Shotgun is not the seat I'd usually choose when it comes to the Volkswagen GTI—a car that exists to please drivers. But this is the eighth-generation model, not due to reach U.S. dealerships until late 2021, and VW won't let me drive it yet. Still, I've got one of the world's best test facilities all to myself for the next hour or so and a chauffeur. I'll make an exception.
After filling out enough paperwork to see Donald Trump's tax returns, I am allowed inside the heavily guarded perimeter of Volkswagen's vast Ehra-Lessien proving ground near Wolfsburg, Germany. Karsten Schebsdat, VW's head of driving dynamics, takes the wheel. With me as his passenger, he fires the new GTI flat out along a seemingly never-ending straight: ultrasmooth, four lanes wide in places, and a mesmerizing 5.4 miles in length.
With the GTI's digital instrument panel indicating 155 mph in seventh gear, Schebsdat is busy explaining the fundamental differences in driving character between the new GTI and its predecessor, which launched for the 2015 model year in the U.S. "It's very settled at speed," he says. "We've transferred more load stiffness to the rear, which improves balance and helps it track better." As he's talking, he taps a finger on the central display to alter the Individual driving mode more in the direction of Sport. Without warning or the faintest hint of a lift, Schebsdat whips in a quarter-turn of steering lock. "It's also extremely responsive and more stable than before," he says as we veer across the neighboring lanes. The lateral forces involved are tremendous. But in the second it takes for them to bury themselves in the pit of my stomach, the prototype has regained its composure, and we continue straight ahead as if nothing had happened.
There's not much about the latest GTI that isn't familiar. And yet it feels different: more eager and sporting in its actions but with the same degree of refinement and polish we've come to expect. It's still front-drive. And the 2022 model runs essentially the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four—known internally as the EA888—as its predecessor. Early signs suggested that Volkswagen would give the GTI a 48-volt hybrid system, as it did for lesser versions of the Golf, but the brand decided not to mess with a winning formula. The engine now develops 242 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque between 1600 and 4300 rpm, a lift of 14 horsepower and 15 pound-feet over the model it replaces.
That's channeled through a standard six-speed manual gearbox or, as is the case with the prototype we're in, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Similar to the previous incarnation of the GTI, there's a brake-based torque-vectoring system, which Volkswagen calls XDS, as well as an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, a.k.a. VAQ. The company isn't giving away much at all on performance just yet, but Schebsdat—who worked on developing such highly lauded cars as the 911 GT3 RS 4.0 (the 997 generation's naturally aspirated pinnacle) during a stint at Porsche Motorsport—suggests the new GTI is close to the old model in outright acceleration. That should put this automatic version within reach of a 5.8-second 60-mph time (add a half-second or so for the manual-equipped model).
Dynamic behavior is likewise carefully evolved. The starting point was once again Volkswagen's versatile MQB platform, a structure renowned for delivering some of the highest levels of refinement in the class. To this, the new GTI adds an aluminum front subframe in place of the steel unit used previously. It not only saves seven pounds but also provides a more rigid basis for the steering rack and strut front suspension than before. Plus, a new software package supposedly improves steering response and delivers great self-centering force.
Another key development is Volkswagen's new Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM). It provides a centralized network to coordinate information from the steering, throttle, transmission, and differential. It'll also control the adaptive dampers, available as part of the upgraded Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) system. VW claims the DCC's faster damper adjustments will improve body control and ride refinement, and—as displayed during our high-speed runs—they'll give the whole car a generally more settled feel. For drivers who prefer to be unsettled, there's good news on that front, too: We're told we'll be able to disable stability control in the eighth-gen GTI.
The company says the VDM also enhances the effectiveness of the XDS torque vectoring and VAQ differential by providing both with information from other vehicle systems, including the DCC dampers. According to Schebsdat, "The apportioning of drive to each of the front wheels is now more finely controlled and dependent on a greater number of different factors than it was previously."
