First drive: 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI in the UAE
There have been several high-profile post-lockdown car launches that set the internet on fire. The Nissan Patrol Nismo, the Chevy Tahoe and the upcoming Ford Bronco featured prominently among them, but those were all SUVs. The only small car to “trend” is the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which shows that cars might be giving way to SUVs, but the legendary O.G. hot hatch is always going to be around.
We did a few rounds of the Dubai Autodrome race track with the all-new 2021 “Mark 8” model. The 8th generation of the German carmaker’s best-seller is almost new from the ground up, riding on an updated version of the “MQB” platform and now available only in 5-door format. Oddly enough, the GTI version sells better in the Middle East than the regular Golf, hence the sporty versions will be the only ones to be offered here.
The new design initially feels generic, but one quickly warms up to it. Aside from the funky wheels, the GTI styling details now include the “checkered flag” fog lamps and the red accent line along the LED lighting strip that runs across the upper grille.
There are several tech enhancements such as standard LED headlights, 10.25-inch LCD screen gauge cluster, central 8.25-inch or 10-inch touchscreen and even an excess of touch “buttons” on the dash, although the actual interior has retained the overarching GTI themes such as the clean unremarkable dashboard styling and the tartan-print cloth seats (leather is optional).
Cabin space remains average compared to Japanese rental-spec compacts, but enough to not complain about.
Still powered by the 2.0-litre turbo four that has come to define modern GTIs, it now makes 242 hp and 370 Nm of torque — a minor bump up, but more than enough to give the “fast” feeling.
After driving a Ferrari full-tilt on the track some time ago, we thought we’d find the GTI slow, especially after also experiencing other sporty cars on the same track and being underwhelmed. But the Golf GTI is a different beast.
The potent engine gives a dollop of turbo torque peaking from just 1500 rpm, and the juice doesn’t let up even at higher speeds approaching 200 kph.
The shift-by-wire 7-speed DSG auto gearbox is quick to fire off shifts, although it can be annoying in situations such as a tight autocross course, where it isn’t particularly quick on the downshifts. That’s where you’d be better served by the paddle shifters.
Handling is wonderfully neutral, with neither understeer nor oversteer being particularly prominent (at least with ESP on), aided by the XDS+ electronically-simulated limited-slip diff.
The steering is well-weighted and offers a bit of feel, while the brakes are strong enough for track duty. In short, it’s an extremely easy car to drive hard on the track. We can’t comment on the street though, since we didn’t try it out on city roads.
There have been lots of pretenders to the throne, ranging from the lukewarm Abarth 695 to the forgotten Renault Megane GT, but the VW Golf GTI remains the king. The only problem is, with the added power and the new electronic gimmickry, the price is almost at what the “Mark 7” VW Golf R used to go for in its earlier years, and going up against more powerful rivals in terms of price. It has become an increasingly expensive proposition for what used to be the epitome of “cheap” fun.
For prices and specs, visit the VW buyer guide.