REVIEW: Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI gets the balance right, for ‘grown ups’ at least
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Johannesburg: GTI is an acronym that tugs at the heartstrings of anyone who is even mildly obsessed with cars.
Sure, it’s never been the fastest performance hatch on the block, and some of the middle generations (I’m looking at you, Golf 3 and 4) have been a little iffy, but no hatchback can lay claim to the kind of cult status and mass appeal the Volkswagen Golf GTI has enjoyed over the years.
Classy yet classless, and with its lovable blend of Vrrrpha acoustics, driving excitement and everyday useability, the GTI is to hot hatches what the Porsche 911 is to sports cars. It’s also relatively attainable by performance car standards, although the latest VeeDub’s price tag of R669 300 is perhaps stretching things a bit.
But does the Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI live up to its legendary predecessors? Following its launch in September, we spent a week with the latest hot hatch to find out if it has the winning recipe.
Engine and performance
Let’s start under the bonnet. The Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI is powered by an uprated version of the familiar EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine. The tinkering has given it an extra 11kW and 20Nm, bringing the grand total to 180kW and 370Nm.
And yes, rivals like the Hyundai i30 N are technically more powerful, but somehow the Golf GTI feels faster than the numbers suggest.
Sure, we’re not speaking of heart-stopping acceleration here; but the Golf GTI satisfies with its ultra-responsive throttle and brisk, effortless acceleration (it takes just 6.4 seconds to get to 100km/h, according to factory claims). It's perfectly calibrated seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is instrumental here, and it works like a charm when left to its own devices. “Flappy paddles” are in place for the occasions when you feel like being in control, although I did wish the levers were a little bigger.
How does it handle?
Sadly, the GTI has become a little portly, with gen-eight tipping the scales at 1 463kg, but Volkswagen’s engineers have done a great job at honing the chassis to ensure that its overall agility impresses.
Given its weight and the fact that (unlike the Golf R) it is driven exclusively through the front wheels, the Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI handles very tidily and it inspires confidence when pushed hard through corners.
Revised suspension settings and a new aluminium subframe keep it at the sharp end of its game, as does the new Vehicle Dynamics Manager control system, which looks after the XDS differential lock and the optional adaptive shocks. If you dig deep enough in the central infotainment menu you’ll also find ESC Sport and ESC Off functions, which make things a bit more playful, albeit without as big a safety net.
I enjoyed the steering too. It feels solid, perfectly-weighted and provides just enough feedback in fast corners.
That’s all good and well but, as a daily driving machine, you’re going to want a comfortable ride quality, and the Golf 8 GTI impresses no end here. Sure, there is a little firmness as you’d expect in a performance car, but I never found the ride to be uncomfortable. In fact, there are many non-performance cars that don’t ride as comfortably as the Golf.
As you’d expect at this level, there are a few driving modes that drivers can play around with, including Eco and Sport, and these are easily accessible through a ‘modes’ button on the dashboard. The ‘Sport’ setting isn’t loud and overbearing like the equivalent in some other cars, nor does it try to hold onto gears for too long, which I really appreciated. You could happily drive around in Sport mode all day, every day, without wanting to switch to a more comfortable setting.
That said, this car could do with a bit more vrrrpha as the exhaust sounds too muted from the cabin. Come on, VW, this car deserves adjustable exhaust flaps.
Is the new cabin too digitised?
Speaking of cabins, the Golf 8’s biggest design departure is its fully digital cockpit. The interior designer surely had an obsession with clean, uncluttered lines because there are no rotary knobs and hardly any buttons on this dashboard and almost everything has been swallowed by the large 10-inch infotainment screen.
As we’ve found in cars with similar set-ups, this results in a lot more menu digging for basic functions like controlling the ventilation. Granted, it’s not the worst set-up we’ve encountered and there is at least an easy-to-reach shortcut button for the climate controls, but the screen set-up makes it more difficult to change things like fan speed than it would be if conventional controls had been used. This could lead to distracted driving.
Interestingly, many of the buttons on the dashboard and steering wheel are capacitive touch sensors that you can swipe and slide. Drivers can also look forward to a digital instrument cluster which is highly configurable and much more interesting to look at thanks to sharp and colourful graphics, including honeycomb patterns in the dials.
However, the most impressive theatric is the start button, which pulses red until the engine is started. This is on the central tunnel, along with a short and stubby drive-by-wire gear selector and electronic parking brake. Some might prefer a conventional gear stick, but I liked the fact that the three main controls are in proximity, as it makes starting up and parking somewhat simpler.
But is the GTI practical? Stepping into the back, rear legroom is a bit on the tight side, but it should be perfectly tolerable for the around-town trips. The 374 litre boot is par for the course in the hatchback segment.
But we can’t conclude an interior discussion without confronting the elephant in every German car’s room, namely the standard features and options list.
Sure, you have to pay more for a lot of the nice stuff and our test car came loaded with things like a Harmon Kardon Sound System (R11 400), IQ Light LED Matrix headlights (R10 000), Adaptive Cruise Control (R11 000), panoramic sunroof (R15 000) and a Discover Pro infotainment system with satnav (R18 500). Even the reverse camera costs an extra R4 500, while Adaptive Chassis Control with electronic dampers will set you back a further R14 800. As standard, the Golf GTI rolls on 18-inch ‘Bergamo’ alloy wheels, but a set of 19” ‘Adelaide’ rims could be yours for a further R12 000, but why compromise the ride quality?
But what do you get as standard in the GTI? According to Volkswagen, the ‘standard’ hatch ships with GTI Vienna leather seat upholstery, cruise control, park distance control, 30-colour ambient lighting, Composition Media Radio with App-Connect, inductive phone charging, keyless start and a heated leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel.
The Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI is a logical evolution of its predecessors from generation 5 onwards and while it doesn’t necessarily deliver outright driving thrills (sadly the new Clubsport isn’t coming to SA to plug that gap), it continues to impress as an all-rounder in most respects.
It’s fast, yet dynamic and comfortable, grown up but still youthful enough to remind you of why you love cars in the first place. But perhaps a little more in the way of #vrrrpha would make this the perfect package.
FACTS: Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI DSG
Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automated
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Power: 180kW @ 5000-6000rpm
Torque: 370Nm @ 1600-4300rpm
Fuel use: 7.0 l/100km (claimed)
Fuel use: 10.4 l/100km (tested)
Warranty: 3-year/120 000km
Service plan: 5-year/90 000km
Price: R669 300
Used data - by Autotrader
2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Average price: R809 014
Average mileage: 1067