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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

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History has always weighed heavily on the shoulders of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the car that launched a thousand imitators. Of course, arguments will continue to rage over whether it really was the first hot hatch (Renault 5 Gordini, anyone? Or how about the Simca 1100Ti?), there’s no denying that the Volkswagen was the definitive example of the breed. Melding family-friendly practicality, affordable running costs and a classless swagger with a sports car-slaying turn of speed and high-jinks handling, it’s been a high-performance staple ever since the boxy first-generation machine burst onto the scene in 1976.

In the four and a half decades since making its debut, the go-faster Golf has experienced some dynamic ups and downs, but ever since the fifth-generation car arrived in 2005, it has largely remained on an upward trajectory. Now in its eighth incarnation, the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI promises to be the best yet, distilling nearly half a century of know-how into an even faster and more composed package. 

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.

This update hasn’t come a moment too soon either, with the competition beginning to heavily encroach on the Volkswagen Golf’s corner of the hot hatch market. Both old hands such as the Ford Focus ST and fresh-faced first-timers like the Hyundai i30 N have made a big impact on the class, undercutting the Volkswagen on price, yet delivering greater power, more outright driver enjoyment and just as much everyday versatility. 

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And there’s also the ever-present threat from that cuckoo in the nest: the Volkswagen Golf R. Not only has it displaced the GTI as the high-performance flagship, it’s also usurped it in the sales charts thanks to the prevalence of PCP deals that make the faster car barely any more expensive when it comes to the monthly payments. It rather drops the GTI into a bit of a no-man’s land in Volkswagen’s fast family hatch pecking order.

As with its predecessor, this MK8 GTI is based on the same MQB architecture that underpins almost half of the Volkswagen Group’s output, from the most basic Seat Leon through to the seven-seat Skoda Kodiaq. And while the turbocharged 2.0-litre is also carried over, it now produces 241bhp in basic guise as tested here, the same amount that was reserved for the previous-generation's Performance Pack upgrade. There are also chassis tweaks, including the now standard inclusion of the clever electromechanical limited-slip differential.

Yet as ever, there’s more to a Golf GTI than raw statistics. Yes, it needs to tear up Tarmac when you’re in the mood, but it also needs to be cosseting when you want to cruise, with just enough of a soft edge that it can slip into daily duties without the need for regular trips to the chiropractor or a family-sized box of Nurofen: a GTI should be fast but never frantic. And, of course, there’s the desirability angle - cliché klaxon, but so few cars can manage the Golf's trick of being classy yet classless, its cloak of maturity making it an acceptable choice no matter what the occasion. So does the new arrival deliver?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

3 VW Golf GTI panning

Part of the Golf’s huge success over the decades has been the ‘evolution not revolution' approach to its styling, something this eighth-generation machine demonstrates perfectly. Look back at the 1974 original and you can clearly trace the lineage to this latest car. There’s the same thick C-pillar with its kinked rear window line, the upright tail and a carefully considered simplicity to the surfacing. It could only be a Volkswagen Golf.

The same is true of the go-faster GTI addenda, which, with the exception of the rather sombre Mk3 and Mk4 models of the 1990s, follows a similar path of carefully evolved updates. Essentially, the template involves the subtle addition of red-piped trim, a smattering of GTI logos, a twin-exit exhaust and some larger wheels with fatter rubber. Rather garish illuminated front grill aside, it’s nowhere near as attention-grabbing as rivals, but then it’s this low-key, under-the-radar approach that has always been a key part of the Golf’s appeal. 

Under the skin you’ll find a revised version of Volkswagen’s scalable MQB architecture that made its debut in the Mk7 back in 2013. Changes designed to improve strength and refinement have been made, as well as tweaks to accommodate the latest electrical hardware and its more sophisticated software. For the GTI, there have also been big changes to the suspension and steering in an attempt to give the car a similarly hard edge as the upstart competition.

As before, it rides 15mm lower than the standard car and uses MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link rear axle. However, the front spring rates have been increased by 5% at the front and considerable 15% at the rear, while the optional DCC adaptive dampers have been recalibrated to deliver a wider spread of adjustability, which you can manually tune more precisely using a slider control on the new infotainment screen. The rear axle has also been tweaked to offer more lateral control and responsiveness, something that can be exploited by the 7%-quicker variable ratio steering rack.

That’s not all, because the front axle now gets the VAQ electronically controlled XDS+ limited-slip differential as standard (it was previously only available as part of the Performance upgrade), which has been fine-tuned to act more quickly and aggressively when needed. There’s also the option of 19in alloy wheels (fitted to our test car) wrapped in specially developed Bridgestone rubber. 

In terms of the engine, it’s the venerable turbocharged 2.0-litre EA888 that’s seen service in numerous Volkswagen Group machines over the years, but with a higher-pressure injection system and tweaks to the combustion and emissions systems aimed at meeting the latest regulations. Power is now 242bhp for all GTI models - a figure that was previously reserved for the Performance Pack versions. A seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox is available for the first time, but here we test the six-speed manual.

