By Shari Prymak
Those in the market for a performance-packed hatchback have plenty of options ranging from the Hyundai Veloster N to the Mercedes-AMG A35. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of these hot hatchbacks likely owe their existence to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. A pioneer of the segment, the GTI has largely stayed true to its mission as a well-rounded, attainable, performance hatch for over four decades. Although the latest model faces some stiff competition, its finely-honed formula is proof that sometimes time-tested is best.
Many of the hot hatch options on the market make an active effort to look embellished or even comical in an attempt to shout about their performance credentials. The GTI, on the other hand, makes no such attempts. Its clean, purposeful, yet restrained appearance will likely be appreciated by those who would rather not make a scene and simply just go about their business. The mildly aggressive front and rear fascia, red accents, and larger wheels are the only giveaways that you are driving something other than a regular Golf. Although my test car came in a beautiful shade of blue for a bit of added flair, it would be nice to see the other 40 colour options offered on the Golf R made available on the GTI as well.
The interior mostly upholds the upscale vibe that Volkswagens have long been known for, although it is worth noting that competitors including Mazda and Honda have more or less caught up in this regard. The materials and surfaces are of mostly high quality and the controls are straightforward to use. The 8 inch touchscreen has excellent graphics and is highly responsive to inputs. It also supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The front seats are very comfortable, supportive, and come upholstered in a cool retro pattern on the base and Rabbit models known as Clark Cloth. The top Autobahn model gets nowhere near as cool full-leather upholstery. The rear seats are reasonably spacious for adults and the cargo area is a useful size as well.
Volkswagen’s extensive fine-tuning of the GTI formula over several generations shines brightest through the driving experience. The GTI manages to strike an outstanding balance between ride comfort and chassis control that makes it a standout in the segment. It’s an enjoyable car to toss around and have some fun with, yet it manages to entertain without the harsh ride quality that so many hot hatchbacks seem to struggle with. The Dynamic Chassis Control, standard on the Rabbit model, allows you adjust the suspension firmness along with additional settings for the engine, steering, stability control intervention, and the limited-slip differential. I’m not sure whether it would impress on a track like a Honda Civic Type R or Hyundai Veloster N, but for a street-driven car, it’s an ideal setup.
Like most of its rivals, the GTI uses a turbocharged 2.0L 4-cylinder powering the front wheels through a standard 6-speed manual gearbox. A 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, known as DSG, is also available, giving the GTI a unique selling-point over its manual-only rivals. The engine produces 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is enough for fairly brisk acceleration, particularly with the quick, yet smooth-shifting dual-clutch. The manual would no doubt add an extra level of fun and engagement, but there’s no arguing with the effectiveness of Volkswagen’s DSG. It’s easily one of the smoothest of its kind on the market and ideal for those who just can’t make a manual work.
The Golf GTI ranges in price from a reasonable $30,845 up to $36,145 for the Autobahn model. A Driver Assistance Package with various active safety features can be added to any trim level for $1,750, and the DSG transmission adds another $1,400 as well. My test car was the mid-range Rabbit model, which represents the sweet spot in the range. For $33,995, it comes equipped with Dynamic Chassis Control, keyless access with push-button start, a great sounding Fender premium audio system, LED lighting, black 18 inch wheels, and few other Rabbit-specific garnishes.
Despite the emergence of some serious competition in the hot hatch segment, the Golf GTI still has its charm, particularly for those who prefer subtle over excess. The Civic Type R and Veloster N have outstanding performance capability and higher fun factors, but the wild appearances make them a bit too over the top for some. The Subaru WRX is perhaps the one practical performance car that comes closest to matching the GTI’s level of restraint, albeit in sedan form. In the end, the GTI may not shine as brightly in the segment it started so long ago, but it remains a desirable option for those seeking a fun, well-rounded, hatchback that just squeezes under the radar.