A New Generation Of The Iconic Hot Hatch Has Arrived, But How Good Is It?
For decades, the Volkswagen GTI has enjoyed being the go-to hot hatch for enthusiast drivers who crave a fun, practical car. Arriving in Europe in 1976, and landing on U.S. shores in 1983, the GTI has been a massive success for longer than I’ve been alive. Growing up from a truly inexpensive, basic, and peppy little three-door hatchback, VW has kept it real, making reasonable upgrades with regard to power and features in the GTI over the previous seven generations. When I tested the Mk7 GTI two years ago, I looked at it as a sendoff for what I considered the best generation of the model’s extensive history.
With this new eighth generation, VW has given the GTI a full makeover, with a bump in power output while receiving fresh exterior looks and a redesigned, more tech-focused interior that brings the hot hatch into the current decade. VW has a good group of competitors aiming to take its spot atop the hot hatch throne, with Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota in the mix. Thankfully the hot hatch market is still a healthy one, but is the VW GTI still the right one to buy? I took a week-long test to sort that out.
The Useful Specs
The 2022 VW GTI packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that produces 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque (up 13 and 15 ticks over the Mk7 GTI, respectively), giving it an advantage over the updated Honda Civic Si I reviewed earlier this year. With your choice of a 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed DSG, this tester was equipped with the two-pedal setup. The Mk8 GTI can sprint from 0-60 in 5.1 seconds, which is about 0.7 seconds quicker than the last generation. Top speed is still limited to 155 MPH, which no one should ever try to hit in a little hatchback.
Built on Volkswagen’s long-used MQB modular platform, the GTI shares its underpinnings with several fun compact VAG models. With a full slate of touch-ups to the suspension and chassis, VW claims this new generation of the GTI is more composed yet more capable in the corners. Making several design changes with the body, the Mk8 GTI also looks a bit more upmarket while offering some striking angles. The cockpit receives plenty of changes too, giving the GTI a more modern take on the hot hatch cabin you’ve been familiar with for ages.
Offering three trim levels, VW added a bit more standard equipment to the base S trim, with the SE and Autobahn trim levels still available as the price increases in reasonable chunks. The base price of the GTI S starts at $29,880, SE models begin at $34,630, and the Autobahn has an MSRP of $38,330. The test model VW sent me is the SE trim level, painted a fantastic shade of Kings Red, with Titan Black–and plaid–cloth interior, optioned with the 7-speed DSG (an $800 option), which hits a total MSRP of $36,485.
The Enjoyable City Hatchback
It should come as no surprise that the Mk8 GTI is a great city car that can serve a small family nicely while being a fun weekender. With the standard Golf no longer in the VW lineup, the GTI is the only hatchback from the German manufacturer offered to Americans, with the push for people to buy the Taos crossover. VW also axed the 3-door GTI option, with the 5-door being the only way to take this hot hatch home, which is the practical option for most people.
Sticking to its roots, the Mk8 GTI makes any boring commute or errand run more entertaining. As the car market has cranked up engine specs to levels few people can truly handle, the GT packs enough juice under to satisfy your thirst for fun. Sneaking in and out of slower traffic is definitely enjoyable in this new GTI, and never was I thinking it was lacking power. VW’s refinements to the GTI’s suspension make it cope with bumpy downtown streets with ease while still offering good feedback. EPA fuel economy estimates are 25/34/28, and I managed 27 MPGs during my week with the GTI. Not bad considering I was driving it with more fun intended, rather than trying to optimize efficiency.
Updating the styling of the GTI was done perfectly. Sharper lines are done tastefully, and the new headlight housings add a hint of anger to the package. The Mk8’s wheelbase matches the previous generation, at 103.6 inches, but the overall length bumps up to 168.8 inches. At 57.6 inches high and 70.4 inches wide, a more planted look is given to the Mk8 GTI, met with wide front air intakes at the front and a punchier shoulder line. Sporty 18-inch wheels complete the refreshed GTI’s look wonderfully without looking too busy.
With proportions that fit four people and their stuff, the new GTI might be small next to traffic filled with crossovers, but it’s perfectly sized for reasonable people. The updated seats look the part of a modern hot hatch, while the plaid pattern in the center material gives a nod to GTIs of yesteryear. The front buckets definitely keep you in place when playful driving happens, with lateral support nicely designed where it’s needed. Cargo space isn’t massive, so don’t expect to take a family of four on a road trip with the Mk8 GTI, but the hatch will easily carry a week’s groceries and handle a few roller bags.
