Volkswagen Golf GTI review

Category: Hot hatch

Section: Performance & drive

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Volkswagen Golf GTI 2021 Rear 3/4 tracking
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Performance & drive

What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is

The Volkswagen Golf GTI’s standard six-speed manual gearbox has a shorter action than that of the regular Golf’s, but the way it shifts isn’t a patch on the Honda Civic Type R’s for precision, or the Ford Focus ST’s for slickness. That said, it still adds a layer of added interplay that no automatic gearbox can match. However, the optional seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic gearbox not only makes everyday life a doddle with its smooth-yet-swift shifts, but also allows you to take back control with the paddles behind the steering wheel. Only a slight jerkiness when manoeuvring blots its copybook.

In terms of raw performance, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the GTI isn’t as quick as the Type R, which has an extra 74bhp. However, at our private test track we found that the difference in acceleration between the two was closer than you might expect; the GTI completed the 0-60mph dash in 6.2 seconds with a manual gearbox versus the Type R’s 5.8sec. The DSG is faster on paper, but only by a measly 0.1sec. One of the reasons for both cars being so close is that the GTI’s engine is more linear in its power delivery, making it a little easier to get away from the line. 

This also means it feels pretty swift on the road, while perfectly spaced gear ratios allow you to make excellent use of the engine’s broad spread of shove. You can feel when that kicks in just below 2000rpm and drags you keenly into the power band, from where it revs to its red line with greater enthusiasm than the Focus ST will. It can’t match the brutal top-end shove of the Type R, but we like that you can use its low-end power to pull you along easily in a high gear, without having to keep swapping cogs.

The Type R will monster the GTI for pace through corners, too – the GTI was more than a second slower than the Type R around our 0.9-mile test track – but again, the GTI feels like it has the measure of the Focus ST. There's buckets of pure grip and an even-handed handling balance that inspires confidence. You can alter it from neutral to more playfully loose at the rear by fiddling with the optional adjustable suspension’s numerous settings, which are available though the infotainment touchscreen. 

But even if you crank it up to its friskiest mode, the rear wheels still don't pivot around you like the castors of a shopping trolley, as they do with the Renault Mégane RS, and it’s not as agile as a Toyota GR Yaris, either. Nor is the steering isn't as quick or as feelsome as the Focus ST's, although with greater heft when you start making your turns, it's actually more pleasant to thread the GTI along narrow roads that demand pin-sharp accuracy. That’s also true of the non-adjustable suspension version, which is noticeably firmer than a regular Golf to ensure it handles like a GTI should.

For all its improved agility, that Golf GTI hallmark of approachability remains. It’s not a demanding car to drive – either slowly or quickly – and, while you can feel its electronic limited-slip front differential working away to drag the nose into apexes more determinedly than the Hyundai i30 N's, there’s none of the skittishness under power that requires you to hold on tight in the Mégane RS, just the odd thump from the front end as the tyres struggle for traction. Plus, with a ride that’s more tuneable than a harp, if you’ve opted for adaptive suspension, it can be made immeasurably more supple than the Focus ST and Mégane RS, getting close to the Type R for long distance comfort.

A non-adjustably suspended model does transmit more of the road’s ruts, bumps and undulations than an adaptive suspension car in Comfort mode, yet it still rounds out the majority of imperfections, so it's never tiring on a long journey. Regardless of suspension, the GTI has less road and wind noise than the Type R at high speeds. 

But does the engine sound exciting? Well, sort of; it isn’t as thrilling as the Mégane RS’s, which pops and bangs when you back off the accelerator, and nor is it as organic-sounding as the Type R's, which has no artificial tricks – just a highly tuned four-cylinder noise that’s underlined with manic turbocharger whooshes. Instead, the GTI has a deep, gravelly note, which grows more intense when you switch the driving mode button to the raciest Sport setting. It's a digital sound, though, like it's been designed in a laboratory and honed by focus groups.

Volkswagen Golf GTI 2021 Rear 3/4 tracking

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