Not since 1976 has the Volkswagen Golf GTI been in the business of revolution. Scholars will never fully agree on which car was the very first hot hatch, but that original Golf GTI did kickstart the fast hatchback revolution. Since then, the sporty Golf has tended towards slow and steady evolution, and so it is with the latest, eighth-generation version, announced this week ahead of its public debut at the 2020 Geneva motor show.
On paper it looks almost indistinguishable from the previous model. The Mk8 Golf sits on fundamentally the same underpinnings as the Mk7 (the VW Group’s ubiquitous MQB platform, also shared by the Audi A3, the Seat Leon and others) and the familiar EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is carried over in the GTI, too. Buyers will still have the choice of a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and power still goes to the front axle alone.
NOW WITH 242BHP AS STANDARD
So what exactly has changed? The Mk8 GTI now boasts 242bhp as standard – the same as the uprated GTI Performance last time out – which should make for a 0-62mph sprint time in the low sixes and a top speed of 155mph or so. But it’s the exterior styling and cabin design that are the biggest points of difference between GTIs old and new. The latest model gets shapely LED front headlights, a thin strip that runs between them and a purposeful-looking honeycomb grille section across the full width of the nose.
The rear end is somewhat more familiar, still with one exhaust tip pushed towards each outer edge and a discrete roof spoiler peering down towards them. The black styling elements that begin with the modest front splitter and continue into the skirts on either side of the car are caught in a diffuser-style section at the back, which curves up and over the exhaust tips. It’s a subtle but cohesive design with just a hint of sporting intent. Just the way it should be for a Golf GTI, in other words.
OLD MEETS NEW
The standard wheel size is 17 inches, although 18s and 19s will be available optionally. Unlike before, there will be no three-door option: the Mk8 Golf is five-door only right across the model range. All that’s familiar within the cabin is the tartan upholstery, a Golf GTI motif that reaches all the way back to 1976. The new dashboard layout is simple and modern, with the touchscreen infotainment system now mounted high on the dash, in line with the digital instrument cluster. Volkswagen’s Innovision Cockpit, which combines the standard-fit 10.25-inch display directly ahead of the driver with a second 10-inch screen, mounted centrally, is an optional extra; as standard, the GTI is fitted with a smaller central touchscreen.
Even the most basic GTIs will come with active safety systems like Lane Assist, Front Assist with emergency braking and Pedestrian Monitoring. A multifunction steering wheel, single-zone climate control, Bluetooth and LED lights all round flesh out the standard equipment list.
Like all Golf GTIs since the 2005 Mk5, the latest model features MacPherson struts up front with a multilink rear suspension layout. The XDS differential lock that improves traction is carried over from the previous model, too, but now the diff and the Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers, where fitted, are overseen by the new Vehicle Dynamics Manager. In effect, this control system ensures the suspension and front axle work in harmony, rather than against one another. This, says Volkswagen, widens the ‘spread between maximum comfort and maximum dynamics’, and sharpens the GTI’s handling characteristics.
DEFINED BY THE MK5
Perhaps the high watermark in the entire 44-year history of the Golf GTI is the fifth-generation version, the one that represented a comprehensive return to form for Volkswagen’s hot hatch following the sub-standard third and fourth-generation models. The Mk5 was the one that defined the blueprint for every subsequent Golf GTI: handsome styling with just a hint of purpose, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the choice of manual or DSGs transmissions, the right blend of ride comfort and handling precision, plus a grown-up, well-appointed cabin.
That basic recipe is so inherently correct for a Golf GTI that Volkswagen would be mad to abandon it. Every version since the Mk5 has struck just the right balance between being rewarding to drive on a B-road while also being comfortable and civilised on longer runs. The GTI has become the classless hot hatch, every bit as at home in a pit lane on track days as parked up outside a five-star hotel. Small refinements here and there, plus low-level innovations like the Vehicle Dynamics Manager, are exactly how the GTI can be improved without taking away the breadth of ability that has made it such a well-rounded machine.
While hot hatches from Ford, Honda and Renault chase ever higher power outputs and sprout wings here and vents there, the GTI, on this evidence, continues to do its own thing. Since the Mk5 was introduced 15 years ago, the GTI has gained only 3bhp with each passing year. But the most sophisticated hot hatch of them all doesn’t care for power wars, and nor should it. Gradual evolution, not revolution, is what will make the new Golf GTI a winner.
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