Satisfying blend of sharp handling and everyday comfort. More alert in the bends than the old GTI
Crass styling touches, deeply annoying minimalist cabin, horsepower-per-pound ratio
What is it?
Heir to the throne. The next in the dynasty. No hot hatch has a greater heritage than this. A Golf GTI should be all things to all people: the quintessential do-it-all family car. So, no pressure on the Mk8.
But life moves fast in the hot hatch game. Every other month there’s a refreshed contender with more power and more gimmicks. Except, the Golf GTI isn’t like that. This car offers no drift mode or rear-wheel steering. In fact, a heck of a lot of this is reheated leftovers plucked out of VW’s fridge.
Y’see, the latest Golf 8 is based on the same ‘MQB’ chassis foundations as the Mk7. This new GTI uses an evolution of the same ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo engine. It’s sprouted higher pressure fuel injectors, but still chucks out 242bhp. It’s still front wheel drive, and there’s still a standard six-speed manual gearbox, or an optional seven-speed paddleshift DSG (the more popular choice, these days). Hardly Christmas, is it?
This time, there’s no option of a three door, but otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking not a lot’s new. You’re also right to be wondering “hmm, is 242bhp enough when Ford, Renault, Honda, BMW, Mercedes and even Hyundai will all sell me cars that are about the same size and similar money, with a heck of a lot more poke?”. In answer to that question, may we present the 296bhp GTI Clubsport. DSG-only, still five doors and front-drive, but with comprehensively upgraded underpinnings designed to take the fight to the Civic Type R and Hyundai i30N.
What is new is the GTI’s image. Grrrr. Doesn’t look like the politely-spoken, well-turned out older brother of the family any more, does it? The honeycomb grille is wider, and features dubious LED running lights set into the plastic pattern. There’s even an LED strip-light that illuminates across the whole nose. Fussy rims, too. Out back, the twin tailpipes have been pushed further apart for a more planted stance, and the GTI badges are bigger. All of a sudden, a Focus ST or BMW's new 128ti is a more subtle choice than the Golf.
The new GTI attempts to justify all that swagger with brains. VW’s been working on a new computer which, of course, has a serious German name: VDM, or Vehicle Dynamics Manager. Basically, the GTI houses a sort of AI network that’ll monitor the engine revs, how much traction the tyres have, your steering angle, what gear you’re in, the electronic front differential and (if you’ve ticked the box) the optional adaptive suspension – all at the same time.
The idea is that instead of each of the car’s electronic systems making up its own mind how to help you get around the corner faster, all this data is being fed back to one mothership of a motherboard that keeps all the tech in harmony. The Clubsport version, costing from £37,215 instead of £33,510, features such niceties as stiffer springs and dampers, bigger yet lighter brakes, more negative front wheel camber, new bushing and mounting points and VAQ, a multi-plate clutch pack differential, hydraulically actuated and electronically controlled. Imagine how sci-fi that would’ve seemed to the engineers who set up the 110bhp Mk1 Golf GTI back in 1975…
Since then, there have been iconic GTIs, good GTIs, and downright rubbish ones. We're looking at you mk3 and mk4. So, where does number eight fit into the family portrait?
What is the verdict?
It’s brave of Volkswagen to relaunch its genre-defining, household name hot hatch with exactly the same power output as the old one. Cars don’t need to get any faster these days – that’s been true for a while – but it’ll be fascinating to see if the GTI concedes sales to its many talented rivals for not coming out swinging with a few extra horses to its credit. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this could be the start of a refreshing trend.
If only VW had applied the same attitude to the interior. Needlessly tweaking bits that weren’t broke like the steering wheel buttons and heater controls is pretty disastrous for common sense usability. You’ll get used to it in time, of course, but getting accustomed to a fundamentally worse-designed product isn’t the same as enjoying living with a well-thought out one. And the Mk7 was the epitome of that.
GTIs are the Porsche 911 of the hot hatch world – they don’t tend to change the game, they just buff and refine their act until it’s so crushingly competent in other areas it’s almost unfair on the opposition. Thankfully, the Mk8 has kept what we loved about the last decade’s worth of GTIs: solid refinement and superb driveability, but added more opportunity for back road misbehaviour. You can be neat with it and marvel at the precision, or be a bit of a yobbo without sensing the car is rolling its eyes and wishing you’d ruddy well grow up. If anything, the experience is a bit too placid/unremittingly competent, and if you agree with that, but still want those Golf qualities, steer yourself towards a GTI Clubsport.
Is it the definitive hot hatchback in 2020? No, because the market has broadened out to the point that no one car can claim that any more. Instead what VW has done is broaden the Golf's offering by creating the Clubsport to take on more hardcore rivals such as the i30N and Civic Type R, plus the 4wd R to see off Audi's S3 and the Merc-AMG A35. It's a convncing approach.