In a hot-hatch world of sledgehammer performance figures, the eighth-gen Golf GTI adopts a more clinically precise approach.

By: Dave Humphreys 

Good things come to those who wait, they say. For enthusiasts keen to lay their mitts on the eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI, the wait is almost over. Ahead of the hot hatch’s arrival in South Africa, we slipped behind the wheel on Volkswagen’s home turf in Wolfsburg to find out just how well the latest GTI performs. 

The common-or-garden Golf 8 hasn’t enjoyed the warmest of welcomes from enthusiasts thanks to its divisive appearance, but Volkswagen has gone some way to redeeming itself with the hotter GTI. Familiar touches are there, such as the red stripe spanning the front and running into the LED headlights, emphasised by a full-width illuminated strip.

The signature red stripe now stretches right across the car’s front end.

Less subtle is the basking shark-like lower grille with its large honeycomb mesh that provides a clear view of the Volkswagen’s innards and may have some prospective buyers wincing at the potential for stone damage to the radiator. LED foglight clusters set within the mesh bumper apron continue the honeycomb theme. Ride height drops by 15 mm, with the SA-spec GTI set to sit on 18-inch Richmond alloy wheels as standard. Still, it’s worth upgrading to the 19-inch Adelaide wheels to bulk up the Golf’s image and gain the wider 235-section tyres. 

Opinions on the interior are likely to remain divided. Now an entirely digitised affair, Volkswagen’s “Innovision” cockpit wraps the 10.25-inch instrument cluster and infotainment touchscreen in one glossy black surround. Fewer physical buttons mean that the lighting, temperature and even volume controls rely on capacitive touchpoints. 

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Unique lighting motif up front.

It’s the same story with the steering wheel’s haptic multifunction controls, which take some time to become familiar with and aren’t always easy to use when on the move. It comes across more as a case of design and engineering for the sake of it than something to enhance the user experience. 

The infotainment menu system is another point of frustration inside the GTI. During our time with the car, it was often laggy when swiping between functions as if it didn’t have quite enough processing power. Let’s hope Volkswagen can iron out these issues ahead of its arrival. Certain functions relating to the set-up of the car are also buried several layers deep. Not everyone will like it, but this is a GTI for the modern age with more connectivity than ever before. 

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SA-spec models ship standard on 18-inch Richmond alloys.

New monoform sport seats feature the latest iteration of another GTI tradition. Called “Scale Paper”, this new tartan insert design lifts the interior, although we should point out Volkswagen plans to make Vienna leather upholstery standard in South Africa. More importantly, the seats feel great to sit in; they hold you in place well and offer sufficient comfort for longer journeys.

Press the pulsing engine start button and the blown four-cylinder booms into life before settling into a civilised idle. With lairy styling, aerodynamic addenda and crackly exhausts being all the rage lately, the new GTI is somewhat understated, happy to instead do its talking out on the road. 

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The familiar EA888 engine has been tuned to generate 180 kW in Golf 8 GTI form.

It doesn’t disappoint, either. Volkswagen’s EA888 engine has found its way into many of the VW Group’s models and this “evo4” version benefits from several internal changes, including magnetically actuated injectors working at 350 bar, up from 200 bar in previous iterations. Ever-tightening emission regulations mean it now carries a higher-volume cat and petrol particulate filter, with the latter softening the exhaust note ever so slightly. A power hike of 11 kW from the Mk7 GTI ups peak output to 180 kW. 

On paper, that figure remains modest, considering what is offered by the likes of the Hyundai i30N and Renault Mégane RS 300 Trophy. But this GTI is greater than the sum of its parts. The way Wolfsburg’s engineers have tweaked the set-up helps sets it apart. It remains respectably brisk, getting you to 100 km/h from standstill in a claimed 6.4 seconds, while the seven-speed DSG – the only gearbox that will be offered in South Africa – continues to provide strong service in daily driving as it shuffles between ratios. 

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The new GTI’s cabin features few traditional buttons or switches

A new suspension arrangement featuring an aluminium subframe up front, which was originally developed for the Clubsport S, saves 3 kg, while revised wishbones, dampers and springs result in a five per cent increase in stiffness. At the rear, the tweaks up the stiffness by 15 per cent, resulting in less pitch and roll on turn-in. You needn’t worry about the GTI losing its polished ride and everyday comfort, though, as it remains a consummate performer in that regard. We’d expect nothing less from Volkswagen. 

But you’ll need to leave the daily commute behind and challenge the chassis to coax out the best results from the GTI. It drives with a sharper focus now, so as you pile on the speed it all begins to work rather more cohesively. Power may go only to the front wheels, but the electronically controlled “XDS” differential that previously did service in the GTI TCR impresses. Nail the accelerator when exiting a corner and it eliminates any semblance of torque steer. 

Touch controls sited on the steering wheel.

Through faster bends and with acute direction changes, it feels almost like there’s an invisible hand pulling the Volkswagen’s nose around the apex. This is complemented by an ESC Sport function, which permits a certain degree of wheel spin and slip to create a more entertaining balance. This will no doubt make it even more fun on track. 

The GTI surges forward, with the four-pot pulling steadily right up to redline and delivering the full 370 Nm up to four grand. Since its debut in the Mk5, the DSG has been held in high regard. However, in auto mode (even in Sport), it isn’t always the sharpest to react to sudden bursts of throttle. You’ll need to switch to using the paddle shifters should you need the DSG to do precisely what you want. 

Shift-by-wire gear selector is seemingly inspired by that of the 992 Porsche 911.

So, it’s a pity that Volkswagen continues to fit shift paddles that look and feel somewhat on the cheap side. They’re a far cry from the beautiful mechanical action you get in Alfa Romeo’s Giulia Quadrifoglio, for example. That aside, the new steering wheel is a lovely size and feels great in the hands. Its little knuckles at eight and four o’clock help the driver maintain a secure grip when turning and the progressive steering requires just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock.

The new Vehicle Dynamics Manager lets the driver tune the chassis to a finer level over 15 steps via the Individual driving mode. The whole package comes together very well as the speed builds, with the GTI’s rear end boasting far more finesse than before, imbuing confidence in the driver. Only when the vehicle is pushed past eight-tenths do the differences between it and its predecessor become crystal clear.   

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The GTI logo is now positioned centrally on the tailgate, below the VW badge.

Despite a power deficit to its competition, the Golf 8 GTI remains an engaging car to pilot and one that rewards those who are prepared to drive it harder to fully exploit its chassis. On the right road, with the right driver at the wheel, it will keep up with the best from point to point. 

At a glance

Volkswagen Golf GTI
While the eighth-gen Golf GTI offers the same level of everyday comfort and usability as its predecessor, it now also a shade sharper to drive. Not everyone will appreciate the highly digitised cabin, though.

Price: R669 300
Engine: 2.0 L, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch
Driven wheels: F
Power: 180 kW @ 5 000-6 500 r/min
Torque: 370 Nm @ 1600-4 300 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6.4 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Fuel consumption: 6.5 L/100 km
CO2: 149 g/km