FIRST DRIVE | Tech-laden 2021 VW Golf 8 GTI is heavier, not faster

FIRST DRIVE | Tech-laden 2021 VW Golf 8 GTI is heavier, not faster

Consistency isn’t a factor that defines the lineage of the Volkswagen Golf GTI. But to be fair, the same could be said of many automotive nameplates with timelines spanning decades: recipes are altered and evolution means straying from certain traits.

Ask any genuine aficionado of the Wolfsburg performance breed and they’ll tell you quite candidly about the generations that were on point – and the ones that were downright flat.

You won’t, for example, hear fans talking about the tepid fourth-generation car with the same reverence and enthusiasm they might reserve for the fifth-generation one. Five was largely regarded as a desperately-needed return to the core values that made the original so great. Number four, meanwhile, didn’t even have the signature red outline on its grille.  

The eighth instalment has landed on South African shores. And while the three-letter moniker is a respected institution, will that equity alone be enough to retain the loyalty of buyers? Well, probably.    

It used to be that you bought a Golf GTI because it did everything expected of a comfortable C-segment hatchback, albeit peppered with zingy performance, handling and street credibility. Some rivals have closed the gap, also capable of true duality, going from rambunctious sprinters to docile daily commuters at the press of a driving mode button.   

Sure, you still have extremists like the manual-only Honda Civic Type R, pandering to a purist sect. The Hyundai i30N, also available with three-pedals (a dual-clutch version is imminent) errs towards a fringe of enthusiasts too, even though it is remarkably supple in its most normal setting.

The BMW 128ti is perhaps the biggest threat to the supremacy of Golf. Not only is it evenly-matched from a power perspective (the kW output is identical, the torque figure is 10Nm more), it packs appropriate hardware, with a Torsen limited-slip differential and braking system from the M135i. And it is competitively priced, with a base of R679,000. Not an unreasonable fee for the cachet of the blue and white roundel.    

The Golf kicks off at R669,300. Obviously that will inflate rather rapidly once you start playing with the options, of which there were many specified in the case of the unit we spent testing for the day.   

That included pearlescent paint, a panoramic sunroof, parallel park assist, a Harmon Kardon audio system, reverse camera, an uprated infotainment system with navigation and voice control, as well adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot monitor, lane-keeping assist and semi-autonomous steering assistance.   

A heated steering wheel, faux leather upholstery, keyless-go, climate control, park distance control, inductive charging and an ambient lighting function with 30 hues are part of default specification. Add to that a set of pretty 18-inch Richmond alloy wheels. You can go for 19-inch Adelaide ones if you want.    

Volkswagen has described the latest GTI as the most digitised expression of the model yet. And that might take some getting used to, even if you know your way around all crevices of a smartphone. The new operating interface does away with conventional rotary controls and switchgear. Fiddling through mazes of menus to initiate simple tasks can frustrate.   

Try to find the sound system equaliser on the go, for instance, and you will probably veer into a pavement. It is as distracting as texting and driving. Volume and fan speed are adjusted by sliding finger motions over the relevant section. And then you have the steering-mounted controls, with their touchpad-meets-button type of execution. There’s little in the way of haptic feedback, so it felt like a broken remote that had to be pressed really hard to work. That’s unlikely to hold up well over the years, aside from the fingerprint-mongering, glossy black surface in which it is finished.    

Prodding the driving mode button and engaging sport changes the tone of the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged motor noticeably. It’s the same EA888-series unit carried over from before, producing 180kW (11kW more) and 370Nm (20Nm more). A really muscular buzz is piped into the cabin, but the natural acoustics heard from the exterior are less inspiring.

If you drive it with the windows a tiny bit opened in the hope of fully savouring the “vrr-pah” there is bound to be some disappointment. It doesn’t rip-and-belch up the gears as heartily as before. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic works in slick fashion, but even in manual mode it intervenes unprompted, as you try in vain to chase redline.

On the pace front, the GTI feels brisk, if not outright rapid. The problem is that the bump in power and torque is negated by a substantial weight gain. The old one tipped the scales at 1,298kg, according to figures from a 2019 Volkswagen SA specifications sheet. This one is 1,463kg — and a 165kg gain is massive any way you try and spin it! The brand claims a sprint time of 6.4 seconds, which is exactly the same as the quoted figure of the old car. What if it actually turned out to be a tad slower in the real world?   

Porkiness aside, there’s plenty good to be said about its confident, unshakeable nature in higher-speed situations. A quick-witted, electronically-controlled limited-slip differential all but eliminates torque steer (something you might notice in the earlier mentioned 128ti).    

We wanted to see what life would be like with the electronic stability control reduced, but unlike before, there seemed to be no dedicated button for that. It was probably lurking beneath a mountain of menus and sub-menus.   

You have to hand it to them on the handling front because the mixture of pliability and engagement offered by GTI 8 is remarkable. And you’ve got Karsten Schebsdat to thank for that, largely. He’s the manager of vehicle dynamics and chassis control systems at Volkswagen and his CV includes a stint at Porsche. 

There’s some fascinating reading to be done about the Golf’s new chassis setup, which translates well into the on-road experience. Of course, the core foundation for the 8 is the well-proven MQB architecture, so ubiquitous across the Volkswagen Group and its subsidiaries.   

For 8 GTI, the engineers revised the control arm bearings, springs and damping hydraulics (front and rear axles); endowing the package further with a new aluminium sub-frame. The reason the steering feels sharper with improved response, according to the brand, is because of a more powerful electric motor and updated software algorithms. You learn that the extent of the electronic governance is pretty deep when you activate the travel assist function, which basically allows the Golf to steer itself.   

There’s little doubt the commercial success of the new GTI is guaranteed, even if the critical reception is flavoured by underwhelmed sentiments. But as the Performance Pack, Clubsport, Clubsport S and TCR did in generations 7 and 7.5, the inevitable addition of more focused derivatives ought to liven things up in the case of No 8 too.    

Don’t hold your breath for tartan fabric upholstery or manual transmissions in our market.