Forty-four years. That’s how long the Volkswagen Golf GTI has been on sale – not always in Australia, but in its German homeland and many other markets. A rather decent run so far, then.
The first-generation model, introduced in 1976, established the formula that each of its successors has carefully followed, with a decisive increase in performance and dynamics over the standard Golf together with a styling package that is as simple as it is subtle.
We’re not a big fan of the word 'icon' here at CarAdvice, but it’s a description that fits better than any other here.
The letters GTI have long become synonymous for enthralling hot hatch performance. And so it is with a good deal of interest and intrigue that we approach the latest version, scheduled for Australian delivery in early 2021.
The new eighth-generation Golf GTI, driven here for the first time, receives a revised turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine from its predecessor – an engine dubbed the EA888 internally – developing the same 180kW as the previous Golf GTI after initially debuting in the GTI Performance.
It also has a reworked chassis that benefits from a range of electronic upgrades, including Volkswagen’s new VDM (Vehicle Dynamics Manager), with a centralised network for faster reactions from a whole range of different chassis functions, most notably the adaptive dampers.
Based on the same MQB platform as before, it’s an evolutionary step in overall engineering terms, but relative to the previous car, it has gained greater design distinction from the standard Golf. This is most noticeable at the front, where it has 10 individual LED fog-lights integrated into the honeycomb insert within the lower part of its uniquely styled bumper.
That’s not all, though. There’s also a full-width LED light graphic with the red band running across the top of the headlight assemblies and through the grille at the front. It helps accentuate the new model’s width while also providing it with quite a distinctive night time graphic.
Further back, the new Golf GTI also adopts a small badge, or 'flitzer' as Volkswagen’s designers call it, within the trailing edge of the front wings, plus black sill elements below the doors.
The rear, meanwhile, is distinguished by unique tail-light graphics and a chromed GTI badge set within the lower middle section of the tailgate. The rear bumper is the same as that used by the standard Golf but gets a unique lower section in black. The traditional round tailpipes have also been moved further outboard compared with the seventh-generation model.
As it has been down through the years, the interior is a subtle upgrade over the standard Golf's. That means a new digitally oriented driving environment, with a 10.25-inch instrument display featuring unique GTI graphics and an 8.25-inch (or 10.25-inch as an option) infotainment display with the latest of Volkswagen’s connectivity functions together with touch-sensitive controls.
A stubby shift lever sits within the centre console, operating the seven-speed automatic gearbox fitted to our test car. It’s quite a departure from the old GTI, exuding a typical impression of solidity, even if some of the shiny plastic materials incorporated within the dashboard appear a little cheap.
The GTI-specific touches are a welcome addition, giving the interior a more upmarket feel in combination with the sort of sporting flair we’ve come to expect from the long-running performance Golf. The standard sport seats, with integrated headrests for the first time, are plentifully adjustable and very supportive.
The leather-bound steering wheel, complete with a red highlight and GTI badge within the lower spoke, is also more sculpted and fatter than that of a regular Golf. There are stainless steel pedals and unique trim elements, too.
Open the bonnet on the new Golf GTI – something Volkswagen clearly doesn’t think many prospective buyers ever will – and you’re confronted by a drab and anonymous looking engine bay that could be from any lesser Golf model.
The days when hot Volkswagen models proudly wore the GTI name in red letters on their engine are over – a victim of increased cost cutting measures, no doubt.
Still, Volkswagen claims the standard version of this car offers the strongest performance of any regular Golf GTI yet. However, you could be excused for looking at the modest-by-class-standards 180kW of its updated 2.0-litre engine and wonder if it can really deliver the intrinsic thrill that buyers in this part of the market demand.
After all, the Ford Focus ST packs 206kW, the Hyundai i30 N 202kW and the Renault Megane RS 205kW to 221kW, depending on the version.
Although it lacks the overall firepower of some direct front-wheel-drive hot hatch rivals, the turbocharged four-cylinder is terrifically keen. With 370Nm of torque over a big chunk of revs (1600rpm to 4300rpm), there’s outstanding low-to-mid-range flexibility that propels the new model along with swift in-gear qualities.
It’s not rabid in its execution, but the resulting punch on a loaded throttle in lower ratios is nevertheless quite impressive, as reflected in its official 0-100km/h time of 6.3sec and electronically limited 250km/h top speed.
An increase in the fuel injection pressure from 200 bar to 350 bar, along with new magnetically actuated injectors and what Volkswagen describes as “a new combustion process” also improve its overall response and ability to rev.
