Road test: why the VW Golf GTI Mk8 is the hottest hatch yet

The interior is revamped with a new infotainment system, improved connectivity and a full digital dash that creates a minimalist environment

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylturbo

Transmission: seven-speed DSG automatic

Power: 242bhp

Torque: 370Nm

Price: Dh136,814

After the madness of 2020, things are looking like they’re slowly returning to normal again. Formula One is back on the TV, people are slowly but carefully mingling once more at old coffee haunts and Volkswagen has a new Golf GTI.

The launch of the eighth-generation GTI is like comfort food for the hot-hatch soul. With more than 2.3 million sold since 1976, it's the one constant in the auto world and the boxy little front-wheel drive hatch with the red stripe across its nose is back again, just in time for Ramadan.

Lighter to the touch

Even though it’s a new car, somehow Volkswagen makes you feel that it’s always an evolution with subtle tweaks. Like an old friend back from a holiday with a new haircut, the Mk8 is sharper and cleaner, but still the loveable rogue you remember.

The difference now is that the GTI has no lesser-specced buddies to share the showroom with, as VW Middle East has dropped the other Golfs from the range to focus on SUVs, namely the Touareg, Teramont, Tiguan and the new T-Roc. The lone exception will be the top-shelf Golf R arriving late in the year for those who need their all-wheel drive fix.

So while the basics are taken from the Mk7, including the same MQB platform, under its new panels, the suspension and powertrain have been tweaked and the nose feels more direct thanks to an aluminium front subframe lighter by three kilograms, and a lighter rear subframe taken from the previous Clubsport S.

Revamped interior and exterior features

The interior is, however, completely revamped with a new infotainment system, improved connectivity and a full digital dash that creates a minimalist environment. It looks great, but it takes time work out how to dive through sub-menus to find what used to be a button on the console. For instance, there’s no volume knob, but instead a sliding capacitive function that gets sensitive to sweaty or greasy fingers.

Sadly, the familiar dimpled golf-ball-like shifter of the manual didn’t make the cut and instead the new GTI features a stubby shifter similar to the new Porsche 911 to select Park, Forward or Reverse from the standard, seven-speed DSG auto, which is then operated via paddles behind the wheel.

The reality is that we love manuals and talk about them fondly, but no one buys them, so the DSG is for everyone.

Like its predecessors, the new GTI wears tartan on the seats and sports red accents throughout the cabin, while there’s a modern twist to the traditional red stripe across the grille that is now emphasised by a full-width LED light.

The new GTI also has a large roof spoiler, bespoke 18-inch wheels, a wraparound front splitter, a black full-width honeycomb lower air intake that houses distinctive five-spot foglamps, LED matrix headlights, subtle sill extensions, a rear diffuser and twin exhausts.

Power play

Power comes from the same 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Mk7 Performance model that develops 242bhp, but adds an electronic limited-slip diff and larger brakes to cancel out some of the torque steer of earlier versions.

Arguably the biggest innovation in the new GTI is the Driving Dynamics Manager, which integrates the various stability programmes with the electronic diff. After a few laps on track, it was clearly evident in comparison to previous GTIs as it transferred power smoothly across the drive wheels.

Through tight turns, power is transmitted to the outer front wheel in order to reduce the turn-in radius and eliminate understeer, while at the same time easing power off the inside front wheel to tuck the nose in tighter and keep it on line. Expect no more plumes of tyre smoke from the inside front wheel on tight turns.

At the same time, Dynamic Chassis Control speeds up the steering response and suppresses body roll and compression, adjusting damper stiffness up to 200 times every second. Consequently, despite its 15 per cent stiffer rear and five per cent firmer front spring rates, it gives the impression of a smooth weekend drive as you barrel it through a tight set of chicanes.

Priced from Dh136,814 and Dh157,219 with the cosmetic and interior option pack, the Golf GTI remains a value performance pack with a top speed limited to 250kph and gets to 100kph in 5.9 seconds. Though with this car, as always, it’s all about how it uses those numbers to keep it an exciting and rewarding drive.

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylturbo

Transmission: seven-speed DSG automatic

Power: 242bhp

Torque: 370Nm

Price: Dh136,814