Goodwood Test: 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Review
The Volkswagen Golf GTI’s legend completely eclipses its actual standing. That it was the original hot hatch (it wasn’t), is the best hot hatch around (it isn’t), completely defines its sector (it doesn’t), are just a few things you’ll find written around corners of the internet both secretive and not so. The fact that the Golf GTI is none of these things is not to do it a disservice, more to bring a modicum of reality to the situation. The original GTI may have helped to define the hot hatch, but there have been seven standard Golfs since the original and six of them have come with GTIs so far. In that time there have been brilliant cars (like the Mk5) and awful ones (looking at you Mk3) and some reasonable ones in between. The Golf GTI is another hot hatch in the large line of hot hatches, it isn’t the be all and end all of hot hatchery.
However there is no denying it is an important car; the GTI has developed an aura as the everyman’s hot hatch. It’s the one that’s good to drive but that won’t make your boss question whether such a car should be parked in the work car park and won’t leave your shopping creamed across the boot on a trip back from the supermarket. So the eighth Golf GTI has a lot of expectations to live up to. Will it keep on living up to them or is it ready to move on up?
- An injection of fun into the drive
- Stiffer springs bring more adjustment
- Looks much better than the standard car
We don't like
- Interior is fiddly to use
- Rear leg room isn’t amazing
- Now well north of £30k
The Mk8 Golf as standard is a bit of an automotive shrug. The real thought for new design seems to have gone to the ID.3, the electric car looking over the Golf’s shoulder and tapping its watch. But the GTI’s small tweaks make the new Golf work. The wide mouth is filled with hexagonal fog lights, five of them in a star pattern on each side. The Clubsport will lose these, but I quite like them. Above that the winged eyeliner on the Mk8’s lights has been filled with the red GTI stripe, that now carries on across the bonnet and through the headlights to the tip. There’s also a running DRL light strip through the centre of the bonnet which looks a little menacing. Somehow it makes the slightly awkward squashed face of the Mk8 look a lot better, without too much effort. Of course as this is a Golf GTI it doesn’t have a big wing or massive flares, just a small spoiler, a pair of simple but effective exhaust tips, and some big 18-inch alloys. There are 19-inchers available, and those are the largest wheels ever fitted to a GTI.
Performance and Handling
The new GTI has basically the same 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine as before, but now it produces 245PS (180kW) to just the front wheels, and it’ll also whack out 370Nm (273lb ft) of torque – if you want it all-wheel-drive you’ll need to wait for the R – via either a seven-speed DSG gearbox or, if you are sensible, a six-speed manual. While the new GTI has 25PS more than the outgoing model it comes up short compared to the special edition Clubsport, which nudged over the 260PS mark, and over 280PS for limited periods.
That doesn’t seem like much, and it’s far from the important change to the new Golf GTI. That actually comes under the surface. For many years car reviewers have complained that the GTI just isn’t as fun as some of the other hot hatches, and it seems that Volkswagen was listening. The new GTI’s dampers are five per cent stiffer at the front and a whopping fifteen per cent stiffer at the rear. While they remain passive, this is a significant change. It’s instantly noticeable too, the car a little more liable to jiggle on a town road, but it isn’t to a point that could put you off. And when you get going on a B-road drive that jiggle goes from noticeable to crucial. Thanks to the combination of that stiffer setup and a faster steering rack (again about five per cent) the GTI instantly feels a lot more lively than its predecessors. The main place you’ll notice this is in the mid corner, as where a Golf before needed a bit of gathering together before you chucked it through a bend, the new one can be adjusted in the mid corner more, allowing for a harsher approach. There’s a lot more communication from the chassis, especially at the rear – where the major change has come – that allows you to make the adjustments you want.
The steering is weighted nicely, but a little lacking in feel, but the faster response contributes to a feeling of security when you need to make a change. The brakes are also excellent, with a proper hard stab now inducing a much more lively response from the car as a whole. The DSG gearbox is a disappointing addition, because it takes some of the feel out of driving. It’s a decent enough ‘box, but has that annoying knack of feeling like it knows better than you, hanging onto a gear after you’ve requested a downshift for a second or two to bring the revs down, which can unsettle your progress if you were expecting some engine retardation. The engine itself has a proper sweetspot to it; there’s lag at the bottom and not a lot at the very top, but it pulls strongly and without fuss from 2,500 to 5,000rpm, and there’s not too much in the way of torque steer to deal with.
Of course, there had to be a downside to the new GTI, and that is that it has to have the Mk8’s new hyper-digital dash. While the all-digital instrument cluster has been with us a while now and is perfectly acceptable, the removal of pretty much all function from the dash and into a touchscreen is not. In fact the only physical controls that exist away from the wheel are the gearstick (well, more of a tiny switch than a stick), e-brake, windows and wing mirrors. Everything else has moved up onto the screen. In fact, I tell a lie, there are controls for the heat of the climate control and the volume, but they are touch ‘buttons’ just below that screen, so I count them as one and the same. To be clear, the system on the screen is actually fine to use, but the controls around it are, bluntly, awful. The positioning of the touch buttons just below the screen means you will often brush them trying to change your sat-nav, and end up having to fiddle to put your climate control or volume back where it was. There is a cluster of touch buttons below it for quick return to various functions (assists, climate etc.) but these are also easy to miss on the move. Thankfully there are still proper GTI tartan seats and if you go manual you’ll get a proper stick, but form has definitely come before function for the GTI 8.
Technology and Features
Our test car was pretty loaded, and much of it comes as standard. That big touchscreen – 10 inches – is standard on all Golfs and houses the controls for the standard lane-keep assist, travel assist, parking sensors, climate control, sat-nav and DAB Radio. Volkswagen don’t really do Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but they do provide their own service “App-connect” which combines the function of both. Despite the complaints about the way it feels to use, the functionality in the screen and systems is actually very good, it’s just a bit badly thought out in integrating into a car. For example there are now quick settings for various things in the climate control, you can do things like tell the car that your feet are cold and it’ll warm them up for you. There’s also ‘Hey Volkswagen’ voice control, which works a bit like your Google Assistant or Siri, but it is at times a little dim-witted, like many a car-based voice system. It is a good thing to that the Golf is so well kitted out, given that it costs £33,460 as standard...
You really should not take our misgivings about the interior of the new GTI as a reason not to go for it. The industry as a whole needs to have a proper think about how it uses touchscreens and haptic feedback buttons for on-the-move functionality – Volkswagen is caught following a trend here, and if it hadn’t it would look behind the times. What you should do is drive the new GTI and smile. The focus on making it more of a driver’s car has worked. The new Volkswagen Golf GTI is a car for those of us who do go out and just drive when they need to clear their heads, rather than for the crowd who would like to be seen as having the top spec car, who will stick their foot to the floor every now and then but never really use it. The stiffer damping has made an immediately noticeable difference – it makes the GTI feel more alive than before and we think you should be grateful for it. It still isn’t an absolute hooligan like, say, a Megane Trophy. But on the Usable-Fun hot hatch scale it has nudged that needle further to the right.
This score is an average based on aggregated reviews from trusted and verified sources.
|Engine||2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol|
|Power||245PS (180kW) @ 5,000rpm|
|Torque||370Nm (273lb ft) @ 1,600rpm|
|Transmission||Seven-speed double-clutch automatic, front-wheel-drive|
|Price||£33,460 (£36,134 as tested)|
Reviewed by Ben Miles