James Disdale
27 September 2021

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.

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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.