Red Hot Chilli Pepper : 2021 Volkswagen Mk8 Golf GTI [review]

By jaytee, 24 June 2021

Singapore - This is it, the eighth iteration of the fabled VW Golf GTI. The hot hatchback with quite possibly the longest lineage in the history of hot hatches. Suffice to say, this new model has seriously big shoes to fill, not to mention some well-established competitors to square off against.

The new Mk8 Golf gets new matrix headlight units and completely revised front and rear bumpers, but its overall stance is still unmistakably that of a Golf. In fact, to the casual observer, the Mk8 GTI may look identical to its predecessor. It gets obligatory red accents on the grille to differentiate it from its lesser siblings, and the car rides on 19-inch alloys with red painted brake calipers that accentuate its sporty characteristics.

However, the visual changes go far beyond an exterior refresh. Under the bodywork, the car is built on the MQB Evo platform, just like many cars under the VW umbrella such as the Audi A3, Skoda Octavia, and the Mk7.5 Golf that preceded it.

In fact, it even uses the same engine block as the previous Golf GTI. However, don't let these facts fool you into thinking that this new car is just a reskinned Mk7.5. The changes Volkswagen have made to this new model goes far beyond just a simple nip and tuck.

The cabin of the new Golf is a step above its predecessors, and not just in its build quality, but in terms of minimalism and luxuriousness. It’s a bold and radical step towards beautifying the cabin to keep up with the times. Some of the materials in the cabin may seem solid and unyielding, but VW has taken the liberty of lining contact points with softer material for a more tactile feel.

The sports bucket seats don’t just hold the front occupants snugly in place, but also feature hot/cold ventilation, with the driver’s seat adding electronic adjustment and memory presets.

Of course, the top trim R-Line variant of the 1.5-litre Golf gets similar accoutrements. Ambient lighting, the same 10-inch display with touch sensitive panels, the cluster of buttons surrounding the hazard lights, the Digital Cockpit Pro gauge cluster and the minuscule gear selector lever (I’m personally not a fan).

(Click HERE to find out more about the Volkswagen Golf 1.5 eTSI R-Line in our first drive review)

In the GTI however, you get a slightly redesigned steering wheel with more bolstering on the rim and a subtle 'GTI' badge on the lowest spoke of the wheel. You can also enjoy a rousing driving soundtrack played through the trick 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, which has the power to rattle the contents of your door pockets.

The GTI also comes with a tilt/slide sunroof, operated by way of a touch sensitive panel in the headliner. Even the wireless charging pad has been GTI-ed, with an additional flap to ensure your smartphone won’t be hurled around the cabin when you’re giving the GTI the beans.

Also unique to the GTI is a fourth gauge cluster layout that shows your rev counter smack bang in the middle with two subdials that can be customised to display driving or navigation information: operating temperatures, a boost gauge, a g-meter, power outputs etc. Like many of today's hot-hatch contenders, it even gets a lap timer for important pub-bragging sessions with your mates.

However, these niceties come at a price. My biggest gripe with the new Golf is the plethora of touch panels and haptic buttons on the dash and steering wheel. For instance, the steering wheel heater controls are situated on the corner of the spoke and I found myself with warm hands more often than I'd care to admit. While the cabin looks remarkably posh, there are repercussions of having such an interior layout.

With no physical dynamic control buttons to speak of, all the major controls and settings are hidden beneath layers of menus. Take the driver aids for instance: the traction control setting is buried within the vehicle’s infotainment system.

To enable/disable it, you’ll have to navigate your way through several menus and pages, swiping past a 3D rendering of the car on the screen before you find the options for the stability control.

Even the stop/start system has to be toggled by swiping down on the screen, akin to an iPhone's notification centre. Call me old-fashioned, but whatever happened to fitting a plain old button on the centre stack?

As we mentioned earlier, the new Golf uses the same engine block as the older car, only now, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo unit has been beefed up to produce 245hp and 370Nm.

Unlike the 1.5-litre variants of the Mk8 Golf, the GTI has no MHEV tech to contend with. Power is sent to the front wheels via an improved seven-speed DSG, all of which help propel the car from 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds.

The car also gets a new dynamic system called the Vehicle Dynamics Manager, which controls the DCC adaptive suspension and locks the front differential in slidey situations, even braking individual wheels on the inside line to give you more agility and better control over the car’s lateral motions.

I found that the best mix of power and manoeuvrability was to customise the ‘Individual’ drive mode. Tune the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) in its sportiest setting, leave the steering and drive settings in Comfort, and set the engine to Sport.

This way you can enjoy the best dynamic performance and soundtrack that the EA888 four-pot has to offer, while enjoying some semblance of comfort. It’s the mode I found myself toggling back to after cycling through the comfort and sport modes.

While civilised and discreet – well, as discreet as the GTI’s bright King’s Metallic Red hatchback can be – the car’s raucous nature is always lurking under the surface, ready to rear its head at the prod of the throttle. It really doesn't take much to spin up the tyres, even in the dry.

It's a boisterous, riotous car that serves up exhaust burbles and pops with downshifts, and it will misbehave with just a few more millimetres of pedal travel. That being said, it is civil if you drive sedately and leave it in its most sanguine engine and gearbox settings.

The Mk8 Golf GTI, while still a great performance hatchback, isn’t as simple as it once was. It’s more grown-up and has undergone some radical changes both inside and out. It is a sophisticated car set to shake up the status quo, which it has to do in the face of its adversaries.

In this regard, I’d say that the new GTI does a credible enough job, yet still retains some of the charms that its predecessors have been loved and coveted for.

PHOTOS Jay Tee

Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0 TSI
Engine 1984cc, inline4, turbo
Power/rpm 245hp/5000-6500rpm
Torque/rpm 370Nm/1600-4300rpm
Transmission 7spd dual-clutch DSG
0-100km/h 6.4secs
Top Speed 250km/h
Fuel Consumption 6.5l/100km (combined)
CO2 149g/km

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