Volkswagen Golf 2021 gti
launch-review

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI launch review

Rating: 8.4
$41,070 $48,840 Dealer
  • Fuel Economy
    6.5L
  • Engine Power
    180kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    150g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars
The Golf GTI is a car that needs no introduction, but deserves thorough exploration.
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As a car enthusiast, it's not hard to get excited about the new 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI.

However, it's worth acknowledging that it remains the universal aspirational car of choice for those who are beginning to care about what they drive, or awakening to how one drives.

In other words, you don't need to be the type who braves the cold for a cars-and-coffee event to lust for a GTI. In fact, I'd argue it appeals more to a broader, interesting group of buyers who may be dabbling in their first performance car.

Whether you walk into a VW dealer fresh and proceed to get walked up to a GTI by the sales consultant, or are simply trading in your trusty Mk5, 6 or 7 GTI, many are eager to see what's new.

Or maybe what's not, if you've been reading international coverage.

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Engine2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power and torque180kW at 6200rpm, 370Nm at 1600–4300rpm
TransmissionSeven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive typeFront-wheel drive
Tare weight1409kg
Fuel claim, combined (ADR)7.0L/100km
Fuel claim, on test8.5L/100km
Boot volume (hatch/sedan)381L/1237L
ANCAP ratingFive stars (tested 2019)
WarrantyFive years/unlimited km
Main competitorsHyundai i30 N, Renault Megane RS, Ford Focus ST
Price as tested$53,100 (before on-roads)

Instead of hard-marking the GTI as being the same because its underpinnings are adapted from the previous generation, let's unravel what technical changes have occurred and whether they make a difference instead.

First, the chassis. Its suspension pick-up points and geometry are identical. That means its fundamental hard parts, or limbs if you will, are as before. There's a new subframe that's apparently 3kg lighter, but that's about it.

However, as you come to discover when driving multiple cars seemingly comparable in terms of data points, be it dimensions or even more complex suspension systems, it's now the chassis's brain that's just as crucial as its limbs in terms of influencing the drive.

Cars like the Mercedes-AMG A45 S demonstrate this, as it's a product of two equal things: metallurgy and engineering progress, as well as clever drivers – fluent with laptops – working with more processing power, more accurate sensors, and more experience.

Essentially, computers can change this intangible 'feel' we guard so highly. Understanding that, what is new with the Golf GTI's chassis is the mind power behind its electronics, which Volkswagen calls Vehicle Dynamics Management or VDM. A practical manifestation of this theory is the standard-fit adaptive suspension now featuring 15 modes of stiffness adjustment, instead of just three.

Next, the engine. It's identical to the four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine as found in the 2019 Golf Mk7.5 GTI, with outputs the same too: 180kW/370Nm delivered at the same respective 6200rpm and 1600–4300rpm figures. International engines benefit from a petrol particulate filter and higher-pressure injectors, but our Aussie-spec motors feature neither.

For the launch, we explored the car on both the road and the racetrack.

Let's start with the fast stuff first. The Golf GTI isn't as motorsport-oriented as the Hyundai i30 N or Renault Megane RS, but didn't come across that way after 30 minutes of hard circuit driving.

Part of the new VDM's repertoire is better united communication between various sensors controlling the vehicle's stability and traction-control systems, and its extended electronic differential lock. It has featured on previous Volkswagen products acting as a limited-slip differential or mimicking the act of distributing power to the driven wheels somewhat equally.

Some iterations were easy enough to catch out. It just took some aggressive steering and throttle input to result in one wheel flaring up with wheel spin. Regardless of how stupidly I tried to provoke the new GTI into a tragedy of single-wheel-spinning disappointment, it failed to oblige. The whole system is clearly working better than before – faster processing of input and now quick to put a damper on my tomfoolery.

Another benefit comes from how the stability control now interacts with a keen driver. Diving deep on the brakes into turn six at Luddenham Raceway involves some commitment and practice, as after coming in blind and fast you're then greeted to a downhill section of slower S-bends.

The name of the game with a front-driver is to load up its anterior and use the weight shift to your advantage. The more confident I got, the later and deeper I carried the braking. My best efforts saw the quintessential hot-hatch moment occur, where a lofty, weightless back end – cocked inside wheel and all – began to carry the car through the corner.

It's exciting stuff, engaging even with all traction aids on. Turning them off does allow for even more movement, and if you like silliness, but getting lift-off oversteer moments would require insistent provocation.

On the road, the GTI begins to feel more familiar. Its steering system is more responsive and better than before, but that's something those upgrading may notice and not newbies.

Engine performance feels the same too; something that can be the defining factor for someone looking to upgrade from a more recent iteration of the GTI. When assessed individually, it's still a punchy motor. The front wheels are squabbling with 370Nm for nearly 3000rpm worth of tachometer, which alone garnishes some peppery heat over the experience.

