Payne: Gen-8 VW Golf GTI isn’t getting older, it’s getting better

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 13, 2021

Asheville, N.C. — It’s not easy staying top dog.

Roger Federer’s extraordinary career at the top of professional tennis has spanned parts of three decades and is due, in part, to his determination to improve over time. Example: his average backhand became a weapon in the last decade.

As in tennis, so, too, with hot hatches.

Long before Federer won his first Wimbledon title in 2003, the Volkswagen Golf GTI (then badged Rabbit GTI for the U.S. market) won America’s hearts as the first affordable pocket rocket in 1983. By turning a standard compact Golf into a steroid-infused, apex-carving, cargo-hauling fun box, VW inspired a segment that has born imitators like the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, Hyundai Veloster, Hyundai Elantra N and Mazda 3 Turbo.

Like Federer, Golf GTI has responded to challengers to the throne with constant improvement complementing its innate German-engineered talent. The third-gen Mark III introduced a sensational V-6 engine. Mark V showed off phone dial wheels, one of V-dub’s most distinctive designs.

Of late, GTI has lagged in interior panache. The mesmerizing Mazda 3, for example, upped the ante with its stylish, driver-centric design. If Federer spent hours perfecting his backhand, then Wolfsburg has been burning the midnight oil on dashboard upgrades.

The result is the best GTI ever, a landmark model that — like Gen I — sets a new bar for pocket rockets. It is a vehicle so good that Audi S3 consumers will be left wondering why they paid 16 grand more.

My GTI tester was painted bright Pomelo Yellow to call attention to the feat.

The VW’s huge twinned, all-digital displays are state-of-the-art. You want an Audi? The 10.5-inch instrument display offers five configurations just like its luxe cousin. GTI telegraphs this interior transformation with its sexiest exterior in years.

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI gains more angular, sharp creases for its Gen 8 redesign - similar to the fine stamping of the Audi S3.

Menacing narrow headlights set the tone. Sharply creased hood and shoulders once again remind of Audi. Get the 19-inch wheels. Love it.

Love the handling, too. Over the roller-coaster State Route 209 west of Asheville, the GTI stormed about as if on rails. GTI comes standard with a limited-slip front differential, suspension upgrades and an aluminum subframe that actually reduces curb weight (rare in this age of weighty interior upgrades) from last gen.

The front-wheel driver rotated through corners with the balance of, well, Roger Federer.

A driver’s car like this deserves to have its neck wrung with a manual shifter, and the 6-speed tranny is VW’s best yet. Past boxes could ruin momentum with mushy 2-to-3 shifts. My tester was as crisp as the fall air. GTI typically sells 40% manuals; this gen should sell more.

The infotainment system of the 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI is all-new with a clever, smartphone-like interface, central control buttons and useful controls on the steering wheel.

Not that the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic is any slouch. Stealing again from the luxury store, GTI’s Chiclet-sized shifter reminds of a Porsche 911. With a flick of the wrist, I slotted it into DRIVE, firing off lightning-quick up-and-downshifts with steering-mounted paddles.

But analog manual better fits GTI’s personality. If it’s automatic you want, let me introduce you to GTI’s big brother Golf R — R as in Rocket.

Starting at $44,640 with all-wheel drive, 7-speed auto and a whopping 315 horsepower from the same turbo-4 that burns in GTI’s belly, Golf R is the fully armored cyborg of the family.

R can crank off 4.3-second, 0-60 mph hole shots and explode off corners with torque-vectoring wizardry that throws 100% of torque to the rear summer tires. It even features a one-button R-mode on the steering wheel that instantly changes the personality of the beast like Corvette’s Z-Mode, for goodness sake.

Get it if you can afford it, but your grin will be no wider than in the GTI. That’s because both share an electronics architecture that includes (standard on the GTI) goodies like adaptive cruise control that is as good a highway semi-autonomous system as I have found this side of Tesla’s Autopilot and GM’s SuperCruise.

It allowed me secure driving over I-40 so I could talk on the phone and check messages.

This tour de force Mark VIII GTI is the Swiss Army knife of the VW lineup. Affordable like a Jetta. Tech-tastic like the ID.4 EV. Hatchback utility like the Taos SUV. Arteon sedan style. Handling without peer.

Save the manual! The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI offers a manual, 6-speed transmission standard. It's precise and gives the driver full control over the vehicle.

That diversity not only marks GTI as the icon of the segment it founded — it’s also the North Star of the VW brand. The standard Golf is gone from the lineup, a victim of Americans’ hatchback ennui.

Yankees are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus. On this side of the pond, customers like sedans, so VW sells the Jetta (complete with GTI engine in the GLI performance variant) as its base car. But in Europe, buyers prefer hatchbacks, so Jetta has been discontinued. Go figure.

No wonder VW threw everything and the kitchen sink at the U.S. Golf GTI and R models, including premium options like self-park assist, head-up display — plus a manual Golf R version even Euros don’t get. These vehicles can no longer skim by as high-trim revenue generators for the Golf line. Their purpose is now halo for the entire V-dub line.

And the competition isn’t going away despite Americans’ embrace of SUVs.

The Mazda 3 Turbo is a credible contender with its hot bod and explosive 310-torque turbo-4 under the hood. The GTI’s high-tech displays raise the bar inside, but they also raise the price by $895 against a Mazda that is already a value with a Premium Plus package that includes all-wheel drive, head-up display, adaptive cruise, blind-spot assist and a partridge in a pear tree for just $35,390.

Take the long way home. The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI offers cargo utility, seating for 4, and a sensational drive experience on twisty roads.

The comparable GTI sticker is, ahem, $39,385. That’s a big number in this segment. The $30,540 GTI SE model will do fine.

Also playing in that league is the $38.9K Honda Civic Type R, a ferocious front-wheel-drive hellion that matches the GTI’s top Autobahn trim with its track-tuned suspension while pushing out a heady 306-horsepower from its own turbo-4.

Based on the new Generation-11 Civic, the Type R will soon reveal a more conservative design — compared to the current comic book-inspired Batmobile — aimed squarely at GTI buyers (as well as Golf R enthusiasts).

As Federer can tell you, the waves of youthful new contenders never stop. But unlike Federer and his groaning knees, GTI shows no signs of slowing down.

Throttle wide open over a high-speed crest on Route 209, the eighth-gen Golf GTI felt as fresh as my first Mark I 40 years ago. Bar reset.

Next week: 2021 Porsche Cayman GTS

2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive five-passenger hot hatch

Price: $30,540, including $995 destination fee ($39,385 manual with carbon fiber package as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 241 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (automatic, Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,113 pounds (manual as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 24 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined (manual); 25 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined (auto)

Report card

Highs: Serious handling; big interior leap

Lows: Price can push $40K; base car only has 8.5-inch touchscreen

Overall: 4 stars

Comments are closed.