The original hot hatchback is back.

Editor’s Note: This review comes to us from Motor1.com Germany. Performance figures and equipment may be different on US-market cars. Prices are for European-market vehicles. Conversion rates were correct at the time of publication.

What Is It?

This is probably the most important performance car of the year. Not because it is the most powerful, fastest, or most desirable bullet in the industry, but simply because there are few sporty cars that will sell in such numbers. Say hello to the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Don't worry, I'm going to refrain from superlatives about the GTI’s popularity. But you’re going to see this car everywhere: In front of the salons, in school parking lots, on your daily commute, or modified to the moon and running open track days. The GTI is ubiquitous, but it needs to be balanced. It’s an athletic car that should still be suitable and comfortable for the average driver.

Volkswagen, though, went too far towards comfort with the last model. The Mark 7 was suitable for everyday use, but it didn’t give you goosebumps the way a good GTI should. But the eighth generation solves that problem.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

What’s New?

That starts with the chassis. Volkswagen isn’t here trying to build a monstrous track car, but there are still lessons to learn from those vehicles. That’s where the Driving Dynamics Manager comes in. This high-level controller networks all the clever chassis components together, so that, for example, the electronic locking diff works better with the brakes, while the adaptive dampers communicate faster and more often with the steering, stability control, and other systems.

In fact, the new dampers make 200 changes per second per wheel now. There’s also a wider range of adjustability beyond Comfort and Sport, with Volkswagen promising, for example that the stiffest, sportiest setting will even make the front-drive GTI want to oversteer. That particular behavior is more for fun than for any practical performance application, of course.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

VW’s other suspension optimizations, on the other hand, are relatively classic. There are new bearings up front, along with stiffer springs and the GTI Clubsport S’ aluminum subframe, which sheds just under seven pounds. These changes should make for a car that responds better and more willingly. There are new bearings at the rear too, while the spring rates shoot up by 15 percent to the five-percent change in front. The goal wasn’t to turn the GTI into a tail-slider, but simply to make it more eager at low speeds.

Engineers also fettled with the stability control and steering, so you can turn off the former entirely – it only kicks back in if you hit something. As for the tiller, VW tried to make it more direct, although the 14.1-to-1 ratio still isn’t as sharp as some of the competition. But that was a conscious decision – driving stability, even at high speeds, is clearly in the foreground for the Mark 8 GTI. If aggressiveness suffers for that decision, so be it.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

Does It Really Drive Any Different?

Nope, not really. The latest GTI is already extremely similar to its predecessor, but it must be said, our testing conditions weren’t ideal – the roads around Wolfsburg, where our test took place due to COVID-19 restrictions, are depressingly straight. Considering that, take our initial verdict with a grain of salt.

Here’s what stands out, though: the eighth-gen GTI turns quicker and more directly than before. It dives less in corners and feels more athletic and focused. But it’s the grip that stuck with us. Even through very tight corners, understeer is just non-existent. Thank the improved dampers and the controller that manages them, along with the now-standard front diff, which works subtly, but with outsized effect. Grains of salt apply here, but we’re even more excited after this first taste to put the GTI through its paces.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

But Is All Of This More Exciting Than Before?

We aren’t really sure it’s supposed to be. The GTI hasn’t been a top-dog hot hatch for a minute, thanks to the Hyundai i30N, Renault Megane RS, and Honda Civic Type R, all of which are much more extreme vehicles. The majority of the classic GTI customers would likely be horrified if Volkswagen took that approach.

They simply want a more agile Golf. And that’s exactly what this eighth-gen car is. The well-tuned, high-quality suspension means the GTI can corner, but it’s never making a show of it. The overall result is good-natured, stable, and reliably fun. Heck, this GTI will even get a little tail happy if you ask it to. So as usual, the GTI isn’t the sharpest, meanest car in the class, but it’s easily the best all-rounder.

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

And Is The Same True Of The Carryover Powertrain?

