The GTI badge has been in existence almost as long as the venerable Volkswagen Golf itself and despite having started its life as a skunkworks project, the iconic performance variant has managed to outlive countless rivals to become inseparable from the phrase "hot hatch."
After all these years, has it faded to become a shadow of its former self, or should it still be the default choice for anyone wanting a taste of power without spending serious performance money? We've taken the new one for a spin, both on and off the track, to find out.
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with? 7/10
First things first, the Golf GTI is more expensive than ever. Now wearing an MSRP of $53,100, it's impossible to call the GTI 'cheap', even for the relative performance on offer.
For example, it's still more expensive than the more powerful i30 N Performance, which in automatic guise wears a price-tag of $47,500, and more expensive than the Ford Focus ST (torque converter auto - $44,890), and about on-par with the more enthusiast-focused Civic Type R (manual only - $54,990).
To be fair, the GTI has taken a significant hike in standard features, too. It gains the full digital overhaul from the rest of the Golf range, including the very good 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, 10.0-inch multimedia touchscreen, complete with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android auto connectivity, wireless charging, and bult-in sat-nav.
The controls have all been reworked to be touch capacitive (we'll talk more about those later), and other signature GTI elements are standard, like the flat-bottomed, leather-bound steering wheel, and tartan seat trim.
It comes with. a 10.0-inch multimedia touchscreen, complete with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android auto connectivity.
Luxuries include fully keyless proximity unlocking, push-start ignition, tri-zone climate control, and a comprehensive safety suite (even more so than the outgoing 7.5) which we'll take a closer look at later.
The GTI can be chosen in a unique colour from the rest of the range – Kings Red – which comes at an additional charge of $300, and there are two option packs. The most expensive of these is the Luxury package, which wears a $3800 cost and adds partial leather interior trim, heated and ventilated front seats with power adjust for the driver, and a panoramic sunroof.
The Sound and Vision package comes in at $1500 and adds a nine-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system, and a holographic head-up display.
Is there anything interesting about its design? 8/10
The GTI is the most significantly visually overhauled variant in the Golf 8 range, bringing with it not just the refined LED lighting profile, but adding a highlight strip all the way across the car's nose, and DRL clusters in the lower bumper. This grants the GTI a menacing, distinctive profile, particularly when spotted at night.
From the side, the GTI sets itself apart with the lower ride height and more aggressively shaped bumpers, while distinct alloy wheels finish a chunky, appealing box.
For many the Volkswagen Golf GTI isn't just any hot hatchback, it is still THE hot hatchback.
The GTI is the most significantly visually overhauled variant in the Golf 8 range.
Bringing with it not just the refined LED lighting profile, but adding a highlight strip all the way across the car’s nose.
And DRL clusters in the lower bumper. This grants the GTI a menacing, distinctive profile.
Round the rear, and the iconic hatch profile is completed by a dual exhaust and new 'GTI' lettering across the tailgate. It's contemporary, fresh, yet iconically Volkswagen. Fans will love it.
The inside is where the biggest changes take place. The GTI's interior is largely the same as the main range, with its full-on digital overhaul. The screens will dazzle you from the driver's seat, while the GTI's familiar low-set driving position, cosy seats, and blacked out interior features set it apart.
Smart, refined, heavily digitised. The GTI’s cabin is the future you’ve been waiting for.
There are other interior highlights that the rest of the range can't match, too, like the tartan seat trim on non-luxury-package-equipped examples, a patterned highlight strip across the dash, and a clasping mechanism for your phone over the wireless-charging bay, to ensure it doesn't make a swift exit during more inspired bursts of driving.
Smart, refined, heavily digitised. The GTI's cabin is the future you've been waiting for, although it does, perhaps, go a little too far in a few places, which we'll look at in the practicality segment.
How practical is the space inside? 8/10
The main downside to the GTI's new interior layout is the lack of tactile dials and buttons. These have been replaced entirely by touch-capacitive interaction points. I'll give full credit to the brand, these slider bars and touch buttons are executed in a better fashion than pretty much all of its rivals, but there's still no replacing a physical dial for climate or volume functions, particularly when you're enjoying this car's performance virtues, and are keeping your eyes on the road.
The clasp for your phone is an inspired addition for the GTI, and elsewhere the cabin is as smart as it is in the rest of the range. This includes huge pockets in the doors, a large centre console cutaway with a fold-out cupholder mechanism, a decently sized centre console armrest box with a variable height mechanism, and a glovebox.
Boot space is unchanged from the rest of the Mark 8 range at 374-litres (VDA).
The rear seat is just as good as it is in the rest of the Mark 8 range, with surprising room on offer for adult-sized rear occupants. The chunky sports seats do take a little away from knee room, but it's plenty adequate, as are arm, head, and foot room. Rear passengers are also treated to excellent seat trim, three alternately sized pockets on the backs of the front seats, their very own climate zone with adjustable air vents, a drop-down armrest with three cupholders, large door pockets, and dual-USB-C outlets. This grants the GTI one of the best back seats in the class, if not the best, in terms of amenities and space.
Boot space is unchanged from the rest of the Mark 8 range at 374-litres (VDA), which is not at the top of the segment, but certainly better than many, and there remains a space-saver spare wheel under the floor.
The rear seat is just as good as it is in the rest of the Mark 8 range, with surprising room on offer for adult-sized rear occupants.
