Greg Kable: 2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI prototype review

To prepare for the launch of the eighth-generation Golf GTI, its dynamics chief puts a prototype through the wringer around a top secret VW test track with us for company.

The front passenger seat is not the place I’d usually choose to sit when it comes to the Volkswagen Gof GTI – a car whose very existence is based on the visceral thrill delivered by its driving experience. But as this is the latest, eighth-generation model not due to see UK showrooms until later this year and we’ve got one of the world’s best test facilities all to ourselves for the next hour or so, it is time to make an exception.

After filling out a variety of forms to gain the security clearance to venture beyond the heavily guarded perimeter of Volkswagen’s vast Ehra-Lessien development centre in Germany, I find myself sat beside VW’s head of driving dynamics, Karsten Schebsdat, as he fires the new Golf GTI flat out in seventh gear along a seemingly never-ending straight. It is ultra-smooth, four lanes wide in parts and a mesmerising 8.7 kilometre in length.

With the digital speedo indicating 250km/h, Schebsdat is busy explaining the fundamental differences in driving character between the new Golf GTI and its immediate predecessor, launched back in 2013. “It’s very settled at speed. We’ve transferred more load stiffness to the rear, which improves balance and helps it track better,” he says while drawing a finger across the central display to alter the driving mode more in the direction of Sport.

Then, without warning or the faintest hint of a lift, the Volkswagen engineer whips on a quarter turn or so of steering lock. “It’s also extremely responsive and more stable than before,” he adds, as we veer sharply across the neighbouring lanes before he corrects the steering again. The lateral forces involved are truly colossal. But in the second or two they take to bury their way into the pit of my stomach, the prototype we’re in has already regained its composure and we head straight on again as if nothing had happened.

Coming after the standard version of the new Golf, there’s not much about the latest Golf 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 as its lesser siblings. In time-honoured fashion, it retains the front-wheel drive layout of its celebrated predecessors, which means it continues to compete directly with very creditable rivals including the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Type R and Renault Megane RS.

Up front, the 2020 model runs the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as its predecessor – the EA888, to use its internal codename. Earlier signs suggested it was set to lift its reserves with 48V mild-hybrid electric boosting, but Volkswagen has decided to continue down the same conventional path as before without the additional power enhancement from the alternator seen in lesser versions of the new Golf.

The result? The standard model now develops the same 180kW at 4700-6200rpm and 370Nm between 1600rpm and 4300rpm as the Mk7 GTI’s Performance model, giving it a 11kW and 20Nm in reserves on the seventh-generation model it replaces.

It’s all channelled through a standard six-speed manual gearbox or, as is the case with the prototype we’re in, an optional seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel. As with the previous incarnation of the Golf GTI, there’s also an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, or XDS as Volkswagen likes to call it. It detects unloading of the inside wheel and uses individual braking application via the electronic stability control system to restore traction.

Volkswagen isn’t giving away much at all on performance just yet but Schebsdat, who has worked on developing such highly lauded cars as the original Ford Focus and the 911 GT3 RS 4.0 during a stint at Porsche Motorsport, suggests the standard Golf GTI is close to the old Golf GTI Performance for outright accelerative ability, with a 0-100km/h time of around 6.2sec.

Following the strategy established with the seventh-generation model, Volkswagen plans a two-tier line-up for the latest Golf GTI. Gone is the Performance, which in effect will be supplanted by this new, more potent standard GTI, while the Clubsport, whose moniker was previously reserved for special track-based limited-production models, will replace the Golf GTI TCR. Details have yet to be officially revealed, although the Clubsport is claimed to run the same level of tune to the EA888 engine as the outgoing GTI TCR, which develops 213kW at 5400rpm and 370Nm between 1950rpm and 5300rpm.

Today isn’t about drivelines, though. It’s about exploring dynamic qualities. And Volkswagen’s EhraLessien is just the place to show us what the new Golf GTI can do. It has everything: endless straights, where you can run flat out for minutes on end; banked corners, where the centrifugal forces allow the driver to go hands-off above certain speeds; handling roads, featuring every kind of corner, camber and surface you could ever wish for and much more. It is torture for any car, but it also gives valuable insight into on-the-limit behaviour without having to venture out onto public roads.

So just how do you instil the dynamic qualities that have distinguished the Golf GTI since its introduction to the Volkswagen line-up in 1974 into the new model while also ensuring it meets its brief of appealing to a wider customer audience than ever before? “There is a lot of detailed tuning work,” says Schebsdat. “Every component has come under the spotlight. It is a process that was integrated into the development of the new Golf from the very beginning.”

