VW SA recently sent us a Golf GTI Mk8 to drive for a few days. We share our impressions of the perennial hot hatch in this view.

G-T-I… just about everyone knows these three letters. In the South African context they represent performance motoring from VW, more specifically related to its evergreen hatchback, the Golf. The Mk8 Golf debuted abroad a few years ago and we’ve waited some time for the latest iteration to make it to SA.

Check out all the previous generations of Golf GTI by clicking this link.

Performance versions only

VW SA has chosen to forego all other derivatives of the latest Golf range and simply introduce the GTI into the local market. Well, for now anyway, as the even hotter R will join its sibling in 2022. This tactic is not surprising as these performance variants have comprised a significant chunk of VW Golf sales locally in recent times, almost half in fact. 

Incidentally, there is a performance derivative that sits between the GTI and all-wheel-drive R, called the Clubsport (more info here), but VW SA has not yet confirmed that it will go on sale locally.

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Polarising appearance

The roll out process of the Mk8 Golf GTI took some time in SA, mostly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That meant we were able to see countless images and videos of the car online as it was launched abroad long before. Some tuners even got to give it their own treatment before it arrived in SA (as you can see here).

What surprised us is the polarising appearance of the latest GTI. VW usually plays it quite safe with its best-selling hatch. Mk6 and 7 were gentle evolutions of the lineage but generally inoffensive. We’ve heard some interesting criticism of the Mk8 GTI ranging from comments about its gaping lower intake to the ‘squished’ headlamps to its proportions to the shape of the bonnet. Much like the heavily maligned intake grilles of the M3/M4, we suspect these gripes will dissipate with familiarity.

High-tech interior

The biggest departure from previous generations of Golfs is the new, high-tech interior. VW’s designers have gone down a minimalistic route with very few buttons to be found anywhere in the cabin.

Ahead of the driver is a crisp digital instrument cluster that can be configured to the driver’s preference. Options to view include boost pressure, rev-counter, road speed and navigation map among others. The screen is controlled by light touch buttons found on the steering wheels spokes. The controls take some getting used to, as do scrolling through the menus.

Centre stage on the facia is occupied by a colour touchscreen display. Within it lie the controls to just about every function one needs in the cabin. Finding some menus is not as intuitive as one might expect, but that is a function of having a car for just a few days. Owners will dial in to the system after a period of ownership. Thankfully there are short-cut soft buttons for changing the audio volume and temp control.

Turbocharged FWD

Since the Mk4 every GTI has featured a turbocharged inline four cylinder engine. The same holds true for the Golf GTI Mk8. Under that ribbed bonnet is the company’s ubiquitous EA888 engine, now in ‘Evo4’ guise. In this latest version the intake and exhaust cams feature continuously variable valve timing, while the exhaust cam adds variable valve lift and duration by using two distinctive camshaft lobe profiles.

The force-fed motor produces 180 kW of power along with 370 N.m of torque. As per tradition, drive is sent to the front axle. VW SA has forgone a manual transmission and only offers a seven-speed automated dual-clutch option for local buyers. 

VW says the GTI Mk8 can dispatch the benchmark 0 to 100 km/h run in 6,4 seconds, a time that will be easily achievable with the launch control function – though finding and activating it is not a quick process. Watch the system in action in the video below. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h.

On the move

The test unit supplied by VW was fitted with optional 19-inch alloys; 18-inch items are standard. These seemed to be painted with ultra-low profile 35-ratio rubber. With this in mind we expected the ride quality to be teeth chatteringly stiff. Lo and behold we were surprised that it is pliant to the point of being well comfortable.

It is only the harshest of road scars that send a resounding thump into the cabin, and then too, only at speed. This was in the car’s default comfort setting of the selectable drive modes. In sport mode there is a discernible level of stiffness added to the (optional) adaptive dampers. Incidentally these can be tailored through multiple steps via the touchscreen to find a setting one finds ideal.

Plenty of urge

A 9,6:1 static compression ratio makes the turbocharged engine feel naturally aspirated in terms of its power delivery. There is plenty of shove from low down in the engine speed range. As the torque peak is essentially a plateau from 1 600 to 4 300 r/min one doesn’t feel the need to wring the engine out to its extreme.

We just wish there was a manual shifter between the seats for an added level of engagement. One can flick through the ratios using the paddles behind the steering wheel, but these plastic items feel fiddly and the ECU does an excellent job of cog-swapping anyway.

Turbocharged fours are never lauded for their soundtrack and the Golf GTI Mk8 is no different. In sport mode the volume is ramped up a tad with the odd pop on a trailing throttle, but not overbearing like many of the aftermarket tuned Golf we hear sounding like popcorn machines as they pootle through traffic. 

Corner carver

Even more impressive than the power delivery is the way the Golf GTI Mk8 can be hustled through the corners. One can really fling the car into corners at silly speeds knowing that there is grip, an abundance of it for anything approaching sane road speeds. 

The front end provides plenty of bite with the systems such as the electronic differential lock helping to quell any understeer. One can really lean on the tyres through a corner knowing that the rear-end will be steadfast. This isn’t an expressive car to drive in the same manner as a Megane RS or indeed the highly lauded (and our favourite) the limited edition Clubsport S. It is confidence inspiring, which is probably why so many people enjoy driving GTIs: because it can make them feel like driving heroes.

Summary

We recall a time when, just weeks after introduction, there’d be countless examples of the latest Golf GTIs on local roads. Since introduction two months ago just 201 units of the VW Golf GTI have been sold in SA. Perhaps that speaks to a supply issue or, more likely, the price of R669 300.

At that level the GTI is no longer a ‘boy racer’s’ first car – unless you are fortunate enough to have wealthy parents. Thankfully the latest GTI is a polished enough product to be attractive to the kind of buyer who will be shopping at this price point.

Model: Volkswagen Golf GTI (Mk8)

Price: R669 300

Engine: 2,0-litre inline four, turbocharged

Transmission: seven-speed automatic, FWD

Max power: 180 kW

Max torque: 370 N.m

Top speed: 250 km/h

0-100 km/h: 6,4 sec

Fuel consumption: 7,0 L/100 km