Before being an automotive journalist, I worked as a technical writer. My job essentially consisted of writing end-user documentation to help users better understand a given product. I, along with my colleagues, would put together user manuals, instruction booklets, shop manuals for mechanics, service bulletins and even recalls.
Among the different fields I did this in, I was once employed by a company called True Key. Over there, I’d often work with the UX (user experience) department. Together, we would ensure the smoothest, most seamless operation of our app. We would spend weeks working on a single menu, streamlining it, overthinking it, and writing the correct sentences so the user could enjoy using our service.
That job has gotten me highly critical about UX in general, even to this day. That’s probably why I’ve been giving the eight-generation Volkswagen Golf – only sold in Canada as the Golf GTI and Golf R
– a hard time. Since its release in 2022, I, along with other automotive journalists have been ranting away about how bad its ergonomics have become. And that’s too bad, because underneath the GTI’s skin lies what could have been the best hot hatchback on sale.
An Opus That’s Hard to Beat
To Volkswagen’s defense, it had a steep hill to climb when given the task of replacing the last-generation Golf (MK7), arguably the best in the car’s history.
Under Ferdinand Piëch’s supervision, Volkswagen became an overachieving, engineering-driven carmaker. Between building W8 Passats and developing the record-beating Bugatti Veyron, everyone at the Volkswagen group worked overtime at exceeding the boss’ expectations, or else.
The seventh-generation Golf
, sold in Canada from 2015 to 2021, was born in that kind of environment. It was not only a very good car, but it was also disrupting segments that had nothing to do with it. Here’s a fun fact about the MK7: when VW put it to market in Europe in 2013, Mercedes-Benz delayed the launch of its C-Class luxury sedan to improve it. That’s how strong the Golf’s ripples were.
It's fair to say then that the MK8 had big shoes to fill, which is why Volkswagen didn’t alter the overall package much. It’s about the same size as the old car but with a slightly more contemporary design language. It remains one of the cleverest hatchbacks on sale. Neither too big, nor too small, the GTI fits four comfortably, albeit having a slightly small rear seat. Its hatchback configuration also makes it ultra practical, yielding cargo space that’s on par with some small SUVs.
Volkswagen understands not messing with a good recipe, which is why the car’s hardware is mostly carried over from before. The platform, an evolution of the old car’s (MQB Evo), was reinforced in key areas to improve chassis rigidity and solidity during a crash. Underneath the hood sits the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as before (EA888 Evo 4), but with significant improvements and more power.
Horsepower climbs from 228 to 241 and torque, from 258 to 273 lb-ft. The drivetrain can still be mated to either a 6-speed manual transmission or, in this case, a 7-speed dual clutch automatic. Yes, the GTI is still front-wheel drive only via an electro-mechanical limited-slip differential. All-wheel drive is reserved for the almighty Golf R. But since the Golf GTI is a lighter car and its horsepower figures have gone up, its level of performance is almost in the same league as the R’s now.
A Frustrating Interior
Strapping yourself inside a Golf GTI is still a bit of a squeeze if you’re tall due to narrow door openings. Once inside however, the sport bucket seats offer great bolstering and lumbar support, albeit giving you an awkward feeling of kissing the ceiling. Visibility is however top notch in a GTI.
This is where things sadly start falling apart. Not only is build quality not on par with what VW has accustomed us to in the past, the entire car’s controls are a total mess. For instance, the steering wheel is smeared with haptic feedback buttons that never seem to operate consistently. Sometimes they respond to the slightest touch, other times you might need to smash it.
On the centre stack, VW has eliminated pretty much all physical buttons, but left four quick keys to access various areas of the infotainment system, like climate, drive modes and driver assistance technology. Hitting a button will take a few seconds to open the desired screen, because it lags, especially when the car is cold.
Volkswagen does at least leave a haptic slider to adjust audio volume and cabin temperature. The problem is that the slider doesn’t illuminate at night, so you’re forced to operate everything from that awful system. What’s more, removing the very
intrusive driving aids will require you to repeat the operation each time you turn on the car. Because, no, it’s doesn’t remember your prior settings. After spending a week with the GTI, I was about to rip the screen out of the dashboard from frustration. It’s that bad. Luckily, Volkswagen announced that an update is coming to fix all of that.
The Drive is Still Sweet
Thankfully, once you’ve set everything to your liking in the cabin, the GTI lets you unwind by letting it loose on an open piece of tarmac. And my gosh does it deliver. The formula is still just right. The GTI pulls strong in any gear, with ample low-end torque and a willingness to rev to redline. The dual-clutch gearbox is a gem. It’s quick to respond, always knows what to do, and disappears in the background during casual driving. It’s so good, that I would consider choosing it over the manual.
Chassis tuning remains this car’s best asset. The Golf GTI’s suspension damping is both compliant during casual driving and stiff enough when pushing it through a mountain. That’s because it has adaptive dampers that alter their characteristics according to the selected drive mode. But even in the stiffest setting, the GTI rides smoothly, with a solid and mature feeling overall.
Throw the GTI hard into a corner, and it claws the tarmac. The limited-slip differential allows you to gracefully carve your way around the bend. The GTI allows you to drive it like a hero, all the time. It’s a companion that’s always willing to follow you in your next crazy adventure. Once you’re done hooning it around, it becomes just another Golf. It’s discrete, comfortable, practical, and surprisingly thrifty. During my time with the car, in winter, I recorded a 9.0L/100 km average. For a powerful hot hatch, that’s more than decent.
The 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI feels like it was designed by two different departments that didn’t speak to each other until the end of the development process. On one side, the engineers developed a fantastic hot hatchback that’s quick, fun and composed. On the other, the people at the UX department appear to have never driven a car in their life. What I learned in my past career is that bad UX has the potential to ruin even the best products. The MK8 Golf GTI perfectly makes that point.
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Five-door compact car
Front engine, front-wheel drive
Turbocharged 2.0L I4 (241 horsepower @ 5,000 rpm / 273 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm).
: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
: 9.7 L/100 km (city) / 7.0 L/100 km (highway) / 8.5 L/100 km (combined).
OBSERVED FUEL CONSUMPTION
: 9.0 L/100 km
564 liters (977 liters total)
$42,159 (as tested)