A new cabin design theme adds a more tech-heavy setup, with a new 10-inch infotainment screen commanding your attention in the center console. VW gives the new system Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are frankly better to use than the native software. Screen taps and swipes are a little on the slow side, which isn’t great for this new system. The all-digital instrument cluster is a nice upgrade compared to the somewhat basic analog dials in the Mk7 I reviewed, with all sorts of ways to configure your GTI’s ideal display. Digital controls make their way to the steering wheel too, which don’t have any feedback when using them, and are easy to accidentally tap when turning the wheel.
My biggest gripes with this new setup are divided between the lack of a volume knob–opting for a digital slider instead–and the same style of buttons for the climate control. Neither of these are backlit, so making adjustments at night is a complete guessing game. Why VW overlooked illuminating these controls is a mystery, and losing physical temperature buttons or a volume knob is something too many OEMs are doing to otherwise good cars.
Playing In The Twisty Stuff
Escape the daily grind, and seek your nearby curvy farm-to-market routes, because that’s where VW’s eighth-generation GTI shines. Opt for the sport drive mode, and the GTI quickens its pulse without feeling too feisty. I liked the custom drive mode to let the suspension feel a little smoother, but even the sport setting wasn’t too firm when I gave the GTI a good flogging. The turbocharged engine doesn’t exhibit much lag at all, and the throttle response is steady and direct. Exhaust notes from the GTI aren’t the most inspired, but it’s not too boring either. I’d also like a bit more real noise from the tailpipe rather than some fake tones sneaking through the cabin speakers.
While most GTI buyers will opt for the DCT, to reduce the effort needed to motor around, VW still offers a slick-shifting manual for the purist. Being an analog driving experience fan, I have no complaints with the dual-clutch ‘box in this Mk8 GTI, with a stubby little shifter like Porsche uses for the 992 with a PDK. Hooked up to an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential that adds to grip and confidence in the corners, the front-wheel-drive GTI doesn’t exhibit the usual torque-steer twitch typically felt in front-drive cars equipped with a mechanical LSD. When providing quick steering inputs, the Mk8 feels smooth and precise, as one would expect from this iconic hot hatch. Brake feel was a bit on the soft side, but never did I feel like the GTI wasn’t equipped with enough braking power to control and scrub speed as needed.
VW threw a ton of suspension upgrades at the Mk8 GTI, and compared to the Mk7 I love, this new generation feels more compliant yet easier to stuff into a fast bend. 225/40/18 H-rated Pirelli P Zero All Season rubber is definitely the limiting factor in truly unlocking the fun times behind the wheel of the Mk8 GTI. Damping is great, considering the S and SE trim levels stick with traditional dampers. If you want adaptive dampers, you’ll have to spend a bit more cash for the Autobahn trim, which also gets leather seats and a few other comfort upgrades in the cabin, but the 19-inch wheels wrapped with summer performance tires are a big advantage. Craving the ultimate performance from your hot hatch? VW still offers a Golf R variant that packs 315 horsepower and all-wheel-drive.
The Popular Hot Hatch Improved, But It Isn’t Perfect
With a history spanning generations of loyal buyers, VW continues to satisfy the demand of an enthusiast driver with the new Mk8 GTI. This iconic hot hatch may be inching its way upmarket while increasing its price, but VW is still delivering a fantastic driving experience in a practical package. Not without gripes in the cabin, thanks to some button-less controls, the new GTI is still a wonderful successor to the Mk7 I praised. The challenge is that the GTI now has some great competition in the form of the Civic Si and Hyundai Veloster N.
Even though it’s down on power versus the GTI, I still prefer the handling dynamics of the new Honda Civic Si I tested, which had sharper steering feedback and more enjoyable sensations in quicker corners. Honda only offers the Si as a sedan, which gives the GTI one advantage in my eyes. The Si also has one of the best feeling shifters currently fitted to any new car, and costs $8,000 less than the GTI SE. With a price that sneaks up near $40,000, the GTI is pricing itself against Honda’s Civic Type-R, which is due for a new generation later this year. However you decide to spend your money, I can easily say you’ll still be happy opting for this new GTI.