Well, in a way it is. VW revised the last-gen GTI’s trusty EA888, giving the turbocharged 2.0-liter the designation “evo4.” The main driver for that change, though, was meeting the latest emissions standard. There are new fuel injectors that spray at a higher pressure, while additional particulate filters and a larger catalytic converter sit downstream to clean up the exhaust.

The 2.0-liter remains at the same level of performance as the old GTI Performance, with 245 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to get to 62 miles per hour in 6.3 seocnds and on to now-limited top speed of 155 mph. Beyond those numbers, this engine is as good as it’s always been, offering strong, even acceleration from a standstill up to 6,500 rpm. It still feels like there’s more than 245 hp, especially in the middle and upper parts of the rev range, although the low-end isn’t quite as impressive.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

The GTI naturally feels more alive with a standard six-speed manual transmission, but the revised seven-speed dual-clutch is okay, too. Engagement off the line is smoother, with engineers eliminated lag. Shifts are quicker in Sport mode, too, although the real fun comes when you pull and hold the left paddle.

The gearbox will immediately serve up the lowest possible curve, which is plenty helpful when overtaking. All in all, the DSG shifts quickly and cleanly and holds its gears more willingly in full-auto and Sport. It makes the GTI experience more comfortable, but it’s also a little anonymous. With the manual gearbox, the GTI has more flair, especially because Volkswagen has such a brilliant six-speed.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

What's It Like Inside?

The normal versions of the latest Golf got a fair amount of criticism for their control systems in first tests, and after driving the GTI, that makes some sense. The all-digital wall of instruments and infotainment makes a very slim, modern, smart cabin, and the GTI-specific elements are pretty cool too.

But learning these systems takes time, as there are no buttons, switches, or other controls. Above all, because the remaining “buttons” (control surfaces, really) don’t give any haptic feedback, you often stumble around and have to take your eyes off the road to input commands. Adding to the frustration are unlit surfaces for the climate control and volume – have fun fiddling around in the dark.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

The fact that engineers hid many settings in one dull submenu doesn’t necessarily help. Take the stability control, for example. In the past, you pressed one button: done. Today, you have to maneuver through seven screens and then tick the appropriate box. Welcome to digitalization.

Those qualms aside, the GTI continues to boast excellent sport seats with integrated headrests. The seating position itself is comfortable, while the seats offer plenty of support. Material quality is much improved as well, to the point that we aren’t sure many other cars in the class could do better. An annoying exception, though, are the somewhat fragile and still much too small paddle shifters. Come on, VW, give us a proper set.

Should I Buy It?

If you like more uncompromising, unpolished hot hatches like the i30 N or the Ford Focus ST, you will also have your problems with GTI number 8. Although the new car is more agile and feels sportier, it’s even more stable and grippy, too. The new GTI just doesn’t drive much differently than its predecessor, which is to say it’s incredibly polished but rather joyless.

From the point of view of adrenaline junkies and performance freaks, this is a bit of a pity. But for almost every other point of view, it’s a compliment. This GTI is a GTI – effortlessly quick, with foolproof tuning, high build quality, and a suitable character for long-distance running. And it’s very economical too, returning 7.5 liters on our test drive.

Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test
Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI (2020) in the test

The new digital cluster is certainly a topic that should be looked at based on your individual needs, but otherwise, the new Golf GTI is convincing successor. Look for them in showrooms at the end of August with prices starting around 35,000 Euros.

The new super-digital operation is certainly a topic that should be looked at personally. Otherwise, the Golf 8 GTI is completely convincing from a rational point of view. At the end of August it will be available at the dealer. Prices start at around 35,000 Euros ($41,100 at today’s rates).

Gallery: 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI: First Drive

Technische Daten und Preise VW Golf 8 GTI

Engine Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
Output 245 Horsepower / 273 Pound-Feet
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Transmission 7-Speed Dual-Clutch
Speed 0-62 MPH 6.3 Seconds
Maximum speed 155 MPH (electronically limited)
Efficiency N/A
Weight 3,218 Pounds
Cargo Volume 13.4 / 44.9 Cubic Feet
Base Price $30,000 (est)
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