INTERIOR

As with the exterior, the latest Golf leans heavily into its hot hatch history when you climb aboard. Despite a total design overhaul and the de rigueur addition of multiple TFT screens, you know instantly that you’re sitting inside a GTI. The tartan-checked seat trim is present and correct, as is the red stitching for the chunky three-spoke steering wheel and, of course, the dimpled golf ball finish for this six-speed manual car’s gearlever.

Typically for a Golf, there’s a wide range of seat and wheel adjustment, allowing you to perfectly tailor your driving position. The pedals are well spaced and neatly arranged, allowing easy heel-and-toe changes for when you’re in the mood for going hard. Visibility forward is good, but those trademark C-pillars create an awkward blindspot and the rear screen is shallow and on wet days gets quickly covered in moisture and road grime.

Volkswagen has made much about this eighth-generation car being the ‘all-digital’ Golf, and on first impressions it certainly looks the part. Ahead of the driver is a 10in digital instrument cluster that can be customised to suit the driving mode selected and features an extensive trip computer controlled by buttons on the steering wheel, while sitting to your left on top of the dashboard is a similarly sized touchscreen infotainment system. The combination looks slick and very ‘of the moment’, but it’s not without its flaws.

Aside from touch-sensitive ‘sliders’ set below the screen for the audio volume and cabin temperature control, plus the four ‘hot keys’ for shortcut menu access, all the car’s major functions are controlled using the infotainment system. The graphics are clear and the system is responsive, but too many of the often-used features require multiple stabs at the screen as you delve through various sub-menus, forcing your eyes from the road for longer than you’d want.

Just as concerning for many will be the slight slump in perceived quality, and the Golf no longer being the standard bearer for the awkwardly titled ‘mainstream premium’ corner of the market. Perhaps hoping customers would be dazzled by the glitzy screens, Volkswagen’s bean-counters have been on a bit of a decontenting splurge and introduced some lower-rent flimsy plastics. Nothing that you touch frequently feels anything other than solid and expensive-feeling, but a little exploration turns up some materials that are cheaper to look at and touch.

On the plus side, refinement is relatively strong, with wind noise rarely a problem and roar from the tyres only noticeable on the coarsest surfaces. As with the old car, the engine noise is augmented, meaning a sportier, more intrusive and artificial aural backdrop in Dynamic mode. It’s best left in Comfort, where the small decrease in throttle responsiveness is more than a fair trade-off for the reduction in under-bonnet volume - although the 2.0-litre unit still retains a rorty edge.

As with all Golfs, the GTI is about as spacious as you’d need it to be, packing a decent amount of space into what is a relatively compact package. Large adults will find enough head and leg room in the back, even if their view forward is compromised by the high-backed sports seats, while there’s loads of thoughtfully arranged oddment space, including multiple cupholders, smartphone trays and deep doorbins.

There’s a decent boot too, with a respectable 374 litres of carrying capacity (way behind a Skoda Octavia’s, but around the class average) with the rear seats in place. A false floor can be lowered for taller items or raised to create an almost totally flat floor when the rear seatbacks are folded down (the rear squabs remain in place). Performance doesn’t come at the expense of practicality.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

You’re on familiar ground when you get going in the Golf. That tried-and-tested EA888 isn’t the most charismatic of performers, but the lusty and eager delivery have been part of the GTI DNA for more than a decade now. There’s more power than before and it’s cleaner-burning than ever, but in all other respects it’s a cut-and-paste job from the old car, which is no bad thing.

The GTI’s performance calling card has always been its elastic mid-range muscle rather than its all-out, emergency start energy. Where rivals have strived to achieve ever-increasing and headline-grabbing power outputs, the Golf has shied away from the arms race, preferring instead to provide an everyday accessibility to its performance that arguably makes it a faster real-world option – a theory that’s backed up by our figures.

Part of the GTI’s problem is that it struggles to get off the line cleanly. Even with the ESP fully disabled, the traction control will spring into life in extremis, cutting the power momentarily and knocking tenths off your 0-60mph sprint. Get it right and you’re rewarded with a time of 6.2sec, which is quick in isolation but looks a little tardy against a backdrop of 300bhp-plus four-wheel-drive, launch control-equipped hot hatches (including its R rated brother) that’ll comfortably complete the same benchmark spring in around two-thirds of the time.

Nope, with the GTI it’s best to avoid the traffic light grand prix and instead revel in the thick seam of mid-range torque that serves up scintillating in-gear pace that translates into rapid and fairly unobtrusive cross-country pace. The turbocharged 2.0-litre pulls heartily from just above 1000rpm and spins smoothly all the way around to the 6500rpm redline, delivering a pleasingly muted growl as long as you steer clear of the synthesised ‘enhancements’ provided by the sportier driving modes.

The engine works particularly well with the six-speed manual, allowing you to take the lazy approach and simply stick with the gear you’re in and let the torque take the strain, or drop a couple of cogs down the precise but slightly notchy box and make that overtake just a little bit quicker. Yes, the quick and crisp seven-speed DSG dual-clutch will make the GTI faster still, but it does so at the expense of driver interaction.

