The front passenger seat is not the place I’d usually choose to sit when it comes to the Volkswagen Golf GTI – a car whose very existence is based on the visceral thrill delivered by its driving experience. But as this is the latest, eighth-generation model not due to see UK showrooms until later this year and we’ve got one of the world’s best test facilities all to ourselves for the next hour or so, it is time to make an exception.
After filling out a variety of forms to gain the security clearance to venture beyond the heavily guarded perimeter of Volkswagen’s vast Ehra-Lessien development centre in Germany, I find myself sat beside VW’s head of driving dynamics, Karsten Schebsdat, as he fires the new Golf GTI flat out in seventh gear along a seemingly never-ending straight. It is ultra-smooth, four lanes wide in parts and a mesmerising 5.4 miles in length.
With the digital speedo indicating 155mph, Schebsdat is busy explaining the fundamental differences in driving character between the new Golf GTI and its immediate predecessor, launched back in 2013. “It’s very settled at speed. We’ve transferred more load stiffness to the rear, which improves balance and helps it track better,” he says while drawing a finger across the central display to alter the driving mode more in the direction of Sport.
Then, without warning or the faintest hint of a lift, the Volkswagen engineer whips on a quarter turn or so of steering lock. “It’s also extremely responsive and more stable than before,” he adds, as we veer sharply across the neighbouring lanes before he corrects the steering again. The lateral forces involved are truly colossal. But in the second or two they take to bury their way into the pit of my stomach, the prototype we’re in has already regained its composure and we head straight on again as if nothing had happened.
Coming after the standard version of the new Volkswagen Golf, there’s not much about the latest Golf GTI that isn’t familiar. And yet it feels different; more eager and sporting in its actions but with the same degree of refinement and polish as its lesser siblings. In time-honoured fashion, it retains the front-wheel drive layout of its celebrated predecessors, which means it continues to compete directly with very creditable rivals including the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Type R and Renault Mégane RS.