Volkswagen’s Golf GTI is in a class of its own.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the best hot hatch on sale, as the new Golf GTI takes a distinctly different road to turbocharged rivals.
VW set the tone for the modern GTI with the fifth-generation model back in 2005. A turbocharged 2.0-litre engine and new dual-clutch automatic transmission contributed to a polished hatchback with a measured approach to performance.
It introduced VW staples such as a flat-bottomed steering wheel with shift paddles, tartan seats, and subtle red or honeycomb-shaped highlights.
Those ingredients remain present in 2021, as VW adhered to a proven recipe for success.
Key changes for the eighth-gen Golf include a divisive cabin substituting physical buttons with glossy capacitive-touch surfaces on the steering wheel and dash.
It also has Volkswagen’s excellent “IQ Drive” electronic assistance suite combining auto emergency braking with adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, blind spot monitoring and other features in a single “travel assist” setting to help in heavy traffic or motorways.
Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android auto are standard, as is three-zone climate control, sat nav, mood lighting and other niceties.
Which means the new Golf GTI is the most advanced yet. And the most expensive.
Priced from $53,100 plus on-roads (about $59,000 drive-away), the new machine is far costlier than the outgoing car sold for $47,990 drive-away with a similar equipment level and the same engine.
This is the first new GTI that does not deliver an increase in power. Like its predecessor, the Golf sends 180kW and 370Nm to the front wheels through an electronically locking differential and seven-speed automatic transmission delivering crisp changes with a muted burp from the exhaust.
It’s a little heavier than the old car, which is great news for young drivers as the new GTI limbos under the 130kW per tonne power-to-weight ratio used to determine whether cars are acceptable for provisional license holders in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and NSW.
That will translate to rock-solid resale value.
But it also results in a slightly tardy 0-100km/h time of 6.4 seconds – a full second slower than Hyundai’s significantly cheaper and more powerful i30N.
The Golf GTI isn’t a particularly fast car.
But it is brisk enough, thanks to flexible torque from the turbo motor coupled with a quick-shifting transmission that works well in drive, sport or manual modes.
And it is more agile than before, with quicker steering and revised suspension that introduces 15-stage variable shock absorbers.
Keen drivers can tailor the GTI to their preferences, blending steering and engine favourites with a far broader scope of suspension settings allowing the GTI to be both significantly firmer and softer than the old car’s Sport and Comfort modes.
At ease in the urban commute, the GTI is quiet on the highway and composed in the countryside.
The new model’s remarkably resolved ride is helped by 18-inch wheels with chubby tyres. Fast and accurate steering delivers predictable and confidence-inspiring handling on road and track.
It’s a friendly car that won’t bite inexperienced drivers – something that cannot be said of all hot hatches.
Enthusiasts will appreciate the new ability to completely deactivate stability control, allowing more fun in the right environment without the frustration of intrusive traction control. Most cars have a clearly marked traction control button.
But the new Golf asks you to tap and swipe through seven menus to get the job done.
Adjusting the climate control or lane-keeping aids isn’t quite as frustrating, as there are easy shortcuts. Even so, the buttonless cabin feels like a backward step for usability – you often need to look down from the road to make sure your finger is in the right spot.
The diminished familiarity and friendliness of its cabin will be a drawback some customers. And thrillseekers will be better served by the faster and sharper Golf R due early next year.
But on the whole, the new Golf GTI meets lofty expectations for a respected badge.
The Golf GTI is not the cheapest, fastest or most exciting hot hatch on sale. But that was never Volkswagen’s intention, and the new model is a polished all-rounder that nails its brief.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Price: About $59,000 drive-away
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 180kW and 370Nm
Warranty/servicing: 5-year/unlimited km, $2300 for 5 years
Safety: 8 airbags, auto emergency braking, active cruise control, lane-keep and blind-spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert
Cargo: 374 litres
Spare: Space saver