Saying Goodbye To The Mk. 7 2021 Volkswagen GTI: Should You Wait For Next Year's Redesign Or Snag The Hot Hatch Now?
The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI represents the end of an era. This is the final model from the GTI's seventh generation, and it stands on the eve of a dramatic shift in strategy for VW, which will no longer offer standard versions of the Golf hatchback to American buyers. Instead, options will be restricted to the Mark 8 GTI and Golf R only, which is good news for performance fans seeking an affordable and fun hot hatch.
How does the current Golf GTI compare against the cars that built its legend over nearly 30 years of providing high performance in a practical package? And should you snag the 2021 edition or wait one more year for the 2022's all-new platform?
The very first Volkswagen GTI was based on the Rabbit, which was the name given to the North American version of the Golf in the early 1980s. Available from 1983 to 1984, it featured a modest 90hp from a 1.8L, four-cylinder engine, but the key to its success was its ultra-lightweight design. This gave the original Mark 1 (Mk. 1) GTI exceptional handling compared to more plodding muscle cars like the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro of that period, helping it to appeal to a new subset of buyers who might have never before considered a European import.
It was a formula that VW refined over the next decade, with the Mk. 2 Golf that appeared in 1985 adding 10 horsepower to the mix before a 16 valve version of its engine punched up to 123hp in 1987. By 1990 the vehicle had graduated to a mightier 134hp, 2.0L engine, which it would keep until 1992.
The GTI stumbled somewhat through the rest of the '90s when Volkswagen dropped its four-cylinder buzz for a heavy, 'VR6' lump that significantly changed the handling characteristics of the hatchback.
Power was good—the 2.8L mill squeezed 172hp and 173 lb-ft of torque from its six cylinders—but the character of the 1993-1999 Mk. 3 car had been changed for the worse.
Volkswagen's Mk. 4 GTI appeared in 2000 and tried to split the difference, offering a choice between the carried-over VR6 and a new 1.8L turbocharged 4-cylinder. The smart money snagged the 20-valve Audi power plant, because its 150hp could easily be bumped up by way of aftermarket tuning without having to endure the VR6 boat anchor.
By the time the Mk. 5 GTI rolled around in 2007 Volkswagen had finally swung back to the formula that had made the '80s model such a game-changer. The VR6 was banished by a 2.0L, 200hp turbocharged four-cylinder that matched with a six-speed manual transmission and the most sophisticated suspension setup ever given to a GTI. It's here that VW also introduced its DSG dual-clutch automated manual gearbox, controversial at first but eventually embraced by enthusiasts who had to deal with the reality of their daily commute. The Mk. 6 Golf GTI kept the train rolling from 2009 to 2013 with the same drivetrain wrapped in sportier-looking sheet metal with a much nicer interior along for the ride.
Past Or Present?
Where does the Mk. 7 Volkswagen Golf GTI fit in when compared against the best versions of its past self? Introduced as a 2015 model, the 2021 GTI has evolved into a vehicle that is best described as an all-arounder that really doesn't ask drivers to sacrifice much in terms of practicality, comfort, style, or performance.
The four-door GTI is livable as a daily even if you need to tap in the back seat to occasionally haul full-size adults along with you, and with over 50 cubic feet of total cargo space it's more than a match for many larger crossovers in terms of utility. Its cabin is finished with more care than one would expect for a compact car, and although its infotainment system might not be as zippy to respond when compared to some of its rivals, it still gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.
Where the GTI truly shines is its ability to combine all of the above with a genuinely engaging driving experience. While there's nothing 'wrong' with the smooth-shifting seven-speed DSG gearbox (sure to be a favorite among urban dwellers), the 228hp, 2.0L turbo four comes alive when managed by the standard six-speed manual transmission. With 258 lb-ft of torque on hand the Volkswagen's low-end performance is particularly impressive, and once it's free from the straight-line confines of the city or interstate you'll discover why its balanced ride and eager cornering skills make it a top choice for anyone seeking big fun in a small package.
There are a couple of elements that work against the GTI. It starts at just a hair under $30k, reflecting the price creep that has hit the sportiest Golf since the late-'80s, and you can easily pay over $38,000 for the car if you can't lay off the options sheet. At this price you start to run into more potent choices like the Hyundai Veloster N and the Subaru WRX.
The Veloster N is more of a hooligan for pure performance fans, while the WRX nixes the hatchback body style but introduces extra grunt under the hood alongside standard all-wheel drive, and at the very high end even the Honda Civic Type R begins to creep into view with its $39,000 price tag.
Worth The Wait?
With the 2022 Golf GTI (and Golf R returning after a year's absence) just around the corner, is it worth biding your time until the latest model becomes available? At first brush, the answer feels like a yes.
The upcoming GTI treads water on pricing but adds 13 ponies and 15 lb-ft of torque to the mix, scooting the car to 60-mph in just 5.1 seconds. An electronically-controlled limited-slip differential keeps things calm up front, and the Mk. 8's styling doesn't stray too far from the looks of the current shape. You'll also get a more modern infotainment system as well as a refreshed digital display in the gauge cluster, but overall the interior doesn't leap forward in terms of quality or design.
By my calculation, the best GTI is always the most affordable GTI. Entry-level models feel like a steal as you scream down your favorite back road, but paying too much for too many options pushes the Volkswagen uncomfortably close to the better-endowed Golf R (315 horsepower, all-wheel drive, roughly $40,000) to make much sense. If plush is your thing then spending more for the R is a better choice, considering that it too benefits from a host of upgrades for 2022.
If you feel like you need the latest and greatest chassis and tech, along with a subtle power boost, then waiting for a base 2022 GTI isn't a bad decision. If you can score a deal on leftover 2021 Golf GTI inventory, however—surely not a difficult task with an all-new car on the horizon—then that's a more compelling choice that won't let you down, particularly if you hit the aftermarket to make up for the torque gap between the two generations.