I’ve been reading and watching rave reviews on the new, eighth-generation (Mk8) Volkswagen GTI. Volkswagen itself claims that it “eliminated understeer” on the new car, and American reviewers across the board have said that the new car rotates and is even playful. However, there has been one big caveat to most of these North American reviews: Extremely sticky tires.
Frustrated by all of these reviewers not bothering to even look at the rubber that was underneath their European-spec GTIs, I waited for someone to call it out and, more importantly, test the car fairly with less aggressive tires. Savagegeese and The Topher on YouTube disclosed that their demo cars came with a set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R tires, an aggressive semi-slick* that used to be a track day and club-level “cheater” tire. They also understood what that meant for the dynamics of the car, which impressed them in their review.
*There was some debate over the viable definition of “R-compound” tires in the Car Autance writers’ room. While the RE-71R may be colloquially referred to as an R, it was ultimately decided that this designation should be reserved for track rubber. As Stef Schrader described them a little more practically: “…the less durable comp tires that are hot shit for a track day or two before they wear out.” —Ed.
Other reviewers haven’t been so observant, though many have noticed. Redline Reviews got a white GTI tester with RE-71R tires on the front, which he noted, but had what appeared to be a set of Bridgestone Potenza S004 summer tires on the rear, which are markedly less grippy. He did not note the staggered tires. Edmunds seems to have gotten a similar setup to what Jason Cammisa got for his excellent video on the new GTI: a Bridgestone summer on the front and an all-season on the back.
Cammisa, it seems, is the journalist who answered my prayers this time. In his video, he resolutely calls Volkswagen’s claims of eliminating understeer and debunked them in one swift step: disclosing the tires. He spent two days at the Streets of Willow road course at Willow Springs and used a set of tires in the process with an evenly matched set and proved my suspicions correct: it’s the classic understeery GTI.
It truly began to grate on my nerves as, an Mk6 GTI owner, especially as a heavily modified Mk6 GTI owner. Why? Because Volkswagen has deployed the handling secret of all modern GTIs to their press cars: a reverse stagger tire setup.
A reverse stagger is when the grippier or wider tires are on the front of the car instead of the rear, causing the front to have more mechanical grip by virtue of contact patch or compound. Lucky for you, reader, I’ve tried both methods of stagger on my GTI. I’ve run a 245mm wide front Michelin Pilot Super Sport with 225mm Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 4 on the rear to extremely rotatable and oversteery results. I’ve also run a 225mm Falken Azenis RT660 front tire, a newer and grippier competitor to the RE-71R, the same rear Michelin all-season to even greater effect on a race track.
After all of the suspension mods I did to my car with aluminum control arms and uprights, coilovers, sway bars, geometry correction, and bushings, the single greatest step I made to make my Mk6 a lift-off oversteer lunatic was the reverse stagger. If I took my car, removed that tire setup, and ran a conventional square or even tire width, my car would once again understeer and be boring.
I’ve been waiting for a reviewer to finally call this behavior out from Volkswagen, a very Ferrari-esque move with less nefariousness about it. Volkswagen hasn’t been afraid to tell journalists that its cars will come with the extra-sticky rubber but hasn’t been clear to the public about it. The truth is, we won’t know how the Mk8 really drives until we get North American specification cars without those ridiculous and definitely not production-bound tire setups. Not to mention, our suspension tuning and engine tuning will likely differ, and we will not get the port and direct injected engine that test cars currently have.
That is to say, I’m also tired of journalists raving about how playful and planted the new GTI is, without realizing how much heavy lifting those sticky front tires do. Mk5, Mk6 exist on PQ35 which is the predecessor platform of MQB under the Mk7 and Mk8. I’ve come to learn and understand these cars over 45,000 hard canyon and track miles, and they rely on their front tires more than anything. A good set of fronts will make the rear come alive. It’s a quirk of the platform, but they are naturally unbalanced and suffer from massive front tire usage. In my case, I’ve gone through four pairs of fronts during my time with the reverse stagger, about 20,000 miles, with track time.
Those fronts take a genuine beating, handling the nearly 300 lb-ft of torque along with over 65 percent of the weight of the heavy-ish GTI. Again, Volkswagen knows the tricks better than anyone, and I find it bizarre that they decided to use some of them on journalists. I think it was to mitigate some damage from the new interior space and user interface, which is appalling. It’s almost comical: Give us a car that drives well and we ignore other sins. That should not be the case.
Considering the UX and interior disaster that the Mk8 seems to be, I say get a used Mk7 GTI for about $10,000 less than new, spend some money on simple mods, and get a car that is just as good and less frustrating to live with. I want to get my hands on a Mk8 and see. Hopefully sometime soon.
Correction 08/30/21: The Potenza RE-71R was previously described as an R-compound tire, and while it has similarly sticky properties, it’s not quite the same.