On the Road Review: Volkswagen Golf GTI

Some exciting and often memorable driving experiences cannot be shared here, for several reasons, yet the emotions that result and the competence of the vehicle(s) that permit those driving situations will always be recognized. The latest seventh-generation GTI stands tall as one fast, fun, efficient driving machine.

Now built in Mexico, the latest GTI embodies the spirit of previous “hot-hatch, pocket-rocket” editions in a refined package that handles, rides, drives and comforts occupants better than its compact-class rivals. Some of these competitors might generate more impressive specific performance data on any given day, but none combines the GTI’s assorted attributes and all-around excellence.

A base Golf, $18,995, now comes with a 1.8-liter 170-hp turbo-four engine. Solid, responsive, smooth, this vehicle is a great baseline for the GTI. Six-speed stick and six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission levers fill the center tunnel on each vehicle, while the three-door model is now outsold by the five-door hatchback due to the greater convenience of rear portals for passengers. Cargo space and flexibility, long a Golf/GTI attribute, continues with easy folding rear seats, a light rear liftgate, plus a new hidden rear-view camera under the VW badge.

What the GTI adds, base price under $25,000 with the three-door stick-shift, is 40 more horsepower with the new 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injected four, revised suspension geometry for greater handling, slightly larger tires and wheels, the traditional plaid cloth interior (if you want, it is only on base S trim) as well as more supportive heated seats. Key to the GTI, and to the whole Golf lineup, is the superior level of refinement; textures, surfaces, seats, as well as fit-and-finish rise above the usual plasticky interiors customarily found in entry-level, compact cars. Think Audi-esque here.

And then you use these surfaces in daily life. How the steering wheel feels in your hands, how easy the controls are to operate — softly, deftly — and how everything readily falls to your fingertips illustrates how the GTI is a driver’s machine built by other drivers. The shifter rests neatly near where your right hand falls, the new info-tainment screen’s icons appear as your hand brushes close, while that thick, leather-clad wheel returns superior control and confidence as you bend the car around every curve — often with hearty enthusiasm.

Stir the shifter and spur the throttle and the GTI responds with linear power that never seems to end. You shift to the next gear not because the engine is screaming for relief, but because the tachometer says you should; it is not unusual to be lost in your driving and find the gearshift lever in third when a more relaxed fifth gear would be more supportive of your fuel economy goals.

The new 2.0-liter engine’s constant power flow is aided by a turbocharger that has negligible lag — it spools up quickly and produces ample pulling power in every gear, at virtually any speed. Highway droning require a pass? Don’t even need to downshift; just toe the throttle and the speedometer needle whips across the dial with no drama. A seasoned road car, the GTI is a great driving partner whether you are caught on the super-slab for endless miles, or careening down your favorite twisting path.

And much of that is due to the balanced chassis. The GTI has a taut feel; not harsh, but firm and right now responsive. The brakes are quick, powerful, the steering crisply direct. While not a Porsche in the sense that nothing is finer in regards to at the limit handling, this front drive GTI would be considered quite a nice handling car if you never sampled the Porsche.

For drivers lured by 430-hp Mustangs and 305-hp WRXs, the GTI’s 210 horsepower seems almost pedestrian. It is not, as the GTI is satisfyingly quick, if not necessarily the drag-racing queen on the block. A new performance pack option adds 10 more horsepower, while a plethora of aftermarket tuners will help you get to almost 300 horsepower, R-model levels of power, if you need to keep up with the Joneses. An artificially low governor curtails top-speed too; you might want that adjusted as well.

However, any such changes will certainly alter the GTI’s inherent fuel efficiency, which is part of the car’s attraction — performance when you want it, great fuel efficiency when you need it, and for everyday commuting. The EPA rating is 25/34/28 mpg with the sequential six-speed manual used in our Tornado (arrest me) Red sample. At one point, the GTI’s trip computer revealed a 41-mpg score for restrained driving, while the average for our hurried week together came out to 32 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended, yet the GTI’s computer will adapt to lower grade fuels.

On the plus side, the GTI has a comfortable cabin that is very roomy for four, five in a pinch, a versatile and expanding cargohold that is vastly superior to a standard sedan, plus the performance and agility of a superior driving machine. Compact outside, the GTI doesn’t feel small when used. The torquey turbo-engine is simply delightful; smooth, powerful, responsive and never boring. It is a sign that turbo-motors will proliferate to other automakers; you just cannot get this much power without adding more complexity and cost.

The four-door GTI adds $600, while the DSG-dual clutch automatic transmission is another $1,100. In top Autobahn trim, with push-button start, LED fog lamps, heated front seats, dual-zone climate, power sunroof, 5.8-inch navigation Touchscreen, satellite radio, Fender Audio, plus new XDS Cross differential to help with forward traction, our GTI lists for $30,865 including destination fees. With the average new car transaction price eclipsing $33,000, the GTI still seems like a great value.

Base weight is just over 3,200 pounds, while the 168-inch-long car can swallow up to 24 cubic feet of cargo behind the rear seats.

The compact car class benchmark for driving pleasure, the GTI is a rare combination of fun, everyday versatility and affordable performance. For anyone who savors the enjoyment of operating three pedals, bending a responsive steering wheel and commanding the driving experience, the GTI is a tough formula to beat.



Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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