The 8th-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI is a case of evolution, rather than revolution. It’s outgunned by the Hyundai i30 N and Renault Megane RS, for example, but there’s more to it than that. International correspondent Dave Humphreys drove the newcomer in Germany.
The keenly anticipated GTI will spearhead the introduction of the latest generation Golf in South Africa. The GTI is the nameplate that helped to kick start the hot-hatch segment in the 1970s, but these days it has no shortage of rivals eyeing its position at the top. The latest iteration builds upon the excellent 7th (and 7.5th) GTI, with more tech.
The latest-generation Golf tends to look a little underwhelming in photographs, but any uncertainty about the visual impact of the new GTI's appearance is swiftly dispelled when you see it in the metal... The slender headlights wrap around into the front wings and follow an invisible line to the GTI "flitzer" badge ahead of the front doors. The signature red band runs across the top of the grille and through the light units. Furthermore, this band is highlighted by an LED light strip that gives the GTI a distinctive lighting signature. The IQ.Light matrix headlights feature 22 LEDs in each module that can produce 10 different types of illumination as required (and that includes sweeping turn signals).
The new face of the GTI – not as immediately attractive as previous generations.
Meanwhile, a larger honeycomb mesh spans the full width of the lower front bumper and is not dissimilar to the look of the Golf 6 GTI. This design helps with cooling, though it leaves the radiator prone to stone-chip damage. The eye-catching look is further enhanced by 5 LEDs that form an X design in each corner of the front bumper as the fog lights.
Some will rue the demise of the 3-door body style (not that we ever received the 3-door variant in South Africa), but the 5-door Golf looks good, especially as the GTI sits 15 mm lower than its conventional equivalents. The standard wheel size is a 17-inch Richmond alloy, with 18- and 19-inch designs available at extra cost; the latter option suits the look of the Volkswagen the best because it fills the wheelarches smartly. Black sill extensions visually tie into the rear diffuser that surrounds a chrome exhaust tip on either side.
When you swing open the driver's door, the most tech-laden cabin to ever grace a GTI comes into full view, replete with an all-digital dashboard comprising of a 10.25-inch instrument cluster with bespoke graphics, which includes a large, central, red rev counter. The standard 8.25-inch "Composition" touchscreen infotainment system is upgradable to a 10-inch unit. This display, and the "Digital Cockpit", are inset in a single gloss black surround that includes a touch panel for the lighting controls on the opposite side.
Very few physical buttons any more, almost every action can be done through the touchscreen.
There are few physical buttons in the Golf GTI's cabin – almost everything is controlled through the touchscreen interface. Not everyone will be a fan of the layout, and during our drive, the infotainment software was occasionally slow to perform some tasks, suggesting the CPU isn’t powerful enough. A square panel in the dashboard, under the touchscreen, features a quartet of shortcut buttons for accessing functions such as climate control and drive modes. Meanwhile, the GTI is treated to a new sculpted steering wheel with capacitive controls. These can be finicky to use/require familiarisation, but the 'wheel itself is nicely shaped and sized, plus trimmed in tactile perforated leather.
Buyers still get to choose between a 6-speed manual gearbox or the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic (local specification may differ, we anticipate that only the latter will be offered in Mzansi). For the latter, there is no longer a traditional shifter (transmission lever) as such; instead, a small stubby rocker switch is located in the centre console. The upside is that this occupies less space and there are still paddles behind the steering wheel for actuating manual gear shifts, if desired.
No Golf GTI would be complete without the famous tartan upholstery, and the new model gets a fresh take on it; the fabric is called "Scalepaper". There are new sports seats too, featuring integrated head restraints and a mix of materials. They’re quite comfortable over a longer journey and have all the right support in the bolsters to hold you in place when you're driving enthusiastically. Rear passenger space is largely unchanged from the previous generation, as is load-bay capacity, which remains at 380 litres.
What’s it like to drive?
GTI badge has moved to a central point on the boot.
Throughout its history, Golf GTI has been renowned for offering a balanced driving experience that blends handling performance with a degree of comfort, which of course made it such a usable car on a day-to-day basis – and a bona-fide sales success.
The 8th iteration of the GTI sticks with the tried-and-tested front-wheel-drive layout and Volkswagen has, once again, called the EA888 engine into service. The 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol motor is a known quantity, and despite having to conform with tighter emissions regulations, it has outputs of 180 kW and 370 Nm. That’s an increase over the standard outgoing GTI and matches the old GTI Performance. However, it falls short in comparison with some of the competition. Top speed is limited to 250 kph, and it will get from 0-100 kph in 6.3 seconds. Many will understandably look at the GTI’s figures and think Volkswagen is leaving buyers short, but there’s more to it than mere numbers.
Developments to the MQB platform see the introduction of an aluminium front subframe, similar to that used on the limited-run GTI Clubsport S, which saves about 3 kg. Added to that are revised suspension components that increase stiffness by 5%. Furthermore, the rear suspension has been made firmer by 15% to improve the car’s stability at higher speeds and the latter is immediately noticeable by the level of composure the GTI now exhibits; the dampers allow enough compliance to be civilised without sacrificing agility.
The optional DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) system allows for greater tuning of the adaptive dampers, while the Volkswagen Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM) is a new addition. It is a control system for dialling the car in to your exact preferences. For example, you can choose a more comfort-biased suspension setup while keeping the steering, engine and transmission in a sportier tune. It’s well worth exploring as the suspension gets busy over less-than-even surfaces when left in Sport mode.
The same 2.0-litre turbopetrol from the Golf 7.5 GTI serves in the 8th generation of the iconic hot hatch.
A variable ratio steering setup is standard with 2.1 turns between locks. It feels perfectly weighted at the immediate point of turn-in to a bend and provides the driver with a clear impression of what the front axle is doing. Aiding power delivery through (and out of) curves is the latest iteration of Volkswagen’s XDS electronic locking differential. If you delve through the menu layers and select ESC Sport, the front will allow a small bit of slip and wheelspin without landing you in trouble... and I believe it adds measurably to the overall driving experience. Direction changes at higher speed seem sharper than before, too, which is partly thanks to the adjustments made to the rear suspension.
Engine pick up is brisk, and the soundtrack it produces is decent – if a touch muted. You need to keep the motor spinning higher in its rev range to extract the most performance from it, and this is where it feels most alive. At times, the DSG transmission can be slow to react on kick down, so you’re arguably better off using the paddle shifters to shift gears eagerly. The GTI starts to feel alive above 7-tenths driving, with a composure that imbues confidence and lets you explore the car’s dynamic capabilities.
It might lack in terms of outright performance numbers, but the GTI now feels more capable in the corners.
The Golf GTI remains a superbly balanced and engaging – yet practical – driver's car. It personifies "the thinking person’s hot hatch" by virtue of the steps that Volkswagen has taken to tune its standard-bearer's chassis. Those seeking a tyre-smoking, exhaust-popping hot hatch may want to look elsewhere, because the GTI takes a more considered approach. Nevertheless, it’s one that point-to-point remains a very brisk car in the right hands and, for those who appreciate setup and driving feel, it ticks myriad boxes.