YOU ENTER THE pub, sit down at the table and grab a menu, making a show of perusing the available options. It’s all a charade; you know exactly what you’re going to order, you’ve known for hours. You’re going to choose the chicken parmigiana – chances are everyone is.
The reason the chicken parmi (or parma) is the default pub choice is the same reason the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the default hot hatch choice – you know what you’re going to get. In both cases the recipe hasn’t changed much in decades and nor has it had to because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This only makes it all the more remarkable that for the eighth generation of its iconic fast five-door Volkswagen is fiddling with the recipe, if only slightly. If we return to the chicken parmigiana metaphor, the VW has stuffed a few spicy jalapeños between the ham and the cheese.
No standard Golf GTI has ever been this, well, serious. Its mechanical specification effectively mirrors that of the previous generation Golf GTI Performance, including the fourth evolution of the long-serving EA888 engine, which produces 180kW from 5000-6200rpm and 370Nm from 1600-4300rpm.
For the first time a proper limited-slip front differential is standard on a ‘normal’ GTI, the multi-plate unit is electronically rather than mechanically controlled in order to minimise steering corruption. A six-speed manual is available overseas, but locally only the new seven-speed ‘shift by wire’ dual-clutch gearbox will be offered, meaning there’s no longer any physical connection between the gear lever and the ’box itself.
Under the skin it seems as before, with a strut/A-arm front end and multi-link rear controlling 18.0 x 7.5-inch wheels wrapped in 225/40 tyres – in this case, Goodyears. However, the devil is in the detail. Spring rates have increased 5 per cent front and 15 per cent rear, bushings and bearings have gone under the microscope, adaptive dampers are standard and an aluminium subframe stiffens the front end and sheds three kilograms.
What’s more, the suspension and differential are both under the command of the new Vehicle Dynamics Manager, a “higher-level control system [that] centrally coordinates all electro-mechanical running gear functions,” according to Karsten Schebsdat, VW’s head of drive dynamics, steering and control systems.
Let’s not leave you hanging any longer – it works. This is easily the sharpest, most capable and cohesive Golf GTI yet. As you can see from the imagery, the conditions weren’t exactly conducive to performance driving, yet the Mk8 was rarely flustered, extracting remarkable levels of lateral grip from the sodden surface.
The steering is worthy of note. It remains a variablerate rack that allows a degree of high-speed sneeze factor yet quickens as lock is applied with a maximum of 2.1 turns, but whereas these systems can sometimes feel unnatural in their progression when responding to large inputs, the latest GTI has somehow made the variable feel linear. It does feel as though the wheel has increased in diameter, however.
Volkswagen claims its “running gear engineers have in effect entirely eliminated understeer,” a bold statement but one that appears to be accurate, on-road at least. The front end refuses to relinquish its purchase even as cornering speeds edge up to twice that written on the yellow warning sign – in the wet don’t forget – and the rear is equally unflustered, though can be convinced to shuffle slightly on a trailed brake.
Traction has traditionally been a GTI bugbear but while it still leans on the electronics heavily in these conditions, once third gear has been clicked more often that not the light ceases to flash. The one disadvantage of a front limited-slip diff is that once traction is lost both wheels slide across the road, but it’s an easy issue to drive around with a little throttle control.
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