Known simply as the GTI, the small hatchback has earned an unyielding following. After spending time with the GTI, the power and refinement somehow made up for the quality shortcomings and I looked forward to every drive – even if it was during a brief snowstorm.
This particular version is the top-of-the-line Autobahn trim is $36,890 out the door, which is a full $14k more expensive than the base Golf, on which it’s based. That leads to some high expectations but the GTI mostly delivers with high-quality materials and a long list of features. There are areas, however, that made me question the overall quality of the parts with a manual-sliding shade that refused to stay closed, a gear-shift dash indicator that reads 5 when cruising in 4th gear, and heated seats that take just as long to warm as does the engine. While these quibbles are a little disappointing, there are many other areas that are impressively executed such as the crisp and angular LED daytime running lights and taillights, large 18-inch wheels that fill the wheel wells, sportier-than-regular-Golf front and rear fascia, dual rear exhaust outlets, and the bright red brake calipers with GTI painted on them.
Inside, the sports theme is punctuated by the deeply bolstered front seats and a flat-bottom leather steering wheel while the 8-inch infotainment touchscreen with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and SiriusXM plays through a Fender 400-watt nine-speaker sound system that is quite good. The touchscreen can also act as a second gauge pod with engine and transmission temperatures, turbo pressure, elevation, and many other good-to-know bits of information. A Drive Mode Selector allows for a custom mode and adjusts interior engine sound, steering weight, throttle sensitivity, and the stiffness of the dampers.
Automatic emergency braking, active cruise control (high-speed only), blind-spot monitor, lane-keeping assist, and park assist fulfill the active safety list while the GTI’s good outward visibility is betrayed by the small mirrors which look overly compromised for styling’s sake. The IIHS calls it a 2019 Top Safety Pick and NHTSA awards the GTI with a five-star overall safety rating.
Styling and Size
The influence of the euro-tailored VW (say, pre-2011) feels present with this current Golf. Its European influence brings a well-tailored interior for all passengers and a handsomely styled exterior with many examples of high-dollar details such as a hidden tailgate handle and rearview camera and crisp LED lighting. Its efficient shape is pure hatchback and its interior is plenty large enough for four with good headroom and acceptable legroom. The upright shape allows for a large boxy cargo area – enough to handle a week’s worth of travel luggage for two.
Power and Efficiency
The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine develops 228 hp and 258 lb-ft and in this case is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Power is sent to the front wheels via an active locking differential – absolutely necessary with this car’s massive power. Despite VW’s claim that peak torque develops at a low 1,500 RPM, it’s easy to catch the engine off boost. Much of that blame, however, lies with the transmission’s tall gearing which ultimately encourages a higher engine speed in rush hour traffic that what feels natural. Thankfully, the engine is very smooth and never feels disruptive. It’s not lifeless, actually far from it. At full throttle, there’s a hint of a ruckus snarl amind mostly muffled exhaust noises.
Along winding roads, and in the right gear, the GTI launches out of low-speed curves with excellent grip and the clutch is a delight to use with a crisp engagement that’s still gentle enough for rush-hour traffic. Living up to its Autobahn trim level nomenclature, the GTI powertrain feels relaxed cruising at higher speeds yet lives up to its Rabbit nature as it encourages a bit of fun when quickly leaping from one hairpin curve to the next.
Ride and Handling
The Golf’s short size and sport-tuned suspension delivers a stiff highway ride but it pays dividends in the slow speed maneuvers. In these situations, the active locking front differential also gets to strut its stuff. When that’s not enough, the traction control system reels in the tire slip without feeling intrusive. The chassis is rock solid, meaning that it always felt ready for the next curve and mid-corner bumps do little to disrupt its balance. The rear suspension is clearly spec’d to help the car rotate around turns and minimize understeer. At high speeds, the brakes feel powerful and stout and have the ability to decelerate at a significant rate.
It’s easy to understand how the GTI has earned its legendary status among car culture. Its unique aspects of German-styling, quality materials, strong acceleration, and sharp handling are combined into a practical package.