What is it like to drive?
Question one: is 242bhp enough? Yes – presuming you’re happy with a quick hatch, not a face-altering missile. The numbers from this engine are identical to the Mk7 GTI Performance. Disappointed? Have a look at the Clubsport instead. 0-60mph in 5.6secs puts it up there with its fastest class mates. Either way it’s nice to be able to drive a modern fast car and be able to use full throttle for more than 0.5 seconds without starring on your local police force’s ‘Gotcha!’ Twitter feed.
Here, maximum power is held from 5,000rpm to 6,500rpm, and the motor revs cleanly up to the redline followed along by a flat-pitched growl. Mostly, you’ll surf the torque: a chunky 273lb ft is on tap from 1,600 revs right up to 4,300rpm. That’s a preposterous torque band. It might as well run on diesel. There’s a fraction of turbo lag in every gear, but then the GTI just hauls, without wheelspin or torque steer robbing your attention. Very effective, very mature, and just ever-so-slightly bland. AMG’s A35 and the Focus ST sport more exciting powerplants. The Clubsport is the same - massive wide power band so hits harder everywhere. Same basic engine, but a larger intercooler and new turbo. Plus a slightly more exciting soundtrack.
Equipped with the DSG gearbox, 0-62mph is sorted in 6.3 seconds in the standard GTI. The manual takes a handful of tenths longer. That seems like par for this kind of car, until you look up the rivals and see they’re all under the six second barrier these days. Maybe you do need that Clubsport version? It's a crisper, sharper drive than the regular car and although the ride is busier as a result, it's a trade off we'd make. Provided a manual gearbox isn't essential as the CLubsport is DSG only. The GTI's manual shift is fine, but nowhere near as mechanically sweet as a Civic Type R’s or Focus ST’s, and the lever is plasticky.
Where the Mk8 GTI really comes good is in the corners. Some hot hatches (A35, RS3) are ‘engine cars’. This is a ‘chassis car’. Who cares about how all that computer network stuff works? The point is, it does – the optional £785 DCC adaptive dampers are crucial here. Instead of picking a fixed setting, you get a sliding scale on the touchscreen: you can go sub-Comfort for maximum wallow on really roughshod roads, or beyond Sport (which even VW admits is just for tracks).
Somewhere in the middle is, predictably, just right, and it all comes together in a chassis that feels taut, precise and more alive under you than the old GTI, which needed provoking with booze, high-sugar snacks and rude football chants before it got fighty. Interestingly, VW’s engineers insist they only benchmarked the Mk7 GTI when setting up the new car, but namecheck the Focus ST and Hyundai i30N as key rivals they want to out-handle. Tough crowd, that.
We were convinced VW had fitted even faster steering, but an engineer quickly confirmed that the 2.1 turns between lock rack is identically geared to the old GTI’s steering. What has changed are the suspension spring rates, which are all stiffer, particularly at the rear, to promote a more chuckable attitude. What’s more, the steering ironmongery has been beefed up so it’s more torsionally rigid.
So, the GTI dives into corners more obediently than it used to, working that standard electronic front diff to the max. It’s not a total character transplant – the Mk7 GTI was a very fine car indeed, and yet this is just a little bit better on the way into a corner, and tidier on the way out.
VW modestly says the improvement in steering response is measured ‘in nanoseconds’, but on that first roundabout, you’ll feel it. And yet, it’s preserved the superb high-speed stability. The car’s planted, comfortable, and doesn’t need to be constantly babysat on the motorway. Doing distance in here, as opposed to something more boisterous like an i30N or RS Megane, is a joy.
Without the adaptive dampers VW has struck a predictably good balance, but with the clever suspension on board the eighth GTI is more fun to drive than its immediate predecessor, but just as sensible and grown-up on the daily grind. If it was us, we'd be looking hard for the extra cash needed for the Clubsport, as the extra power and sharper chassis mean it pushes its more charismatic rivals that bit harder. Just want a sporting thing to, look smart and get you about with a bit of pace and engagement? Standard car does the trick…