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2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI MkVIII Keeps Its Manual Gearbox, Plaid Seats, and Soul

The eighth-generation Golf GTI shows VW has wisely left the iconic hot hatch’s winning recipe alone.

Despite Volkswagen's harried push toward electrification, the automaker is letting one key sleeping dog in its stable lie: The iconic Golf GTI. The all-new MkVIII GTI hot hatchback arrives for 2021 with its tried-and-true turbocharged four-cylinder engine, standard manual transmission, and available tartan plaid seats in place. The closest VW gets to electrifying the GTI formula is the updated European-market GTE gasoline-electric hybrid. American hot-hatch fans needn't concern themselves with that dog, though.

What's New, GTI?

Other than occupying the newest Golf hatchback's body, the Golf GTI receives a handful of tweaks to its forced-induction four-cylinder engine that affords it a total of 241 horses in Europe. That is a cool 13 horsepower more than you get in the outgoing North American-spec GTI, although somewhat shy of the 300 that was rumored.

Expect the U.S.-bound eighth-generation GTI's engine output to just about match its European counterpart's, plus or minus a few ponies. Like the current car, the new GTI spins its front tires by way of a standard six-speed manual transmission or an available seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG, in VW parlance) automatic gearbox.

Improvements to the car's handling dynamics come courtesy of Volkswagen's new Vehicle Dynamics Manager that gives GTI drivers more adjustability of the suspension's adaptive dampers. A new Individual setting joins the car's Comfort, Eco, and Sport modes, and it allows the driver to choose a wider array of damper settings that are either softer or firmer than those of the default settings. While we've yet to drive the new GTI ourselves, consider our fingers crossed that Volkswagen hasn't messed up the hot hatch's magical blend of refinement, driving fun, and everyday practicality. It's all in the tuning, and VW has been masterful at it when it comes to the GTI.

New Tech, Better Looks

While the GTI's powertrain remains decidedly traditional, its cabin welcomes a number of technological advancements. Notably, Volkswagen boasts that every GTI receives an upmarket digital gauge cluster, automatic climate control, and a thick three-spoke steering wheel with touch-sensitive multi-function controls. GTI staples such as plaid-pattern seats and a golf-ball-style shifter head for manual-transmission models remain, as well. Higher-spec GTIs, meanwhile, benefit from a large 10.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a 10.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system.

Every 2021 Golf GTI arrives with standard safety items such as automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection and lane-keeping assist; adaptive cruise control with a more precise lane-centering (self-steering) highway function will be available for extra. That setup is dubbed Travel Assist, and it works at speeds as high as 130 mph-as perfect for Germany's Autobahn as it is overkill for your slower commute here in America.

At any speed, the new GTI certainly looks the part of a mature hot hatch. Slim LED headlights and an aggressive front fascia give the compact Volkswagen a particularly mean maw, and fog lights hidden within the honeycomb pattern further set GTI apart from the regular-grade Golf family. The red trim piece that's spanned the front ends of previous GTIs rests atop an LED bar on the 2021 model, allowing it to brightly complement the standard red-painted brake calipers tucked behind the front wheels.

The rear of the GTI sports a set of LED taillights and a bold fascia with dual exhaust pipes. Wide side skirts and standard 17-inch wheels complete the model's look. Bigger 18- and 19-inch wheels and tires are available for those in search of even more assertive styling and possibly more pothole-susceptible sidewalls.

If this writeup of one of our favorite sporty compact cars strikes you as brief—good. Because that means Volkswagen didn't change much of the Golf GTI's essentials. Rather than revolutionize the decades-old class favorite, Volkswagen has once again carefully evolved it as it has many times before. With more power, additional technology, and fresh looks, the latest GTI should amount to a better version of its already hugely appealing self.

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