There have been great Golf GTIs and lacklustre ones; indifferent generations and yet specific models that have surpassed just about anything else with a hatchback body in production at the time. One thing’s for certain: everybody has a favourite.
A healthy core GTI is emphatically a positive thing for performance motoring as a genre, and so we look to the new mk8 Golf GTI with both excitement and a little trepidation. Has VW created a car with genuine driver appeal?
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Engine, transmission and 0-60 time
There are no great surprises here, except perhaps the welcome retention of the manual gearbox as an option alongside the seven-speed DSG unit. The engine is the familiar VW 888 four-cylinder turbo, now in ‘Evo4’ state of tune with a particulate filter, and makes here 242bhp and 273lb ft of torque. Prior knowledge and the imbalance of power and torque suggests a lot more power is only the click of a laptop key away. VW quotes a top speed of 155mph with the 0-62mph sprint dispatched in 6.3sec.
Comparing the weight of the new car versus the previous mk7.5 GTI isn’t the simplest of tasks given the multitude of models in recent years, but against the old GTI Performance five-door manual (the closest match) the mk8 is just 4kg heavier. In this era, that has to go down as a win given the ever-increasing safety and kit count of modern cars.
The key area of progress with the mk8 is its chassis and the way the driver interacts with the car. There’s an aluminium front subframe that saves 3kg, along with new bearings and springs front and rear whose rates have increased by 5% and 15% respectively. Damping is revised too, and if you’ve ticked the DCC adaptive damping option they will now be monitoring the situation 200 times a second. That, and much more, is all tied into the central control for driving modes, which VW has christened the Vehicle Dynamics Manager. Your choice is Comfort, Eco, Sport and Individual, over all the usual parameters (steering weight, engine response, engine sound etc), which also affects elements such as the now-standard electronically controlled limited slip diff as used on the previous Performance variant. The steering is quicker at 2.1 turns lock to lock, too.
What’s it like to drive?
First impressions of the new GTI are very encouraging. The instrumentation is very clear (although some common tasks take a little learning to start with) and the driving position is absolutely spot on as well, even for taller drivers, my shoulder virtually inline with the B pillar like an old Super Tourer and my backside about a metre lower than in a fast Ford. The bucket seats feature retro cloth centres with alcantara sides and are incredibly supportive, while the gear lever is set high, just a short grab across from the wheel rim, and there’s a dimpled texture to part of it that’s a clear nod to the old golf ball style.
So far so good, the GTI feeling gutsy, alert, yet requiring little effort to pedal along quickly. Inevitably, diving into the driver menu screen is a priority, and I’m soon experimenting with the Individual setting to isolate and sample different aspects of the car’s behaviour. The more aggressive engine map feels like an essential for the extra dose of character and response it brings, and while the low effort steering is fine for normal driving, some may want to bring in some increased weight for reassurance when pressing on. But it’s the damping that’s the most intriguing, because instead of merely swapping between comfort, sport and race, in Individual there’s a bar graph with 15 different marks on it, exceeding the factory presets at both the comfort and sport ends of the tuning bandwidth. My initial reaction is that this sounds like driver mode overkill, but because the screen works like a tablet, it’s possible to simply swipe the damping control one way or the other - which is a lot less distracting. It also means the GTI’s ability to align itself to varying types of road is extraordinary: in its softest setting it rides better than some luxury saloons, while in the next instant it can be firmed up to track day car levels of control.
As a result, the GTI is a very quick car on a decent B road. The engine has very little lag, and pulls heartily from low down the rev range (although it runs out of puff a bit at high revs), the gearshift is reasonable, although not the slickest, and the brakes powerful, although a little overkeen in the initial application. No surfaces really faze the suspension, and grip from the Bridgestone Potenzas (18” rims are standard, 19” are optional) is impressive, with traction aided considerably by the differential on the way out of a corner. Switch off the ESP and the GTI isn’t a pointy, wild ride like a Megane RS, but it turns in well and works the rear of the car enough to make it a rewarding drive without scaring those who aren’t driving enthusiasts.
Price and rivals
The GTI costs from £33,460, which puts it right into Honda Civic Type R territory. The Golf can hold its own against the Honda to a certain extent, but in reality they’re two extremely diverse takes on a hot hatchback, with most buyers of each unlikely to even consider the other. The Civic is a superb piece of performance engineering, but it’s looks are an acquired taste. We’ve yet to try the facelifted Megane RS, but the rumour is it’ll be auto-only from now on, which may lose it a few of its traditional fans.