There are five driving modes: Snow, Comfort, Eco, Sport, and Individual, the last of which allows the driver to select a configuration a la carte. The suspension, which adopts the same multilink rear as the old model, is set lower here than it is in other versions of the new Golf. The standard wheels in Europe are 17-inchers, although buyers in the U.S. will be choosing between 18s and 19s. The prototype we're in rolls on 225/40R-18 Bridgestone Potenza S005 summer tires.
"We didn't want a nervous-feeling car tuned for ultimate performance but one that instills confidence in the driver in every possible situation," says Schebsdat. The aim is to build on the solid basis of the seventh-gen model with greater cohesiveness, linearity, and incisiveness in the way the mechanical components work in combination with the refined electronic systems.
Over Ehra-Lessien's more technical handling roads, we can sense the consistency in the car's actions—the inherent balance of its chassis and its heightened agility. We can feel its nimbleness as it turns into corners in Sport mode and then the way its differential deftly goes about the business of maximizing the available traction. The tires offer outstanding grip and allow the driver to maintain lots of momentum to the apex without the car feeling on edge.
On a particularly demanding section of the track—one with lots of high-frequency bumps—we enter a tight constant-radius corner and Schebsdat keeps the throttle nailed. He somehow manages to delicately place the car on the inside white line without a whiff of a steering correction. I keep expecting the impressive purchase we felt on turn-in to weaken. It doesn't. There is no scrub or even a hint of understeer, despite heady lateral forces.
Schebsdat carries greater speed into the next corner—a long, opening left-hander. Suddenly he lifts off the throttle and mashes it against the floor again. It's remarkable just how stable the GTI's rear end is. Even with this ham-fisted provocation, the car follows the desired path with great determination.
Body control is another real strength of the new GTI's. The prototype exhibits a degree of lean in slower corners, but the improved action of the adaptive dampers keeps the initial movement of the body controlled before the roll sets in. Indeed, the GTI enjoys composed handling without a major sacrifice to the ride. There is a predictable firmness to the underpinnings but we experience no harshness or crashing over bumps. Even when left in Comfort mode, the car remains controlled and impressively settled.
It may not be the fastest or the most powerful car in its class, but the upcoming Golf GTI—at least from where we're sitting—leaps past its 10Best-winning predecessor. From the passenger's seat, we can see that it maintains the agility and responsiveness of the best GTIs, but it's also unerringly stable and composed when pushed hard. It's going to be a few months until we get to jump behind the wheel ourselves, but we have a very strong feeling that the eighth-generation GTI will make its mark as another great in a long line of revered hot hatches.
GTI Design Cues: Old, New, Borrowed, and Red
The upcoming GTI builds on the standard eighth-gen Golf, which Volkswagen design chief Klaus Bischoff calls a more wedge-inspired shape with stretched proportions.
One of the key elements on the hot hatch is a signature red highlight that runs across the front of the car above the headlamps and thin grille. A white LED strip sits immediately below it and stretches from lamp to lamp. Bischoff says this graphic helps accentuate the new car's width and gives it "a more confident appearance" than the old model.
Another notable element is the GTI's front bumper. It adopts a black honeycomb lower section with optional five-element fog lights on each side.
Farther back on the body, the 2022 model has a subtle badge—or "Flitzer," as Bischoff calls it—within the front fenders as well as a black sill element below the doors. The rear is distinguished by GTI-specific taillights and a prominent badge. And unlike the standard Golf's back bumper, the GTI's makes provisions for widely spaced dual exhaust pipes.
The car adopts the same interior as other new Golfs, albeit with the usual model-specific touches and red highlights. There's a digital gauge display featuring GTI graphics, and buyers can opt for a 10.0-inch infotainment screen. The traditional tartan seats remain, but they have a new pattern called "Scalepaper." Bischoff describes it as being more digital than the old GTI's plaid. Plus, the front seats are terrifically supportive and now have integrated headrests. —GK
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