It's great to drive... but...
If someone asked us to choose the best all-around performance car ever, we'd have to say it's the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Though there are faster cars on the market, and vehicles that offer more practicality, few match the GTI's legendary combination of driving pleasure and daily livability. In fact, if we could only drive one car for the rest of our lives, we'd probably pick a GTI. That's how much we love the famed model, just in case we get accused of hating on Volkswagen too much here.
But after spending a week in the latest 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk8, we were shocked to discover that this might be the first one ever that we'd hesitate to recommend. There's lots to love, a little to dislike, and one or two things that could be genuine dealbreakers. We wouldn't fault anyone who buys one, but if you're in the market for one, you may want to read this before making a decision.
Much like Porsche with the 911, VW rarely takes design risks with the Golf GTI. The overall shape hasn't changed radically since the curvy Mk5 generation, but this new Mk8 is by far the sharpest one yet. VW wanted the Mk8 to be a styling statement, which is why it receives more aggressive headlights, unique checkered fog lights, and an optional LED light bar that makes it look cyberpunky at night. Even the launch colors get more extreme, with a new Kings Red Metallic that harkens back to the Mk1's Mars Red and an outrageous Pomelo Yellow Metallic on the top Autobahn trim.
Many people buy a GTI for stealthy performance though, so VW also offers softer colors like Oryx White, Deep Black Pearl, Reflex Silver Metallic, Moonstone Grey, and Atlantic Blue Metallic. These quieter colors help the GTI's red accents on the grille, fenders, and trunk stand out more prominently. If customers want to add a bit more flair, VW now offers dealer-installed accessories like valances and a spoiler.
We'd be willing to forgive a GTI for many faults, but not if it drove poorly. Fortunately, the Mk8 does not disappoint in this area. With 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque from the familiar EA888 four-cylinder engine (up 13 hp and 15 lb-ft of torque from the Mk7), this is the most potent GTI yet. Power still goes out to the front wheels only through either a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG, with the latter yielding a 0-60 mph time of just 5.1 seconds. Thanks to VW's incredible electronic limited-slip differential, the GTI puts down power with more grace than most FWD vehicles.
In fact, the GTI is almost too slick at getting off the line; the launch control limits wheel slip so much, getting the quickest 0-60 feels completely undramatic. Everything about the GTI experience fills the driver with confidence. The steering is accurate, the suspension is planted without feeling punishing, and the EA888 sounds better than ever thanks to some pumped-in sound. We are happy to report the GTI is still an incredible hot hatch to drive.
Seats are a staple feature in any GTI model, and we adore the Mk8's front chairs. They come wrapped in either the signature Tartan (plaid) design, or a new tri-tone leather scheme with grey, black, and red elements. We personally prefer the classic Tartan look to the leather's busy modern aesthetic, but the top Autobahn trim we tested includes the leather seats as standard with heating in all outboard positions and ventilated front perches. These seats are not only incredibly comfortable but include bolstering that hugs the driver and passenger in during hard cornering. Hyundai has more aggressive seats in models like the Veloster N and Elantra N, though they aren't as comfortable for daily driving, nor do they feature ventilation. VW has once again nailed the middle-ground of not being the best in any facet, but doing all things to a very high standard.
The GTI is not the most technologically advanced performance car of all time. In fact, this nameplate is loved for its raw simplicity, or at least it was. Though some might object to this change, the Mk8 injects far more customization into the equation. The DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) suspension, for example, now features 15 (yes, 15!) different settings ranging from more-than-comfortable to more-than-sporty. You can set the suspension up to three ticks below Comfort or three above Sport. And yes, you can feel the difference. Not even a Porsche 911 or BMW M5 has so many options.
VW also added some more whimsical options in the cabin. Like the ID.4, the GTI offers several ambient light colors that also change the menu and gauges to match. Speaking of those gauges, the fully digital Innovision Cockpit offers various configurations. We love the Sport cluster with the center-positioned tach and honeycomb styling, but also found the full-map display useful.
Thus far we've been entirely positive about the Mk8 Golf GTI, but at this point, we have to address a major elephant that's been growing in recent years: price. A 2002 Golf GTI with its $18,910 MSRP is surprisingly more expensive than the 2022 model's $29,545 starting price when you factor in inflation. Including all of the standard features on the new car that simply didn't exist 20 years ago, the new car is leagues ahead. But, and you can blame stagnating wages if you'd like, the GTI still doesn't feel like the same value proposition it used to.
That's because the competition looks very different today. The Mk7 debuted at a base price of $26,485. Comparatively, the Mk8 ranges from around $30k to just under $40k. For less than $35,000, Hyundai sells three N-badged models with over 270 hp. Though it's less powerful, the Honda Civic Si costs just $27,300 and the upcoming Type R model will likely outpace the GTI for similar money. If you are splurging on the GTI Autobahn, you may as well stretch a bit further for the R at $43,645.
Though this is the most expensive and feature-rich GTI model ever, cost-cutting in some areas is obvious. We love that VW added extravagant features like a heated steering wheel, heated/ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a Fender audio system, and more, but these all seem to be there to distract from a downgrade in interior materials. Part of the reason why we always felt the GTI was worth its price premium over rivals was the near-luxury interior. You could hop out of a GTI into an entry-level Audi, and wonder why the Audi was $10,000 more. The Mk8 lacks that niceness.
We compared our tester's nearly $40,000 interior to a used base model GTI from 2016. The comparison showed many areas where the old model felt superior to the new car. Previously soft-touch materials for the dash and door cards on the Mk7 are replaced by tough scratchy replacements on the Mk8. Even under the hood, where admittedly owners rarely look, the new car now features a cheaper hood prop instead of a hood strut, and an ugly unlabeled engine cover. It's a nitpick, but for 40 grand, we can be picky.
We'd be willing to ignore all the aforementioned criticisms because the GTI is such an entertaining car to drive. But the touch controls are a step too far. This infotainment system debuted on the electric ID.4, where we didn't have as large a gripe with it because VW promised us it would improve via over-the-air updates. It hasn't. Watch the video above to see just how frustratingly complicated the system is to the average user who isn't hopping between the latest cars on a regular basis, as pictures paint a clearer image.
In short, the screen doesn't have any physical controls for the climate or audio, requiring drivers to interact with the touchscreen or sliders below. Other automakers have made this work, but the GTI's screen isn't large enough, requiring trips to separate menus taking you away from your original task. Those sliders offer quicker access to temperature and volume adjustment but are finicky to use while moving and aren't backlit at night. There are controls on the steering wheel, but those use a weird combination of haptic and physical input that feels more complicated than a conventional button.
We feel conflicted at this point because the GTI is among our favorite automotive nameplates in history, and we love driving the new Mk8 model. However, we became so frustrated with our tester during just one week, we can't imagine living with the car when so many good performance options now exist at a lower price. Even if the infotainment worked as intended (it crashed on us three times during the week), the severe cost-cutting inside left us with a sour taste for this new GTI.
There's still a lot to love here; the styling, feature content, and driving enjoyment are all huge improvements over the outgoing Mk7. With an emergency refresh to add some buttons and knobs while getting rid of some hard-touch surfaces, the GTI could once again feel like the best all-around performance car in the world. Please VW, make it happen.