8.8 / 10

The Volkswagen GTI has been a staple of the brand’s lineup since the first, Rabbit-based hot hatch arrived in America in 1983. Almost overnight, it was a revelation, winning multiple awards and racking up commendable showroom sales thanks to a blend of four-passenger comfort, mini-wagon usability, and feisty performance. Even after nearly 40 years, the GTI can still claim those attributes without losing much of the original’s sparkle.

In fact, many consider the current GTI Mk7 to be one of the best performance cars Volkswagen has ever built, thanks in part to its excellent driving behavior and high-quality interior (which gives some luxury brands’ products a run for their money). So the forthcoming 2022 Golf GTI has some very big shoes to fill.

Keen to see if it’s ready to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, we arranged a weeklong loan of a European-spec 2021 GTI – our friends on the continent get the Mk8 a full year before we do. Our sights set on some tight, twisty canyon roads, we were here to find out if the new GTI deserves its distinctive, red-lined badge.

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2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Side Profile

What's In A Name?

The name GTI originally stood for "grand touring injection" and has adorned the backside of vehicles from Citroen, Peugeot, and Rover, among others. But VW chose the title for its sportiest Golf variant as a testament to the compact hatch’s ability to carry four people over long distances without missing out on the fun. Some GTI generations have done that better than others, and luckily, this version ends up closer to the front of the class than the back.

From the first push of the starter button, the hot little VW makes a great impression, with a subtle snarl emanating from the twin round exhaust outlets – it’s just loud enough to let you know that the GTI is a sporty car without enraging your neighbors with a gas-powered wakeup call. Of course, we can't accurately judge this element of the US GTI, because this overseas-market tester wears an exhaust particulate filter that may not be needed here. However, we expect much of the engine’s character to carry over to our market, and that’s a good thing.

2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Front View
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Rear View

Putting out 242 horsepower and 295 pound-feet (up a respective 14 and 37 over the outgoing GTI), the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four revs willingly, with a whiff of turbo lag relenting to a nice swell of grunt by about 1,500 rpm. Volkswagen claims a sprint to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 6.3 seconds, but that feels conservative to our butt dynos, particularly since the outgoing Mk7 GTI hits 60 mph a few ticks sooner. Regardless of the numbers, the GTI feels plenty strong in most traffic situations, and the snappy seven-speed dual-clutch transmission underscores that impression (a six-speed manual will be standard).

Throttle tuning in traffic needs some work though, since both Eco and Normal modes blunt response too much and Sport is too abrupt for smooth driving. What’s more, the ride borders on punishing on the broken streets and freeways that make up much of our Los Angeles commute. This is another aspect of the vehicle that may get a retune for our tastes. American infrastructure as it is, a mite more suspension cush would be much appreciated, particularly if VW wants to live up to the "GT" part of the hot hatchback’s name.

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Bumps And Rails

Nevertheless, the well-damped suspension does an excellent job of preventing any harshness from reaching the occupants. Big bumps make their presence known with some head toss, but the GTI never feels like it’s crashing through obstacles, which is a big achievement for a compact car riding on a relatively short, 103.8-inch wheelbase. The GTI is also commendably quiet inside, except for some delightful wastegate chuffing and turbo whistle on full throttle. The driver can also adjust the volume of the Vee-Dub’s virtual (but convincing) engine noise that comes through the speakers.

2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior In Motion

But a GTI isn’t really about its highway comfort and technological goo-gaws, is it? The Mk8 really comes into its own when the road gets curvier, particularly with that Sport mode sharpening the throttle, adding more steering weight, and cranking the piped-in engine sounds up to 11. The Mk8 and its driver are much happier in a setting such as the twisty Ortega Highway than on the interstate, thanks to that firm suspension and sassy go-pedal. The DSG transmission – one of the best such gearboxes in the business – offers up crackling redline gear changes or ready downshifts as appropriate, and hoorah! A manual will still be available.

Set up for sporty driving, the heavy steering is decently communicative, offering an only mildly filtered picture of what’s going on under the front tires. As such, we never felt as though we were close to the GTI’s limits, even at speeds that might charitably be described as extra-legal. There’s also a notable lack of body roll, and roll-off oversteer easily counteracts any slight balance issues the front-drive layout suggests. In fact, the Volkswagen is probably more nimble in that regard than the outgoing Mk7, which was sometimes prone to mild understeer at speed.

We never felt as though we were close to the GTI’s limits.

Braking is the one downer in the GTI’s dynamic repertoire, which is saying something since the stoppers provide good pedal feel and adequate clamping force. They’re just not quite as aggressive as one might like, particularly on the backside of Ortega as it descends toward Lake Elsinore. We didn’t notice any fade, to VW’s credit.

2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Headlight
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Wheels

Sharper Than Ever, Vol. I

Your author really didn’t care for the looks of the eighth-generation GTI when it debuted in photos last year. Many of the details seemed misshapen, particularly the headlights that were simultaneously angular and blobby, set above five-LED honeycomb foglamps that looked needlessly complex. However, when Volkswagen dropped the GTI off and we got our first look at it in person, the styling made much more sense. It’s amazing how much that opinion changed in one or two seconds, but the new GTI looks just as premium and cohesively designed as its sharp forebear.

