With the recent news of the end of the manual transmission for the GTI and Golf R, the writing is on the wall for one of the all-time-greatest performance cars, in this configuration anyway. They’ll continue building MK8s but the manual is the transmission to consider here.
This isn’t really going to be a comparison test, or even a review, just a few quick thoughts on the relative merits of the MK 7 Volkswagen GTI, MK 8 GTI and MK 8 Golf R.
But for the first few days driving the MK8, I was a little disappointed. It felt numb and a little disconnected. The shifter action was so light that you wondered if it was connected to anything at all. But the more comfortable I got with the car, and the more I pushed it, the better it was. The MK8 does corner a little more neutrally, and it’s much better getting back on the power. It’s faster than the MK7, and may be better to drive than the MK7, but you have to push a lot more to get that out of it.
The much maligned touch controls are indeed bad, but they’re not especially bad. Yes, it sucks to hit a little capacitive sensor to change menus so you can turn the A/C on, but let’s be honest, most of these systems are maddening in one way or another. VW is going to change it, and they should, but I do think most reviewers are a little too excitable when it comes to this sort of thing.
As mentioned, I had already driven the Golf R by the time one showed up in my driveway. However, I’d driven it on a frozen test track back when we were all taking COVID somewhat seriously, so I was eager to drive it on the road now, when we’ve all forgotten COVID is still happening. I think the big takeaway from driving this one is that it’s the first Golf R since the MK4 where it makes sense to pony up the extra money over a GTI. The first time around, I said it makes more sense to think of it as a smaller E36 AMG Wagon than it does to think of it as a GTI with AWD. I’m going to go ahead and stick with that. It’s heavier than a GTI, and more complex, but it’s also rowdier and crucially, more drifty. Its extra power, noise and grip means it registers as “fun” more immediately than the GTI. However, if you don’t live in an area where you’ll be able to make use of that rear diff in the winter, there’s nothing wrong with choosing the GTI at a more approachable price point.
Speaking of lower price points, a lot of people will ask if it makes sense to just buy a used MK7 or MK7.5. In my opinion, the MK7 is an instant hot hatch classic that people will remember. There’s a level of connectedness with the MK7 that neither MK8 can touch, but it’s not manic or raw, just kind of effortless and eager. It’s exactly what my old MK2 gave me and it is the highest aspiration for the hot hatch builder. It’s a car that makes you want to go for a drive. It’s excellent right out of the wrapper and with upgraded rubber, and perhaps even a tune, it will deliver an incredible amount of practicality and driving joy. It’s even proven unexpectedly reliable. Here I am writing another post about how great the MK7 is, while having already linked to a post about how great the MK7 is.
The early ones are getting a little long in the tooth, and the MK8s have made them look a little dated, but if you can find one with great maintenance records and no scary modifications, I’d be hard pressed to make a case for a more expensive MK8.
Since I drove the MK8 for the first time, Toyota released the GR Corolla, which is really in a class of its own. Given the choice between a GR and a Golf R, I would pick the Toyota every time without a moment’s hesitation. There’s also the great Civic Type R, otherworldly Acura Integra S and the much-loved Elantra N out there, all of which will continue to be offered with a manual transmission for the foreseeable future.
So while we may be saying a sort of goodbye to the fun Volkswagen, we’ll have options for a while.
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