At times it feels like you're holding on to something aggressive, especially if the road is a little patchy and damp with morning dew. More power would be nice, but it's also not short of it. Zero to 100km/h times are a pinch slower at 6.3sec versus the outgoing car at 6.2sec.

Driven over a variety of roads, some bumper to bumper and others more free-flowing, it returned 8.5L/100km versus the official combined claim of 7.0L/100km.

Ride quality is fantastic, as we've come to expect from Volkswagen GTI and R products, with the new 15-stage dampers now having four settings past Comfort, and the same past Sport.

That means you can dial in incremental amounts of suppleness or stiffness pending the road; something great about the option of an individual setting. Given the wide array of customisation, it's a shame Volkswagen hasn't enabled a few individual presets, like what Audi currently does with its RS 1 and RS 2 modes.

Over my favourite sections of road north of Sydney, it remained balanced, fun, and rightfully involving. I had most of the settings set neutrally, with the suspension set halfway and with engine calibration on Sport.

Other than some sections of road causing vibrations in the footwell, the cheeky punt pretty much went to plan. I entered in Comfort and Eco mode, had a ball in the settings right for the conditions, and headed home in the same way I entered.

You can do this in a previous Golf 7.5 GTI, though, but what's more likely to convince the upgrade crowd is the interior space itself. Again, it's something that's been criticised globally, but parking your initial frustrations and spending time with it does help.

Going to climate settings and back to Apple CarPlay is a two-touch affair. Once on the 'Clima' shortcut key underneath the screen, and once more on the home button, which becomes an 'X' when you open a sub-menu.

The handy little home button – as an iPhone once had – is a simple operating concept that takes you back to wherever you were initially. Once you begin to understand and use the system as intended, it feels natural.

I agree that tactile buttons always prevail, but it's as good as a streamlined climate-control system gets. Also, for argument's sake, temperature controls still feature as touch-sensitive items on the dash, and are inwardly contoured to aid the sensation of using them blindly.

The impact of a near-buttonless cabin does feel high-tech and expensive, though. As do the new Tartan seats, now being one-piece with integrated headrests and sporting Alcantara bolsters, as opposed to cloth. A subtle touch, but mightily uplifting.

As standard comes the Innovision cockpit system, which introduces a new digital instrument cluster and 10.0-inch touchscreen display. The customisation details offered by the instrument cluster are brilliant, as are the graphics too.

As for the infotainment display, it's also newly skinned with software that feels more aligned to what you'd find on your smartphone. Within a couple of left or right swipes, you're able to find all things important like smartphone integration set-up, navigation, various media, and car control systems.

The settings display is now visual-based, too, with the ability to browse between 'interior' and 'exterior' settings managed by actual depictions of the area of the car you're adjusting, and not a long list of menus.

In terms of simplicity, storage is great, with a large centre cubby featuring fold-away cupholders located shy of another, more ergonomically shaped cache.

My favourite part of the cabin basics is a storage lid that sits over the wireless charging area. It's the spot that most often gets used to store your keys, but in cars with wireless charging that's a big no-no. The last thing you want is to bake your expensive, keyless entry system into your car.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI has wireless charging, but also a small fold-down flap that covers (and hides) your phone neatly as to make the space usable again. The cavity is also rubber-lined, so it won't get scratched by house keys.

The combination of clean design, nice materials, and little sparks of functionality in certain areas made me feel welcome overall.

Space is fair in the second row. I'm 183cm tall, and sitting behind my own driving position left me with around 1cm of knee room, decent foot room, and plenty of head room.

Guests in the back also have access to a pair of air vents coupled with their own temperature control too. Underneath lies a pair of fast-charging USB-C ports as well as large, oddly shaped and flocked door storage bins. You'll fit a bottle in one easy.

Let's finish with the price.

In 2017, a Golf Mk7.5 GTI auto cost $43,990 before on-roads and options. By the end of its life, now with more power and more fruit, a 2020 Golf Mk7.5 GTI auto cost $47,190 plus on-road costs before options.

The Golf 8 GTI costs $53,100 before on-roads in any colour other than Kings Red, as that adds $300 to the bill.

The $1500 Sound and Vision pack adds Harman Kardon audio and a head-up display, while the $3800 Luxury package adds leather heated seats with memory, heated steering wheel, and panoramic glass sunroof.

With all the gear before on-roads, that's $58,400, or well into the $60K territory on the road. It's a lot of money, especially when considering that those who bought a GTI some two to three years ago, may have got a deal and negotiated their way under list price.

The car does act its worth in the right environment, but it'll be the interior and exterior styling doing the heavy lifting in the dealership. I believe if you're upgrading and leaning on the car as intended, you'll feel the value, likewise if you're new to the product itself.

However, to appease those barnacles already heckling from the back row, I'll level with the fact it feels pricey when compared with the outgoing car.

As usual, it's not us that'll decide, but rather the market. The same one that sees people currently paying retail, or sometimes well over, to get the latest, most desirable cars out there.

Let us know your view in the comments below.