The firmest, feistiest Golf GTI in a long time has plenty to excite. It knows some refinement and restraint, but possibly not enough to maintain its reputation as the most mature hot hatch on the block

Volkswagen wasted very little time, having launched the current eighth-generation Golf onto UK roads in early 2020, to introduce the latest-generation of its celebrated hot hatchback, the Golf GTI. That shows you how important this derivative has become, and how significantly it now underpins the profitability of the Golf’s business case.

That’s because the GTI is big business. Relatively restrained and judicious tuning has, as its four decades on sale have rolled on, given the car a broader-based appeal than so many of its hot hatchback rivals; and that has meant money in the bank for VW. The plain truth is, every volume car-maker in the world wishes it had a big-selling performance derivative as commercially successful as this, and plenty have tried – and often failed – to emulate its recipe.

The GTI's famous golf ball-themed manual gearshift knob has expanded in size, and also become somewhat less than spherical. It doesn't fit into the heel of your hand as comfortably as it used to.

And yet, while you might expect VW to tinker very cautiously with such a recipe, we already know that this eighth iteration isn’t just more of the same. Over recent generational metamorphoses, the GTI has certainly been treated with kid gloves; when the goatee-bearded Mk5 segued into the slightly plusher but deeply familiar Mk6, and then into the more chiselled Mk7, you’d have been forgiven, in some ways, for blinking and not noticing.

But while Wolfsburg assures us that everyday, real-world driver appeal, and that just-so blend of desirability and bang-for-the-buck value, remain the heart and soul of the GTI’s mission statement, it’s certainly taken a risk with its golden goose this time around. The Mk8 is quite clearly a car with greater ambition to excite and entertain than so many of its forebears.

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But is it still the slick, versatile, usable and dynamically polished proposition you might expect it to be? That’s a question that may be hard to resolve after you first long drive in this car. Modern fast front-drivers come a lot more firm and frenetic, it’s true; but the GTI has undeniably changed – and arguably lost part of its old appeal as a result.

We’ve detailed the technical changes that have been wrought on this car before, and what exactly separates it from a Mk7.5 GTI under the skin, in both early passenger rides and in our European first drive. The short version is that, while the mechanical make-up of this car may look familiar, very little of it has escaped overhaul. 

The car’s engine may have the same headline outputs as the old GTI Performance, but it has a new, higher-pressure fuel injection system and revised combustion and emissions controls. There may be the same choice of six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes, but the latter is new to the GTI, offering shift-by-wire technology for the first time. The ‘XDS+’ electronically controlled locking front differential that you used to get as part of an option pack is now GTI standard kit, and has been tuned to work even harder to augment the car’s handling.

You can now go as big as 19in alloy wheels on the car if you want to, bigger than any regular GTI has had before, with chunky 235-section tyres specially developed by Bridgestone. ‘DCC’ adaptive dampers remain an option, but even these have been recalibrated to offer a broader spread of adjustability in the car’s body control and ride comfort, and to offer a more precise level of choice over exactly how soft and supple, or taut and tenacious, you want the car to feel.

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So there’s plenty that’s new to take in. But the wider changes to the GTI’s suspension and steering probably speak loudest about its new, slightly racier priorities. The car rides 15mm lower than a regular Golf; but compared with the outgoing GTI, it has spring rates firmed up by 5% at the front axle and some 15% at the rear. Reworked rear-axle kinematics and mountings have been adopted to create better lateral wheel control and chassis response, while the car’s ‘progressive’ rising-rate steering has been quickened by between 5% and 7%.

All of that has been done, says VW, with a focus on creating keener handling response across the speed range, but specifically on better-rotating the car’s chassis in tighter corners and at lower speeds, and in doing so producing a more poised, agile and – whisper it – slightly playful-handling car. It’s left quite a striking impression. The GTI is now more vigorous and potent-feeling than its predecessors, with a greater appetite for mauling the Tarmac and changing direction.

But the trouble is… well, that doesn’t sound very GTI, does it? This car’s dynamic stature has not, thus far at least, been one to measure in how quickly or neatly it can negotiate an 18-metre slalom test. What has made the very best modern fast Golfs stand out for as long as this tester has been reviewing them is that they dare to be pragmatic performance road cars. They are born out of thinking that values the capacity to take apart a wet and uneven B-road at least as highly as shaving a few seconds off some handling track lap time; if not, higher still.

The new GTI is tauter, pointier, more direct and more lively to drive than that familiar, finely polished old GTI recipe; but also firmer, fussier and a little bit less couth with it. Then again, if you’ve always thought of this car as a bit of a wet blanket, I suppose, it might now be a more enticing prospect.