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission? 8/10
Those who were looking forward to some major changes for the eighth-gen GTI may be disappointed here. The new car carries over the same engine and transmission from the 7.5. This consists of the highly regarded (EA888) 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbopetrol unit, continuing to produce 180kW/370Nm, which drives the front wheels, via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
This isn't to say the Mark 8 GTI hasn't been improved in other significant areas. VW has tweaked the front subframe and suspension to add lightness, and added a tweaked 'XDL' version of its electromechanical limited-slip differential to improve handling and performance. Adding to this, the GTI has adaptive dampers as standard.
It's powered by the highly regarded (EA888) 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol unit, continuing to produce 180kW/370Nm.
The GTI requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel and has a 50L fuel tank. Our time testing the car produced a computer-reported 8.0L/100km, although you can expect this to vary greatly depending on how you drive it.
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating? 9/10
The GTI gets the same comprehensive safety coverage as the rest of the Golf 8 range. This includes a particularly impressive active suite, which offers freeway-speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, safe-exit warning, driver-attention alert, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go function.
The range also scores an additional airbag for a total of eight, and now also has an emergency SOS function. Like other new VW group models, the Golf eight range also has a 'proactive passenger protection system', which tightens the seatbelts, fixes the windows for optimal airbag deployment, and applies the brakes in preparation for secondary collisions.
What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered? 8/10
Like the rest of the range, the GTI is covered by Volkswagen's competitive five-year and unlimited-kilometre warranty, complete with roadside assist. The ownership promise is improved by choosing the pre-paid service plans, which have the added benefit of being able to be added in on finance at the time of purchase.
Three years of servicing on the GTI comes in at $1450 using this method, while five years (claimed to be the best value) is $2300. These are a slight hike on the rest of the Golf 8 range, to go with the GTI's more complex transmission, and while the pricing per-year is more than some rivals, it's not outrageous.
Where could VW do better here? Hyundai offers a track warranty with its range of N performance models, something which VW tells us it is not interested in at this time.
Like the rest of the range, the GTI is covered by Volkswagen’s competitive five-year and unlimited-kilometre warranty.
What's it like to drive? 9/10
The GTI is everything you'd expect it to be, and more. This is because the EA888 engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission are a tried and tested combination, which have performed well in this car's previous iteration.
It's safe to say that if you've driven or owned a GTI in the recent past, this will largely be the same in terms of its dynamics and performance, both on the track and on the road.
Where this new GTI really shines, though, is its improved front-end.
The seven-speed dual-clutch combines much more nicely with a higher-torque engine to eliminate the kinds of low-speed stresses we normally complain about in lesser models, while its lightning-fast shifts and instantly responsive paddles make it the automatic transmission of choice for track drivers.
It's a shame there's no manual transmission, sure, but Hyundai will offer an eight-speed dual clutch on its latest iteration of the i30N, too.
Ultimately, then, this car finds its niche.
Where this new GTI really shines, though, is its improved front-end. The lighter subframe and suspension components combine with the new limited-slip differential for some serious handling magic. Anyone who has driven a hot hatch with an added front differential will know what I'm talking about here. It's positively transformative to the way the car deals with corners, preventing understeer, enhancing grip, and allowing for more control when powering out.
For the track this ultimately means much faster cornering and more trim lap times, without having to add additional power, but on the road this also means you'll get some measure of the predictability and safety that is otherwise only offered on all-wheel drive hatches, like the Golf R or Mercedes-AMG A45.
The GTI is everything you’d expect it to be, and more.
Elsewhere, the GTI is able to outstrip even its more enthusiast-focused rivals by combining the aforementioned items with an adaptive-damper tune that offers the kind of body control that removes the more unpleasant parts of cornering in a front-driver. For example, the GTI will lock things down and maintain traction, even when pushed toward its limits, compared to the i30N, which will body-roll into a corner and start to stutter on the outside when pushed to the same extremes (a disclaimer here - this applies to the previous i30N, and not the updated model, which was yet to arrive at the time of writing).
It's a sophisticated package, and while it might not be setting the kinds of lap times laid down by the Rs and AMGs of this new, much higher benchmarked hatch world, it's simply a pleasure to enjoy a one-off track day or curvy B-road in, even if this GTI is no longer out-punching rivals on the power front.
The GTI does come with a handful of expected downsides for the suburban driver.
Ultimately, then, this car finds its niche, even at the price asked. Spending less will get you the fun but wiley Focus ST, or perhaps the less techy but more gear-headed i30N or Civic Type R. Either way, I know which car I'd rather drive home in on suburban roads at the end of a track day, making the GTI the ideal offering for the more common but less vocal casual enthusiast.
On a final note, the GTI does come with a handful of expected downsides for the suburban driver. The steering is heavier than the standard Golf range and the ride can be sharp, especially with the large wheels and lightened front-end. Road noise at freeway speeds is also a bit intrusive.
This is a small price to pay for the performance and cabin comfort on offer, I'd argue.
It’s simply a pleasure to enjoy a one-off track day or curvy B-road in, even if this GTI is no longer out-punching rivals on the power front.
The Golf GTI continues to be the iconic hot hatch it has always been, and while it is missing an engine and transmission overhaul, it still manages to take everything it is good at and improve on its tried and tested formula, even if only a little this time around.
I'm confident existing fans and casual enthusiasts not needing or wanting to fork out for the pinnacle of performance offered by something like the Golf R will love this new GTI iteration, which is just as much fun around town as it is on the track.
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