There are cars that will generate more ink column inches than the new Volkswagen GTI 2022 this year. But every new GTI is an icon. VW has been building them since 1976. This makes this new model year the 47th. Thus, each generation carries with it a rich and well-deserved heritage of high performance and absolute functionality. There are other cars like this, but nothing else is this.
The newly replaced Mk7 flagship wasn’t the most exciting hot hatch, but it carried the legacy well. It was, by far, the most beautiful of the hottest hatchbacks to experience. It’s a super-performing, budget-friendly Audi that’s a lot of fun when you want it. A car we will fondly return to, a car we have recommended to many and which has defined VW at its best. So, coming in, expectations are high for the Mk8 GTI.
Much of the fundamental essence of the Mk7 is found in the Mk8. This is an evolution of the MQB platform with some thoughtful detail changes. For example, the front subframe is now a stamped aluminum casting of steel. Audi-branded MQB vehicles like the A3 have used these lighter but stronger structures for years. And swapping the Audi upper for a VW MQB has become a popular upgrade. But the basic design of the suspension and most of the floor and firewall parts are little changed.
With that in mind, the adjustments include stiffer suspension bushings and a new hydraulic shock system. At the rear, for example, spring rates are up 15 percent to compensate for the better planted nose. The 2.0-liter turbo-four E888 engine, which debuted in the 2008 GTI, evolved into the Evo4 form. It develops 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque thanks in large part to more power, and everything goes to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or seven-speed Dual Clutch Transmission (DSG), as before. VW’s VAQ active limited-slip differential was also made standard.
Thus, in this great German automotive tradition, the Mk8 GTI is not revolutionary. Perhaps it has as much to do with the fact that the Mk7 didn’t need many upgrades than the tens of billions of dollars the diesel emissions scandal cost VW. In addition, for VW, like many automakers, going all-in with electric vehicles is a drain on R&D and product development budgets.
Our first impressions of the new GTI – a German-spec pre-production car in an Autobahn trim loaded with the DSG box and optional Dynamic Damper Control (DCC) – came to the Monticello Motor Club. Track testing is not an irrelevant indulgence – GTIs and Golf Rs are common sights on road courses around the world – but a glimpse of the car’s wide range of talent. And it’s not as if the roads around New York’s Catskills don’t offer some delicious opportunity.
On the North Circuit of Monticello, the GTI was almost cheered by everyone who drove it. Although it took some time to install the car. One big step that VW is offering is a new electronic control system with all kinds of powertrain, steering, chassis and stability control settings. There are only 15 blinding DCC modes, so VW gave us the recommended settings for fast laps: Sport driving mode, DCC set to maximum, ESC off. Everything else is adjustable to your personal preferences. Hours and hours of obsessive-compulsive tinkering.
VW claims this GTI has eliminated understeer, and while it’s far-fetched, the balance is wonderfully neutral. In the GTI, it’s easy to pick up speed, record respectable lap times, and feel like a driving superstar. In Monticello, the Road & Track chronometer measured this car in seconds faster than the new Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ despite their similarly sized tires. VW’s shoes are Bridgestone’s new Potenza Sport, while the Toyobarus rides Michelin Pilot Sport 4s.
Serious road work with a Mk8 GTI brings the usual warnings of “leveling brake fluid and pads”. But right out of the box, it’s one of the best front-wheel-drive track cars on sale. The front differential is odd for reducing horsepower and managing torque, and while the combo of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder and DSG isn’t the most exciting, it’s ruthlessly efficient. It’s easy to see why this basic engine design was copied so relentlessly. And his best house is the GTI.
There are really no vices here. The new GTI is a great track car for novices or for anyone who wants to have fun without too much work. Once the drive modes are understood, the GTI doesn’t place much demand on the driver; it just goes where you want it. There are more fun ways to draw a line on a road course – the rear-wheel-drive Suboyota twins wag their tails more happily – but the VW’s safe, predictable and seamless handling is a feat.
Driving on the track concentrates the mind. If you do it right and the car is good, you don’t think too much about the details of the vehicle. Instead, you focus on performing what it takes to do a good, fast lap. On the road, the Mk8’s flaws became evident.
The Mk7 GTI is a lover of the road, a cleverly tuned compromise at a relatively popular price. The Mk8 introduces a lot of new technology to the GTI, and almost all of them are for the worse.
There are so many combinations of driving modes that you are unlikely to find the ideal configuration for a particular road. And on-the-go tweaks are made nearly impossible by an extremely underdeveloped and overly complicated infotainment display. There are preset modes Eco, Comfort, Sport. You’d think putting it in Sport would do the trick, but the shocks are too stiff here – the car suddenly gets pogo-y. Comfort mode is much better, but to get a soft chassis and sporty powertrain setup, you need to configure your individual mode. And so on.
Too many performance cars today offer this overabundance of overwhelming choices, even R&T favorites like the Cadillac Blackwing twins and the Hyundai Veloster N. But the difference here is that the old GTI didn’t have that level of complication and didn’t need it. It was wonderful even left alone. Just give us a good mode or two, Volkswagen. Do the work for us.
Once you get past that, the Mk8 GTI drives a lot like the Mk7 i.e. very well, although the steering of an Mk7 is a bit sharper. Some also felt that the engine had lost something when going from 7 to 8 despite the increases in horsepower and torque.
Ultimately, the Mk8 is a curious thing. It’s a better track car than the Mk7, but a more compromised road car. There’s the horrid infotainment system followed closely by the maddening capacitive touchpads on the steering wheel. Real buttons and switches that click when pressed are always the best solution. VW clearly didn’t see how well the button and button abandonment went for Honda. Plus, there is a general feeling of cheapness throughout the interior. As before, the most important parts, the steering wheel and the seats, are great, but everything else feels lower. This is a problem when much of the Mk7’s appeal lies in its excellent refinement.
The frustration of using capacitive touch sensors to regulate ventilation and air conditioning systems is almost a deciding factor. They are not a high-tech solution to a problem. Because the switches and buttons. . . have never been a problem.
Despite the decrease in daily operation, the Mk8 GTI is still a nice hot hatch. It combines easy performance with everyday ease of use in much the same way that has made all recent versions of the GTI so popular. It’s just that the old GTI offered these qualities with more refined and positive rider feedback. We journalists have recommended the Mk7 to many friends and family, even non-enthusiasts, because the car was such a complete package. But there are too many trivial caveats with the Mk8. Especially when you can still buy a Mk7.
The Mk7 was an almost perfect everyday driver, with a refinement to match cars at a much higher price point. An astonishing testimony to the technical power of the Volkswagen group. Too much of that refinement has disappeared with the Mk8. It’s no longer the default sedan at this price point. The Hyundai Veloster N offers more fun, while the Mazda 3 Turbo offers luxury on a budget.
What gives us at least some hope is that these aren’t huge issues for Volkswagen to solve. The mechanical components of the car are basically sound, this is just the execution of the rest.