It takes generations to build up a near-immortal legacy with an adoring customer base at the core. In Mzansi, there are staples for different types of mobility where everything else in the segment becomes an outlier. Our go-to bakkie is the Hilux while the Golf GTI is glorified in its hot hatch segment. We lived with the 8th generation of the beloved German derivative to see if the recipe has deviated from its predecessors.
Volkswagen may not have been the first automaker to culminate the recipe of the hot hatch many decades ago, but the Giugiaro penned GTI MK1 from 1975 was perhaps the most refined option to enter the mainstream market. It gained instant success for being sports-car fun with a supermarket price tag. By definition, the GTI is a fast Golf which is inherently an economy hatch built to appeal to the masses. While the sales of normal hatches dwindling in comparison to their SUV siblings on an annual basis, the hot hatch remains a symbol of success and prosperity in South Africa in a hotly contested market. None can portray this individually better than the GTI.
But is the new generation any good? If you are dreading reading an in-depth article with tabulated statistics about the performance and engine upgrades that have been implemented in the new model you will be relieved to know that the new GTI is much the same underneath as the 7th generation. That was launched in 2012 and that was a long time ago, so naturally technology has changed quite a bit. For context, we still had Blackberry as a primary cellular device when the Golf 7 GTI was launched. The trustworthy cast iron EA888 series motor resumes its service while our test car implemented the same 7-speed DSG as transmission from before.
The 2.0l turbocharged engine now develops 180kW with a torque peak of 370Nm, an 11kW improvement in power over its predecessor. This means it has a claimed sprint to 100km/h from stationery in 6.4 seconds which is the same as its predecessor. So, where has almost a decade of development gone into? Well, Volkswagen are at the forefront of committing to future electrification, especially after the Dieselgate scandal and reprimand. This means that budget is being channelled into optimising the efficiency and longevity of their existing powertrain range as there is little interest in developing future internal combustion engines.
In other words, the production of the 8th generation GTI has been streamlined and the build complexity has been reduced which in turn should keep true to its identity of affordable performance. A base spec GTI is priced from R669 300 while an endless list of additional features like IQ. Light, Harman Kardon Sound and a Tilting and sliding panoramic sunroof can push the price all the way up to R800k. Our test car was fortunately fitted with all of the niceties which do improve the lavish GTI experience. The price includes a 3 year/120 000km warranty, 5 year/90 000km service plan and a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty.
While performance has been slightly improved, more strict conditions over emissions have been implemented too. This means from both within and outside the cabin, the resounding and iconic VRR-PHA has been muted significantly. The entire exhaust system for that matter seems restricted by mandated filters and catalytic converters but that is nothing that entrepreneurial locals can’t resolve with a software update and enlarged downpipes.
The underwhelming symphony is not where it ends unfortunately. It’s just not a very inspiring car to drive. Don’t get me wrong – it’s quick and has the ability to get you into a lot of trouble very quickly but it feels numb to experience, devoid of character and enthusiasm. What the experience does yield however is a forgiving hot hatch that does not have the exciting boy-racer torque steer of its competitors but a refined and comfortable drive that is more civilized for everyday use. It will also get you a lot of nods and looks from pedestrians and opportunistic souped-up cars yearning for a highway drag race while running your errands.
While this 8th generation is the most digitally advanced generation of GTI ever produced, much of the interior tech is swing and miss. They have done away with physical buttons and replaced almost every interface with touch capacitive functionality. While they instill a futuristic aesthetic to the cabin, they can be frustrating to interact with. There are buttons directly below the infotainment screen which make operation during driving near impossible without accidentally bumping the heat adjustment function and bringing up the climate control screen.
What we found particularly annoying was the heated steering button on the steering wheel, which is inconveniently placed where the palm of the hand meets the protrusion of the thumb. Regardless of how enthusiastically you yank the steering wheel, any movement seems to engage the haptic touch surface and render the steering wheel hotter than a mid-summer Pretoria day. You will be constantly fiddling with the haptic surface to view the drivers display in an attempt to disengage the untouchable steering wheel.
While this is still in essence still as good as you expect a GTI to be, it will always be judged not only according to its competitors but also against what the nameplate signifies in terms of the previous generations. Look at the 8 GTI as a tech elevated, although slightly gimmicky version of its all-round fantastic predecessor. It does everything really well and makes important strides in refinement and technology over its predecessor, but it doesn’t give you the fizz the way previous generations have. If you are a diehard VW aficionado looking for more thrill, your money may be better spent on a low mileage 7.5 GTI TCR, or for an out of the box, fun, boy-racer inspired hot hatch then the BMW 128ti is also certainly worth a look!