There’s greater sensitivity to throttle inputs at the lower end of the range and it now spins out to 6800rpm with greater urgency than its direct predecessor, which used an earlier evolution of the EA888 engine.
The most striking factor, though, is the way the new car transfers its urge to the road. Volkswagen has programmed its XDS electronic differential lock to allow some slip on urgent starts, but it launches without any unruly torque-steer antics or continued wheel-spin on a loaded throttle.
In dry conditions, there’s a marked improvement in traction both under hard acceleration and out of tighter corners. This can be traced to the new VDM system. Operating via a new electronic architecture, it networks the XDS and DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) functions, providing faster reaction times for a variety of different systems.
If only it sounded better. It’s safe to say the adoption of a larger-volume catalytic converter and particulate filter has robbed the GTI of much of its earlier aural appeal. But even with a new sound actuator, it lacks the purity and intensity of earlier models. There’s a raspy timbre to the exhaust note in Sport mode, but it is rather monotone and quickly becomes wearing at constant motorway speeds.
Gearshift quality is another area for improvement. Although Volkswagen has adopted a revised version of its in-house seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for the new model, in place of the old car's six-speed DSG, we experienced some rather unpleasant shunt through the driveline at low speeds around town together with unnecessarily long pauses on downshifts and at higher revs.
This considered, the standard six-speed manual might just be the better option, if it makes it to Australia. One area that is greatly improved, though, is the stop/start function.
Volkswagen has always been careful not to make the GTI too extreme. Its appeal has historically been its relative ease of driving. The new one is no different, providing a set of dynamics that are very approachable. It is everyday usable, but it is also terrifically entertaining on the right road.
The design and geometry of its MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension is carried over from the seventh-generation car. As with the engine, though, it has been subtly evolved. Among other changes, a new aluminium subframe provides greater rigidity and a claimed 3kg reduction over the steel structure used before.
The ride height is also 15mm lower than the standard Golf's. Even more significant is the move to transfer greater load stiffness to the rear: the front spring rates have been increased by 5 per cent and those at the rear by 15 per cent.
However, it is the adoption of the new VDM system that Volkswagen credits most in providing the GTI with improved balance and stability. It oversees the operation of the steering, throttle, gearbox and adaptive dampers – the last of which continue to be made available as an option.
As before, the standard model comes with 17-inch wheels shod with 225-section Bridgestone Potenza tyres, although the optional 18- and 19-inch wheels now come with wider, 235-section rubber for greater purchase.
It immediately feels more responsive and a touch more sporting than any other standard Golf GTI that has gone before it, but crucially with a similar degree of refinement and overall maturity as other less powerful eighth-generation Golf models we’ve driven recently.
With Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual driving modes, you get a broader range of on-road characteristics than before, too. The VDM system also allows you to individually control the adaptive damping characteristics across 15 different steps. There’s added body control in Sport and greater subtlety in Comfort.
The electro-mechanical steering is terrifically well weighted, more tactile and, given the amount of power being fed through the front wheels, commendably free of corruption, even on a loaded throttle in lower gears.
It might lack the whip-crack reactions of some rival hot hatches, but it is very accurate and its ability to communicate with greater feedback than most makes it truly rewarding.
There’s a compellingly neutral feel to the way the GTI corners. It resists understeer remarkably well, instilling confidence in the driver. In keeping with its everyday aspirations, the suspension is quite subtle in terms of tuning. At lower speeds around town, you detect some added firmness in relation to other Golf models but the ride is quite pliant, even in the more sporting driving modes.
The interaction between the XDS, DCC and VDM systems provides for faster damper adjustment at each wheel than with the old model, making for improved body control, added ride refinement and a generally more settled feel to the whole car over any given road.
The brakes – 340mm discs up front and 310mm at the rear – are outstanding, with excellent pedal feel and impressive stopping power when you lean on them. The earlier predilection for the ABS to begin to cycle even under even moderate pedal pressure has been cured.
The Golf GTI remains the sensible choice in its class. It’s fast – although not ferociously so – more responsive than ever, comfortable in the appropriate drive mode setting and superbly refined.
A little bit more differentiation from the standard Golf, a lift in the perceived quality of some of its interior trims and a more enticing exhaust note would make it a more compelling proposition, but after 44 years at the sharp end of the hot hatch ranks, Volkswagen says it knows what its customers want.
To that end, an even more powerful Golf GTI Clubsport model with close to 220kW is planned for launch by the end of 2020 as a replacement for the earlier GTI Performance.
For now, though, the standard model represents a predictable advance on the model it replaces. It's better in every way, not least in the way it drives.