Stopping power is equally impressive, the GTI able to cope with repeated big stops from high speed with little or no fade and only the merest lengthening of the pedal. On the road, the set-up is confidence-inspiring in its progression, allowing you to slow swiftly and smoothly, your inputs directly proportional to the amount of retardation you get.

RIDE & HANDLING

Over the decades, the Golf has carved out a reputation as being the ultimate all-rounder - not necessarily the sharpest or most engaging, but one that expertly splices together handling elan with just enough comfort to make it a car for every occasion. It’s an approach that’s served it well, allowing it to forge its own path and leave the fickleness of hot hatch fashion to the others.

However, eight generations in and Volkswagen has decided to take the GTI in a slightly different direction, one that prioritises synapse-snapping driver indulgence over all else. As a result, this is definitely the tautest, pointiest and grippiest Golf of its kind we’ve driven; one that can pick apart a twisting ribbon of Tarmac with the sort of tight-fisted control and wrist-flick agility that escaped its softer-edged forebears. Is that a good thing? We’re not so sure.

That quicker steering certainly has an effect on the car’s character, the GTI rotating into corners with much greater speed and precision than before, aided by its terrific front-end grip and body control that, in the firmest damper settings, is absolute, while the clever limited-slip differential also plays its part, finding impressive traction at corner exit to slingshot you down the next straight. It undoubtedly corners faster and flatter than the old car and grips harder too, the Bridgestone rubber digging hard into the Tarmac to deliver terrific adhesion. Yet while it’s quicker and more controlled than before, it doesn’t deliver on Volkswagen’s claims for greater driver involvement. 

Fast and accurate though it is, the steering is a little light and devoid of feel, while the car’s attitude through corners is rather one-dimensional. You can fully disengage the ESP (you’ll need patience as it requires a lot of fumbling around in infotainment sub-menus), but the Golf would still rather play it straight. Quick direction changes are dispatched with a clinical alacrity, the car simply taking a four-square set and going exactly where you point it - there’s absolutely no sense that it’ll wash wide at the front or step sideways at the rear, even with some judicious mid-corner throttle lifts.

Perhaps of bigger concern for dyed-in-the-wool GTI owners is the fact that this mild increase in on-limit handling composure has come at the expense of the car’s easy-going ride comfort, especially on models equipped with the DCC dampers, which in the past had a nicely judged suppleness in their softest setting. This is not an unrelenting firm car like a Ford Focus ST, but there’s constant background stiffness and agitation that’s at odds with the car’s hard-won reputation for maturity, the car refusing to settle down even on smoother motorway surfaces. Not even slackening off the dampers manages to take the sharp edges off your progress.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

vw golf gti fronttracking

Depending on your point of view, the GTI is either half-decent value or, as it has been in the past, a little overpriced. On the credit side, this latest car gets all the old car’s Performance upgrade parts thrown in, yet barely costs any more. It also demands a premium of less than £1000 over the Focus ST, a car that can’t compete with the Golf’s kerbside cachet or enticingly premium interior and cutting-edge tech. On the other hand, the Blue Oval machine has more power (276bhp), as does the Hyundai i30 N, which undercuts both.

Still, your extra outlay certainly buys you a lot of toys to play with. On top of the fully-stacked infotainment (Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, sat-nav and so on), you get a heated steering wheel, three-zone climate control and keyless entry plus, of course, a raft of advanced driver aids that include semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control with steering assist.

Crucially, the GTI retains that desirable hot hatch trait of being frugal as well as fast. Use all the performance and it’ll drink quite a bit of unleaded, but our touring fuel economy figure of 42.8mpg reveals an underlying efficiency in everyday use. Its WLTP-endorsed CO2 figure of 168g/km is considerably lower than rivals, giving extra credence to its more measured approach to petrol consumption, but unfortunately it still falls into the same 37% BIK band, meaning business users face bigger tax bills.

 

VERDICT

Objectively speaking and from a pure performance point of view, this eighth-generation GTI is a better car than its predecessor. It’s as fast in a straight line, quicker through the corners, packed with more state-of-the-art equipment and, in terms of what you get for your cash, better value. What it isn’t, however, is a better GTI.

In some respects, it’s hard to argue with Volkswagen’s decision to give its pioneering pocket rocket a harder edge, especially given that the competition has taken a similarly driver-centric approach. The problem is, the change in attitude doesn’t come with enough driver rewards to offset the loss of everyday habitability. Moreover, if there are buyers who really do want a GTI with an edge, there’s at least two Clubsport-flavoured versions of this car, not to mention the R.

Make no mistake, the GTI is still a desirable car and we’d be exaggerating if we were to suggest it’s unbearably uncomfortable for daily duties (it’s still more of an all-rounder than the competition), but its not nearly as much of an automotive chameleon as its predecessors, and as a result it has lost some of the grown-up appeal that made it such a compelling proposition for so many. A good GTI then, but not one of the greats.

 

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping Autocar.co.uk topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

Volkswagen Golf GTI First drives