The Volkswagen Golf GTI has been the benchmark hot hatch since 1975. In recent years, however, its redoubtable talents have been eclipsed by the faster, four-wheel-drive Golf R. Does the GTI still matter?
Well, it should do. The original go-faster Golf is one of the few genuine automotive icons, and an institution that deserves to be carefully curated. As a serial GTI owner – including the 2006 Mk5 that serves as our family runaround – I desperately hope this new, eighth-generation car is worthy of the badge.
The basic recipe hasn’t changed. There’s the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, a choice of manual or DSG automatic transmissions, racy red pinstripes and retro tartan trim. But plenty is different under the skin – and the result is, well, different.
First impressions, then. Despite its five-door-only shell (nobody buys three-door hatches anymore) the new Mk8 looks instantly more purposeful. Note the frowning, full-width headlight graphic, hungry honeycomb grille, two meaty tailpipes and bold ‘GTI’ badge in the centre of the tailgate.
The glittery front fog lamps look naff, though – and not unlike the ‘chequered flag’ lights on the Renault Megane RS – while the standard 18-inch ‘Richmond’ alloy wheels (seen here) met with a universal thumbs-down on Twitter. Upgrade to the prettier 19-inchers if you can.
The GTI hasn’t maxed the credit card at Sports Direct and gone full ‘Civic Type R’ (phew), but it’s less subtle than before – and more distinct from the new Mk8 Golf R. However, a more radical reinvention awaits inside.
It’s become a car journalism cliche to moan about the Mk8 Golf’s ‘Innovision’ cockpit (see also: BMW front grilles or whatever Elon Musk dreams up this week). But while the GTI might be Das Original, I’ve never claimed the same. So, brace yourself for a moan.
The problem, as in many modern cars, is the migration of physical controls to a touchscreen. That can turn a simple task, like redirecting heated air from your feet to your face, into a several-stage process, distracting you from the road.
Even some functions not handled by the screen, such as the headlights and audio volume, use touch-sensitive pads and sliders – and their lack of tactility also draws your eyes back to the screen for visual confirmation.
I’d proffer that some plastics inside the Golf’s cabin aren’t of the same quality as the outgoing Mk7, but there the grumbling ends. The big-bolstered seats in new GTI look and feel fantastic, and their updated ‘Jacara’ tartan is timelessly cool.
A chunky steering wheel, alloy pedals and a pulsing red start button add to the feelgood factor.
Oh, and this is a Golf, so you’ll find space for five adults and 374 litres of luggage. As the Pitts can attest, it’s quite practical enough for all those mundane duties where being ‘hot’ comes a distant second to simply being a hatchback.
Beneath the Mk8’s bonnet is the 245hp engine from the previous GTI Performance – good for 0-62mph in 6.3 seconds with the seven-speed DSG ’box (the likely best-seller) or 6.4 seconds with the six-speed manual. Find an autobahn and you can nudge 155mph.
Looking at the figures, though, what stands out is the hulking torque: 273lb ft from just 1,600rpm. And so it follows on the road. The gruff ‘EA888’ engine doesn’t particularly relish being revved; its best work is done in the mid-range, with excellent traction and swift overtaking punch.
Want more? There’s already a 300hp GTI Clubsport, which propels the car firmly into ‘R’ territory. But perhaps I’m getting old, as I rather enjoy the less frenetic feel of this standard GTI. A shame VW didn’t take quite the same approach with the chassis….
The latest GTI employs stiffer suspension, a lighter front subframe and the rear subframe from the limited edition GTI Clubsport S. It was also developed by Benjamin Leuchter, who broke the front-wheel-drive Nurburgring lap record in said car in 2016. Benny doesn’t mess about.
I’ve no doubt the Mk8 would be quicker around the Nordschleife than a Mk7 GTI Performance, although its 8min 7sec time is still 18 seconds adrift of the Clubsport S. It feels quicker than its predecessor on a B-road, too, with pointier turn-in, neutral balance and a taut, hunkered-down attitude. When you’re on it, the Golf is right there with you.
The other 95 percent of the time, though, it’s a bit tightly wound. The variable-ratio steering feels like it’s had one too many espressos and the ride is rather restless: fine in a Fiesta ST, but the Golf GTI has historically been more easygoing. Some of the wonderful fluidity of the Mk7 GTI has been sacrificed for sharper responses, and – much as I longed to – I simply didn’t gel with this car to the same degree. Perhaps the optional adaptive dampers (not fitted here) would help.
Admittedly, the Mk7 presented a very high bar to hurdle. When the history of the GTI is written (as it has already been, many times), the outgoing car will be hailed as one of the high-points. No wonder Volkswagen chose to simply tweak that existing formula.
The sum total of those tweaks is a GTI that looks sportier, goes faster and feels more focused. Many will consider that an improvement, and the Golf remains a softer, more ‘everyday’ option than several cars in this class. If you can live with the frustrating tech – and you can – there’s still much to enjoy here.
For the ultimate all-rounder hot hatch, though, I suspect the new Golf R is the one you want. I’ll be finding out soon, so watch this space.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
TOP SPEED: 155mph
CO2 G/KM: 168
MPG COMBINED: 38.2