Diesel sales might be in freefall, but plainly Volkswagen still feels there's a place for a hatchback that can do more than 50mpg and summon up 295lb ft of torque from 2.0-litres. It might be right. The ID3 and 4 might be grabbing headlines, and petrol-electric models like the GTE steadily improving - yet neither compete with the simplicity or usability of the GTD over very long distances. Like its immediate forbears (and the Octavia VRS TDI we tested recently) the model promises a convenient mix of performance and economy; the main difference is convincing buyers in 2021 that the oil burning all-rounder is still worth seeking out.
You'll likely be familiar with the Mk8 Golf's core attributes by now, and switching directly from the GTI Clubsport we tested last week to the GTD confirms the 'copy and paste' attitude that remains prevalent inside the VW Group. Barring the badges, there's next to nothing inside to distinguish one from the other; the digital instrument cluster and infotainment screen, the button-clad steering wheel and simplified transmission tunnel layout are all identical. It remains a tidy, albeit bland, configuration.
Still, the Golf has never been about showing off and it doesn't take long to get comfy. It probably says something about the smaller gear selector knob and touch sensitive volume controls that they're already becoming less frustrating to use - give it another month and we'll have probably forgotten all about the Mk7's superior functionality. Although I still unintentionally nudged the steering wheel buttons when manoeuvring, which probably isn't ever going to stop being annoying.
Ergonomically though, the GTD is sound. The lower-tone of the diesel motor (when compared to the piped-in GTI) allows you to appreciate the refinement of the structure; the cabin trim and architecture certainly feel solidly built. Our test car's £785 optional Dynamic Chassis Control adds an 'Individual' mode, where you can wind the damping back to an even softer setting than is offered by 'Comfort' - a facet that allows it to ride very pleasantly indeed. It's fluid, composed and satisfyingly squidgy over bumps, but never loose or wallowy. It's not much different to the DCC-equipped GTI, although both feel lighter on their respective toes than the GTE. Because they are.
It helps that the 2.0-litre Evo unit repeats the punchy, likeable performance we first experienced in the Octavia. It's elastic enough in 'Comfort' mode, but switching the powertrain to 'Sport' is advisable if you want peak response from the throttle. The seven-speed transmission is quick to react and the supply of 295lb ft from 1,750rpm ensures brisk progress no matter the gear - although it's the engine's noticeable jump in thrust from about 2,500rpm that is really satisfying. The ratios aren't super close, either, so while there's realistically only a 2,000rpm window of maximum attack (the auto wisely upshifts before the thrust tapers), you can lean on the torque rather than ask for a lower cog. Handily, this means you're not forced to use the Mk8's small, hard plastic paddles too much if you've switched to manual mode.
Of course, much as it was with its predecessors, no amount of mid-range forcefulness is going to make engine the seem exciting when measured against the petrol alternatives. But it is effective enough to feel like you've made a valid connection with the chassis. The GTD's added heft at the front isn't noticeable on the road at all; it turns in with much the same enthusiasm as the regular GTI (the Clubsport's different geometry gives it a unique edge over its siblings in this regard) and you can feel the XDS differential lock tugging the nose into a corner under power. The balance errs on the side of understeer, but not to the exclusion of adjustability - it only takes a lightly lifted throttle to reach neutrality, so the car feels positive on a B road.
With the adaptive dampers set to 'Sport' you get unflappable cross-country pace, although it's a shame there isn't more clarity to the feedback. The steering is quick but mostly numb, and the brakes are strong yet uncommunicative through the pedal. Confidence is easy to come by, but - much like the straight line performance - your enjoyment of it is always capped by design. Still, the standard GTI is not exactly a joy machine either; at least with the diesel you get the other end of the bargain, too. Expect to find better than 50mpg achievable on longer runs, twinned with the kind of effortlessness which once marked out performance oil burners as a desirable prospect in the first place.
Consequently, the GTD keeps up its end. And then some. Assign it to the outside lane of a motorway and watch the miles dissolve. Add in a family and it will seat four in comfort. Bung a braked trailer on the back, and it will tow 1,800kg (200kg more than the GTI) without complaint. Dispense with the lot and the GTD will still do enough on a lonely back road to suggest you were wise parting with its premium. Arguably the Mk8 does more to earn its tartan stripes than any version that came before. Does all this matter? Probably not. But at least the GTD can say it went down swinging.
SPECIFICATION | VW GOLF GTD (MK8)
Engine: 1,968cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@N/Arpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@1,750-3,500rpm
0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
Top speed: 152mph
Weight: 1,465kg (VW 'unladen weight')
MPG: 54 (WLTP)
CO2: 137g/km (WLTP)
Price: £31,935 (as standard; price as tested £36,645 comprised of Dynamic Chassis Control for £785, digital key for £215, Winter Pack for £470, head-up display for £625, rear view camera for £300, mechanically swivelling towbar for £785, Lime Yellow metallic paint and Jacara Grey upholstery for £625 – not pictured)
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