Volkswagen has offered a two-tier performance Golf lineup for the past three generations of its small hatch, with the quick GTI and even quicker R32/R models doing a pretty decent job of covering the hot hatch spectrum.

We’ve seen flickers of breathed-on GTIs with the limited edition Mk5 Pirelli and the Mk6 Adidas and Edition 35 models, but the new GTI Performance is the first ongoing GTI/R-splitting model to reach the market.

Is there room for such a model? Considering the current popularity of hot hatches and the undisputable cool-factor of the Golf GTI, Volkswagen would be mad to deny Australia of such a model.

DESIGN

The biggest identifier of the GTI Performance is its 19 inch Santiago alloy wheels -up from the 18 inch Austin design fitted to the regular GTI - but the lower profile tyres are no wider at 225mm. It also scores the GTI ‘lipstick’ integrating Bi-Xenon headlights as standard, tinted LED taillights from the Golf R, tinted windows and GTI logos on red front brake calipers.

On the inside, the Golf GTI Performance scores Alcantara bolsters and headrests to the ‘Clark’ tartan cloth seats, and Vienna leather remains optional. To our eyes, the Santiago wheels are fussier and less aggressive than the standard Austin units, but the Alcantara/tartan trim is the pinnacle of GTI-cool.

The regular GTI’s brakes hardly draw criticism for road use, but owners wishing to take their GTI Performance out on the track will appreciate the adoption of Golf R-sized 340mm rotors up front (up 28mm) and ventilated 310mm (up 10mm) on the rear, with GTI logos added to the front rotors.

However, the GTI Performance’s headline act is the addition of a new electronically controlled mechanical differential lock, stepping up from the brake-actuated electronic diff lock on the standard GTI.

VALUE

Other markets get the ‘Performance Pack’ as an option for the regular GTI, but is being offered as a standalone GTI Performance grade for Australia. At $48,490, the GTI Performance asks a $4,000 premium over a DSG-equipped regular GTI, but its assortment of extra goodies should easily justify its higher price.

ENGINE/TRANSMISSION

Volkswagen Australia has chosen to limit the GTI Performance to the six-speed DSG dual clutch auto only, and while most will agree that the six-speed manual version of the regular GTI is the better driver’s car, the intelligent DSG is more in keeping with the ‘guiding hand’ nature of the Performance’s tricky diff.

Helping to differentiate the GTI Performance from the cooking GTI models, the direct and port injected EA888 2.0-litre turbo gains 7kW to 169kW, while torque remains at 350Nm all the way from 1500-4600rpm.

Claimed 0-100km/h acceleration drops just 0.1s over the regular DSG to 6.4 seconds, and the top speed has been boosted by 2km/h to 248km/h.

SAFETY

The GTI Performance carries the same maximum five star rating of the rest of the Mk7 Golf lineup, with dual frontal, side and curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag, plus ABS, electronic brake distribution and stability control.

DRIVING

Around town, the only significant difference over the regular GTI is the slightly sharper ride from the lower profile 19 inch tyres. Given the regular GTI’s incredible balance of dynamics with ride quality, the Performance’s ride is still a very plausible day to day proposition, even over the rough mountain roads on test.

When you’re pushing it though, the GTI Performance’s mechanical diff arrests inside wheelspin sooner than if relying purely on stability control, and the front wheels grab at the road surface as a unified force. Volkswagen boasts that the diff’s torque vectoring capability is able to send 100 percent of drive to one wheel, which should come in very handy in low traction conditions.

In short, the new diff helps you to get on the power earlier in a corner, which is likely to pay significant dividends when chasing times on a race track. The new diff also integrates with the existing electronic traction aids and stability control, plus yaw sensors to direct front wheel power to also counter oversteer.

Overall, the GTI Performance feels more predictable at the limit, and therefore easier to get the best out of. Its incremental power and brake changes are welcome, but it’s the new diff that will likely cut seconds off a track lap time.