The eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI is very much a case of evolution over revolution. Like the regular Golf, its styling is sure to divide opinion, but there's much more to this hot hatch than mere looks.
In the metal
I'm going to put my cards on the table right now and state that I really like how this new Volkswagen Golf GTI looks. For starters, there's the colour, called Kings Red Metallic in case you were wondering, and it's even better in person than the photography suggests. Dominating the front is an extensive honeycomb section that spans the lower bumper giving it strong Mk6 GTI vibes. One initial observation is how open the honeycomb mesh is, leaving the radiator behind right in the firing line of stones. No doubt there will be an aftermarket solution along presently. Inset within the honeycomb at opposite ends are the five-cluster LED fog lights. They look very eye-catching when activated, and I suspect many drivers will leave them on more often than not. But the illumination features don't stop there, as the GTI gains an LED daytime running light strip across both headlights and the grille, just below the signature red stripe. However, it doesn't light up all the time, only when the daytime running lights are activated.
The GTI markings continue around the car, with red badging on the 'flitzer' (that's the name given to the small badge on the front wings), while the rear wears a centrally-placed GTI badge beneath the VW logo, which houses the hatch release and reversing camera. The GTI badge positioning appears to be a bone of contention for enthusiasts, but all of Volkswagen's models are now shifting to this style.
Other details include black sills and trim that run around the base of the car. The rear bumper carries over from the standard Golf though gets a different lower section to facilitate the two exhaust pipes. And yes, these are real exhaust tips, unlike some we could mention. Whether you choose the standard passive or optional adaptive suspension, the GTI sits 15mm lower than the regular Golf, and the optional 19-inch wheels on the test car fill the arches nicely.
There are good points and bad points to the interior of the new Golf GTI. An increasingly digital cockpit brings a 10.25-inch instrument display offering several views, but the large central red tachometer is the one that most drivers will like. As with the standard Golf, the dashboard gets a single gloss black surround that encompasses the infotainment screen and the optional 10-inch Discover Pro system shown here. There's a red theme to the style of the menu system that looks good at first glance but using it reveals some annoying features, such as having to pass through several menu pages to get to specific functions, such as activating the ESC Sport mode. Also, during our drive, the system seemed to be slow to respond when the navigation was in operation; clearly, there's more work to be done here by Volkswagen.
If you opt for the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox, there is a stubby rocker switch for selecting drive and plastic paddles on the back of the wheel for manual gear shifting should you desire. With the manual six-speed gearbox you still get a dimpled gear shifter, though it has been restyled. The steering wheel is new, and it gets a sporty shape with a flattish bottom. It feels good in your hands and looks the part complete with GTI logo on the bottom spoke. The new capacitive buttons do take some getting used to, as they seem to be overly sensitive, making it easy, for example, to reduce your set cruise control speed inadvertently. They're not immediately as intuitive to use as the physical buttons that appear in other Golfs, but perhaps owners will come to be more familiar with them over time.
Aside from some cheap-feeling plastics in places, most of the cabin seems good, with door bins that are a useful size and ample locations to put your phone. The new sport seats look the part and feature a fresh take on the signature tartan design called 'Scalepaper'. They're comfortable and hold you in place well, even when driving with more enthusiasm. In the back, there's adequate seating for three and a 380-litre boot.
Golf GTI fans hoping for a leap forward in power may be disappointed, as the latest 'evo4' version of the 'EA888' engine has the same 245hp output as the previous GTI Performance. It is also now a tenth of a second slower in the sprint to 100km/h due to tightened emissions regulations. Not that you'd notice it, as the engine still revs freely and pulls strongly, with maximum power higher up the rev range. These characteristics are as a result of a new fuel injection system that operates at higher pressure and includes magnetically actuated injectors.
There isn't as much engine tone within the cabin as some might like (me included), nor is there the same rasp and crack from the exhaust during full power upshifts as there used to be. This is a GTI that is more refined, more grown up. The DSG transmission doesn't always seem to react as quickly as the engine does though, and even in Sport mode there are occasions when it delays in kicking down to allow full acceleration. Generally, it executes its tasks efficiently, but at slower speeds, it can feel lumpy on the downshifts.
While the outright performance hasn't increased, it's when you get driving that you see where the GTI steps its game up. A new suspension setup includes an aluminium subframe that saves 3kg on the front, with revised wishbones, springs and dampers. The result is a five per cent stiffer front end compared to its predecessor. At the rear, there are similar changes to the springs and dampers that add a 15 per cent increase in stiffness. This setup translates into a car that corners more evenly with less roll and pitch as you turn into a corner. With the 19-inch wheels, there is a wider 235 tyre profile (over the standard 225), thus adding to the surface contact area.
Enhancing this is the electronically controlled XDS front differential that appeared in the previous Golf GTI Performance and GTI TCR. It gets new software that eliminates any sense of torque steer - even during launches - and allows a small bit of wheel spin. Acceleration through and out of corners is faultless and the standard progressive steering (variable ratio) adds an additional layer of enjoyment to how the GTI drives. The steering is crisp, sharp and near-perfectly weighted. This isn't a frenetic hot hatch, though so it may be more appreciated by those who've gotten the fast stuff out of their system.
Keener drivers will appreciate the ESC Sport setting, though, as it allows for a bit more slip before intervening, creating an entertaining balance without needing to deactivate the ESC entirely. Volkswagen's addition of the new VDM (Vehicle Dynamics Manager) brings faster processing power for a raft of chassis functions like the adaptive dampers. An Individual mode lets the driver tune it to their liking in 15 stages rather than merely Comfort and Sport settings. The GTI proves itself a comfortable car doing the daily stuff, delivering a mostly supple ride through urban streets. When running in the Sport setting the ride can be a little busy at slower speeds, but as you pick up pace it settles into a groove and delivers real composure.
What you get for your money
We won't see the Golf GTI arrive in Ireland until later this year and as yet there is no set pricing (though we expect it to start at about €46,000) or confirmation of the full list of standard equipment. All models do get the sport seats, 10.25-inch digital instrument display and at least an 8.1-inch infotainment touchscreen. Other standard features are likely to include LED Matrix headlights and 18-inch alloy wheels. When more details are revealed this section will be updated.
Despite the lack of an apparent performance increase in the engine department, the enhancements applied to the MK 8 Golf GTI at the chassis level contribute to a car that outguns its predecessor point-to-point. Keener drivers will appreciate how much better the GTI now drives as it rewards those who work the car harder, so it could well be the mature modern hot hatch for those that care more about such things than lap times and performance stats.