The car’s very recognisable from the driver’s seat. It’s now one with an integrated headrest design but is still very comfortable, with good-sized bolsters you can lean on. The de rigueur plaid cloth upholstery is present and correct, and the controls are well located in front of them, the slightly overly bulky gearlever and overly chubby steering wheel rim being only minor bugbears. The touch-sensitive regime for its secondary controls might not be your cup of tea; the spokes of its steering wheel are certainly busy, and it’s easy to drag a thumb across them by mistake while you’re feeding the wheel. But the digital instruments, I liked; they’re clear and adaptable, and I’m a sucker for the stylised GTI-branding and honeycomb background they have.

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The revised EA888 2.0-litre turbo engine still seems a little bit cultured by class standards. It doesn’t pop or bang on the overrun, doesn’t boom or whistle under load either, and is generally well able to fade down to a restrained background hum when you want it to. It’s torquier than you expect it to be, though, with a pretty fierce, thrusty kind or responsiveness from about 2500rpm. It doesn’t offer much beyond 5000rpm; and even if it did, the car’s slightly nondescript manual shift action and pedal weights wouldn’t be particularly tactile invitations to wring out the revs. But the GTI certainly feels pretty potent and ‘on song’ if you keep the needle between those two crank speeds, and it gets up the road more than urgently enough to hold your attention.

The new and slightly insistent firmness of the car’s ride, and damping that at times can feel just a little bit gristly and uncompromising, will keep you concentrating, too; possibly distract you, even, if you hit a testing surface and you’re suddenly looking for an adaptive damping mode that brings that fast-striding ‘GTI’ suppleness out of the car, which somehow now seems conspicuous by its absence.

We mustn't exaggerate this; on most UK roads, the new GTI rides well enough - and still better than a lot of its competitors. There is a lateral firmness to its set-up that makes it liable to a bit of head-toss when its axles are upset asymmetrically, though, and a grabbiness to the damping over bigger vertical inputs that can be tricky to iron out even with the car’s new 15-position ‘DCC slider’ adjuster (available in Individual drive mode) driven all the way down. On a patchy motorway, the car has the gentlest high-frequency fidget about it and is just that little bit reluctant to settle. That newly stiffened rear axle – the way it’s mounted as well as tuned – is plainly the main cause; much as it must also be a big factor in delivering the car’s handling gains.

So, are they worth it? Well, I drove the car for most of a day, around towns and on trunk roads just getting from A to B to begin with; and at first it didn’t feel so different. A bit leaner and keener in its low-speed responses, yes, but still typically linear-feeling rather than hyperactive, alert or vivacious in its handling, and predictably light, slick and easy to operate through the controls. The faster I went and the harder I looked, the more clearly the greater agility and tenacity of that chassis became evident – but it didn’t seem character-changing. Not at first.

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And then I went looking for a ‘GTI’ road – one to throw bumps, crags, gradients, camber, slipperiness, coarseness and corners of different kinds at the car in testing combinations – to find out just how much punishment it could filter out and soak up, but still hunker down and crack on in that typically composed, fast Golf way. But honestly, the car I was looking for wasn’t there. And the one I gradually unearthed – pretty compelling, fast, level and keen though it was - seemed much more like a generic modern hot hatchback than an inimitable and distinct 44-year-old performance icon that had earned the right to go its own way.

You can’t miss the extra vim, vigour, grip or incisiveness there is about this car’s handling, any more than you can argue that those things haven’t been to some extent missing from the typical Golf GTI for a long time. They might be exactly what you want from a fast Golf; or, if you liked the maturity and understatement this car has represented for so long, perhaps they won’t.

They come packaged in a car that remains, in lots of ways, a very complete, classy and usable daily driver. With its latest touchscreen controls, adaptable digital instruments and the latest V-to-X driver assistance and safety systems on-board, the Golf has become a fully paid-up member of the technological avant-garde where hatchbacks are concerned. It’s also as practical and, broadly speaking, as well-built as ever a Golf has been before. Some have claimed that the car’s legendary perceived quality has taken a knock in this latest generation – but if it has, it’s not by enough to make a difference to the car’s standing relative to its rivals.

But in supplying that extra bit of firmness, agility, attitude and bite in this car, in changing what those three letters stand for on the bootlid of a hot hatchback, and in seeking to give us more reasons to buy a GTI, I just wonder if VW has actually given us fewer really good reasons.

First drives