - no GTI has ever been as stylish."
For the first time, the GTI stripe, as many now call it, was integrated into the headlights, enhancing the impression of width.
And now we've got the Mk.8 GTI. This model's headlights are special and reinforce the idea that "light is the new chrome". "This Golf GTI has become an icon of the modern era," says Pavone. "However, it embodies these attributes in a more progressive and digital manner than ever before." Despite this, red lipstick remains a characterizing trait, as does a honeycomb grille. That grille is completely open across the front fascia for the first time, with "new GTI wings" in black framing either end of the grille.
So every GTI has referenced its predecessors all the way back to the original, but if you're worried that VW won't be able to make future GTIs cool to look at, the recently revealed ID.4 GTX should change your mind.