Once again, the starting point was Volkswagen’s versatile MQB platform – a structure renowned for delivering some of the highest levels of stiffness in the class. To this, the new Golf GTI adds an aluminium front subframe in place of the steel unit used previously. Similar to that developed for the earlier limited-production Golf GTI Clubsport S, it not only saves 3kg but also provides a more rigid basis for the electromechanical steering and MacPherson strut front suspension than before.

Predictably, the steering continues with a variable ratio rack as standard, although it is more direct, with an on-centre ratio of 14.1:1 resulting in two turns lock to lock. A new software package has also been developed to improve steering response and deliver more urgent self-centring.

Another key development brought to the latest Golf GTI is Volkswagen’s new VDM (vehicle dynamics manager) system. It provides a centralised network for a series of different functions, including the steering, throttle, gearbox and adaptive dampers – the last of which continue to be made available as an option as part of an upgraded DCC (dynamic chassis control) system that’s claimed to provide faster damper adjustment at each wheel for improved body control, added ride refinement and, as displayed during our high-speed runs, a generally more settled feel to the whole car.

Volkswagen says the VDM system also enhances the operation of the XDS electronic diff lock by providing it with additional information on other systems, including the DCC. “It is now more effective than ever, especially during hard cornering,” says 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.”

As before, there are four driving modes: Comfort, Eco, Sport and Individual. However, they can be set more precisely via a digital slider with extra steps now incorporated between each mode for a broader range of driving characteristics.

The suspension, which adopts the same rear multi-link set-up as the old model, is set 15mm lower than in other versions of the new Golf and is imbued with its own unique kinematic properties. The standard wheels are 17in, although buyers will be able to choose 18in and 19in options. The prototype we’re in runs 18in wheels with 225/40-profile Bridgestone Potenza S005 tyres.

What Volkswagen has set out to achieve with the new Golf GTI is greater cohesiveness, linearity and incisiveness in the way its mechanical components work in combination with its various electronic systems. The aim is to build on the solid basis of the old model with a heightened feeling of precision, composure and stability through a superior networking of each individual function.

“We didn’t want a nervous-feeling car tuned for ultimate performance, but one that instils confidence in the driver in every possible situation,” says Schebsdat.

Over Ehra-Lessien’s more demanding handling roads, you sense the consistency in its actions, the inherent balance of its chassis and its heightened agility. It all starts with the apparent decisiveness with which the new Golf GTI turns in to corners in Sport mode and then continues with the way its electronic differential deftly goes about the business of doling out drive to the front wheels. There is outstanding grip from the tyres, which do a great job of resisting any urge of the front end to run wide prematurely even on bumpy surfaces, allowing the driver to maintain lots of momentum to the apex without the car feeling on edge.

On a particularly demanding section with lots of high-frequency bumps, we enter a tight constant radius corner. Schebsdat keeps the throttle nailed and delicately places the new Golf GTI on the inside white line while maintaining constant steering angle. All the while, I keep expecting the impressive purchase that was evident on entry to weaken. However, it sticks to its guns. There is no scrub or even a hint of understeer, despite a heady combination of lateral and vertical forces loaded through the suspension.

At the next corner, a long, opening left-hander, Schebsdat carries even greater speed before suddenly lifting the throttle and then mashing it against its back stop again. It’s remarkable just how stable the rear end remains. Even with provocation, the prototype continues to track with great determination.

Body control is another real strength at the sporting end of the new Volkswagen’s various driving modes. There is a degree of lean in slower corners, but the improved action of the adaptive dampers ensures it builds in a more progressive way than before, especially from the initial point of unsettling. Indeed, overall composure is one of the key attributes of the Golf GTI’s handling, and that can also be said of its ride.

There is a predictable firmness to the underpinnings but there’s no real abruptness, even on the optional tyres. Vertical movement is exceptionally well controlled, giving it impressive settled properties in Comfort mode. Its ability to dampen aftershake over large bumps is also worthy of note.

On that note, my time in the passenger seat of the new Golf GTI is over. It may not be the most powerful or fastest car in its class, but the new, eighth-generation model is a big advance on its predecessor. It feels wonderfully agile and responsive in the best of GTI traditions but also assuredly stable and composed when pushed to its limits. It’s going to be a few more months until we get to jump behind the steering wheel ourselves, but we already know there’s a great hot hatch here.

Greg Kable

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