Yes, the headlights are still a bit unusual, as are the foglamps, but the GTI complements those bold elements with a few others that are decidedly more mature. The overall footprint of this Euro-market car nearly matches that of the outgoing Mk7 – wheelbase, length, and height are up by less than an inch, while width is down slightly – but the new GTI looks more planted, with less front and more rear overhang. The sloping front hood meets right up with the grille (with no fussy shutline as on the Hyundai Veloster or Honda Civic Si), and a subtle rear hatch spoiler and excellent body surfacing complete the distinctive, classy design.

The new GTI looks just as premium and cohesively designed as its sharp forebear.

For example, a sharp, strong character line now appears at the trailing tip of the front headlamps, disguising the already narrow hood-fender panel gap and dovetailing into the bright beltline molding. Another crease generates from the red-and-chrome fender badge, intersecting the door handles before wrapping around the hatch. The arrow-shaped taillights (that feature 3D lighting features) hide a few more character lines that swoop around the rear bumper above a pair of bright-finished exhaust tips, which wear a classically sporty round shape.

Meanwhile, the sloping beltline is higher than before, coordinating well with the more steeply raked windshield and pinching the rear windows slightly. Those elements should conspire to make the interior feel claustrophobic, but somehow, narrow roof supports (save the ingot of a C-pillar, which is a GTI signature) keep the cabin feeling airy and open, even in the rear seats.

2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Rear Quarter
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Headlight
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Exterior Taillight

Sharper Than Ever, Vol. II

Speaking of that modernized interior, the latest version of Volkswagen Digital Cockpit makes an appearance front and center, displayed on a crisp 10.0-inch screen. The new instrument cluster is more reconfigurable than ever, with a variety of display options including an analog-style tachometer and speedometer, a larger center tach with digital speed readout (perfect for sporty driving), or a full-screen map display that we didn’t get to try because our vehicle’s navigation was in Euro mode. We bet it’ll be rather lovely though, based on our experiences with similar systems from Audi.

Other contemporary design bits include a hexagonal infotainment touchscreen, also measuring 10.0 inches, with clear menu options and easy access to features like Apple CarPlay (wireless, by the way) and drive mode. The GTI also gets multiple ambient lighting settings, including zone-specific colors – if you want your footwells lime green and your dash accents purple, go for it, or let one of several VW-approved schemes grace your cabin. The instrument cluster and infotainment colors change accordingly as well, a nice touch that allows owners to match their mood.

That said, the center screen lags a bit, resulting in an annoying double-tap when only one was intended. The touch-sensitive climate controls on the bottom edge of the display surround mean there’s nowhere to rest your hand when operating the infotainment. There’s also no volume knob, so almost every secondary control is done with virtual sliders or on the screen – not even a VW designer could drive down a bumpy road and adjust the radio without altering the climate controls. And finally, materials quality is a step down from the lauded Mk7, with hard plastic knee bolsters and some natty door panel inserts detracting from the chic design.

At least we can still appreciate the GTI’s comfortable seats, with the four outboard positions upholstered in snappy Clark Tartan with microfiber bolsters. There’s plenty of headroom for both rows, and legroom in back is ample if the front-seat occupants are willing to donate some of their abundant stretching space to their neighbors. We estimate the GTI probably has about 18 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats up, with a 60/40 seat and ski pass-thru expanding usable space. Overall, the Mk8 should be a willing family- or friend-hauling vehicle for those who want a sportier experience than a crossover can provide.

2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Interior Front Seats
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Interior Dashboard
2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec Interior Rear Seats

Eager Anticipation

After driving this European example for a week, we’re all the more inclined to sample the 2022 Golf GTI Mk8 when it arrives in American showrooms later this year. Although we have a few qualms about the hot hatch, it’s still going to be one of the better all-around performance bargains thanks to its nimble handling, spacious interior, and impressive tech suite. Competitors like the Hyundai Veloster Turbo and Honda Civic Si sedan may be cheaper, but they’re also less powerful. Meanwhile, the GTI – which is expected to start at just over $30,000 – offers less grunt but a much nicer interior than the plasticky, 275-hp Veloster N.

It might not live up to its immediate predecessor’s mini-Audi perception – darn that cheapened center console! – but the 2022 Volkswagen GTI will still please the hot-hatch faithful. Luckily for us, that edgier styling and modern interior haven’t come at the expense of the GTI’s happy, fun-to-drive family history.

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Gallery: 2021 Volkswagen GTI European-Spec First Drive Review

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI (European Specification)

Engine Turbocharged 2.0-Liter I4
Output 242 Horsepower / 295 Pound-Feet
Transmission Seven-Speed Dual-Clutch Transmission
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Speed 0-62 MPH 6.3 Seconds
Maximum speed 155 MPH
Weight 3,200 Pounds (est.)
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 18.0 / 42.0 Cubic Feet (est.)
Base Price $29,500 (est.)
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