VW Golf GTI (2020) review: eight is great

Published: 24 July 2020

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Review

► VW's Mk8 Golf GTI driven
► 241bhp, 5.9sec 0-62mph with DSG
► On sale autumn 2020

Here we are once again. It’s not often we get to sample an all-new VW Golf GTI for the first time, so this first drive really matters.

Ever since the original in 1976 really planted the idea of a hot hatchback in the minds of car enthusiasts everywhere, the Golf GTI has been one of the icons of the go-faster family car.

Enough bluster – let’s get straight into it

Like its seven predecessors, the new Golf GTI wears tartan, sports red accents on the grille and throughout the cabin, shifts gears via a knob shaped like a golf ball (though the car in the photos is DCT), and had its chassis trained in the gym.

And unlike some other markets, the Mk8 Golf GTI will come to the UK fitted with a good level of standard equipment, including 18-inch wheels, those signature five-spot foglamps and LED matrix headlights.

Designing a VW Golf GTI from the ground up

Under the bonnet, the new base GTI is fitted with the very same 241bhp/273lb ft 2.0-litre turbocharged four which powered the Mk7.5 Performance version. Although the latest top-of-the-line Golf boasts a more slippery drag coefficient – down from 0.3 to 0.275 – the top speed is again limited to 155mph. In two-pedal form, the go-faster Golf can accelerate in a hand-stopped 5.9sec from 0-62mph. There are no official fuel economy figures yet.

The GTI wardrobe includes a large roof spoiler, bespoke wheels, wraparound front splitter, black full-width honeycomb lower air intake, subtle sill extensions, rear diffuser and twin exhausts. In combination with the road-hugging suspension, wider track and fatter tyres, this is clearly the best-looking Mk8 Golf. It’s also is the most rewarding drive by a long way.

How so? 241bhp isn’t a lot these days…

Power is not the decider here. Instead, it’s the sweet yet sharp handling, the compliant but not exactly cushy ride, the reassuring zip-strength roadholding and the intuitive bond between car and driver that makes this a more complete hot hatch than the BMW M235i xDrive, Merc-AMG’s A35 and the Audi A3 45 TFSI (the new Audi S3 isn’t out yet). Only a direct comparison will tell whether it also edges the Hyundai i30 N, let alone the mildly-updated Honda Civic Type R. Unlike some rivals – among them the upcoming 335bhp Golf R – the GTI can only be had with front-wheel drive. This may cost a couple of tenths against the stopwatch, but it in no way diminishes the remarkable driving pleasure, which clearly prioritises balance and involvement over speed, traction and grip.

Although it shares a platform with the Mk7, the new GTI beats its forerunner on the 2.06-mile handling track in the vast Ehra-Lessien testing facility by a remarkable four seconds.

How has the Mk8 GTI managed that?

For a start, the engineers recalibrated the springs (five per cent tauter up front, 15 per cent in the back), shocks, mounting points and bearings. To shed a couple of kilos and increase lateral stiffness at the same time, the steel rear subframe has been replaced by the aluminium item used in the previous GTI Clubsport S, while the wheel carriers were redesigned. VW still charges extra for must-have adaptive damping, which is even faster acting now thanks to a major software boost.

Any actual innovations here?

The key improvement is perhaps the so-called Driving Dynamics Manager, which masterminds the integration of all the stability systems and the electronic differential. A wet clutch directs torque to the wheel that needs it most, thereby virtually eliminating steering fight and understeer. To make the car follow the chosen line, more oomph is gradually transmitted to the outer front wheel, a move which swiftly reduces the turn-in radius and thus the tendency to run wide. If need be, the inner wheel(s) are simultaneously decelerated for a subtle chip-induced and apex-focused at-the-limit cornering attitude that feels totally natural.

Hyundai i30 N vs Focus ST vs GTI TCR

Controlled by the Driving Dynamics Manager, Dynamic Chassis Control also suppresses bodyroll, speeds up the steering response and – in combination with XDS – ensures a predominantly neutral cornering style even when pushed. Not enough goosebumps? Then hit the Sport button, which duly increases the locking ratio for improved traction while preloading the differential for a more emphatic throttle response. At only 2.1 turns from lock to lock, the variable-rate progressive power steering feels extremely agile in direction changes while being totally at ease around the straight-ahead position, which is a big bonus during fast autobahn stints, for example.

In addition to the standard DNA spectrum, which ranges from Comfort to Sport, both extremes can be further extended by a couple of notches to SuperComfort and MegaSport. With ESP off and MegaSport activated, you are free to indulge in third-gear four-wheel drifts. The main improvements made to the brakes are a bigger master cylinder, which enhances the pedal feel, and a speed-sensitive booster which co-modulates the pedal effort in sync with specific driving conditions.

The first things you notice when entering the latest GTI are the red pulsating starter bar, the stubby drive selector, the dished three-spoke steering wheel loaded with shiny things to do with your fingers, and the nicely integrated touchscreen. Now start the engine and check out the redesigned digital instrumentation, which offers three different views. Few physical buttons remain. ESP Off? Take a deep dive into the relevant sub-menu. Dampers in Sport? Ditto.

Unfortunately these – and other regularly used functions – cannot yet be addressed by the ‘Hello Volkswagen’ voice control system. Which is an idiosyncrasy in itself, because VW swapped the widely accepted conventional controls for advanced future-generation ergonomics before the chips had completed their ripening process.

Too clever for its own good, then…

Perhaps but, fortunately, the GTI’s strengths lie elsewhere. Like on the country lanes between Wolfsburg and Braunschweig, via Gifhorn. It’s noon, we are between two shifts at the vast factory complex, and the feeder roads are lockdown-empty. The countryside between Hanover and Berlin is as flat as a pancake, but there’s a good selection of corners of varying radius, width and surface.

We begin the loop with the DNA in Comfort, which is okay for a couple of miles, then Sport – which doesn’t last long either. As always, the best compromise is in the mix: dampers in Comfort, everything else in Sport. Sport very nearly puts the throttle on fire, speeds up the steering and plays the loudest exhaust music. It’s impossible not to admire the quick-shifting DCT for its cleverly spaced ratios and the rapid shift action, but under hard braking it’s occasionally caught out.

The steering is a real-time 3D terrain scanner, an incorruptible feedback authority and a surgically precise pathfinder. The brakes’ deep pedal feel, robotic stamina and hurried response bring together the graceful action of a high-board diving athlete and the absolute determination of a top short-distance runner.

VW Golf GTI Mk8: verdict

The finest GTI since the very first lightweight four-speed 108bhp crackerjack is not an overwhelmingly strong performer. It’s quick, but not outright fast; its twist action sits at the bottom end of the acceptable scale and the package lacks an electric, variable-vane turbo or a mild-hybrid system. What makes the 2021 vintage stand out instead is the sum of its abilities: its broad range of talents; the smooth yet swift interaction of the key dynamic elements; the buzz and delight of its company. Driving is believing and drive it you must.

This road test appeared as part of the 'CTRL ALT DEL' feature in the August 2020 issue of CAR magazine.

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Specifications

Price when new: £33,000
On sale in the UK: Autumn 2020
Engine: 1984cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 241bhp @ 5000rpm, 273lb ft @ 1600rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Performance: 5.9sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 40mpg (est), 155g/km (est)
Weight / material: 1390kg(est)
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm):

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Rivals

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By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel