VW Golf GTI — A modern 'hot hatch'

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Volkswagen Golf hatchback for years has offered drivers the opportunity to get behind the wheel of an affordable compact car that dispenses a high level of performance measured by its confidence-inspiring handling and quick steering response — qualities lacking in many family compacts.  At the same time the Golf's ride is surprisingly comfortable and composed, and its useable storage capacity is just right.

The standard Golf comes standard in the TSI trim with a turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It gets the job done with a 0-to-60 time of 7.7 seconds, but for those who yearn for more sportiness and momentum, Volkswagen has the answer with the performance-oriented GTI model. It is the embodiment of the modern "hot hatch."

The GTI stands out as a stunning example of how far the "hot hatch" segment has evolved. Today’s GTI is more compliant, livelier and a bit quicker than its immediate predecessors. Its 2.0-liter turbo engine pumps out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque exhibiting brisk acceleration enhanced by a very muscular engine note. But we think the GTI's hot hatch heritage is displayed best on tight and twisting roads where its sharp handling and steering comes to the fore. 

The GTI can be equipped with either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual clutch automated manual transmission. Throws are short and accurate with the six-speed, making it a delight to run through the gears, and the automatic proved a hoot to drive hard with quick with smooth up-shifts and rev-matched downshifts.

This all adds up to mood-elevating performance measured at 0-to-60 in less than six seconds and a quarter mile in 14.4 seconds at 100 mph. The frosting on this superb handling and go-fast VW is gas mileage measured at 24 mpg city, 32 highway and 27 combined with either transmission.

The GTI brings a range of performance-oriented equipment such as a lower and stiffer suspension, stronger brakes, 18-inch wheels, sport seats and unique styling touches. There are few cars at any price and in any segment that can check every box: affordable performance, practicality, precision build quality, safe, spacious and fun, and oh, Clark Plaid cloth seats and dimpled golf-ball-shaped gear shift knob.

For 2020, the GTI is available in three trim levels: S, SE, and Autobahn. All trim levels are four-door sedans with a rear lift hatchback. The base S carries a base price of $28,595 with the manual shifter. The DSG automatic transmission is $1,200 extra. The mid-level SE starts at $32,195 and Autobahn, $36,495. Destination charge is an extra $920 to all prices.

We recommend the lower-priced S trim because it comes with all the performance and fun embedded into the GTI at a very affordable price. The SE trim adds LED fog and headlights, leather seating, panoramic tilt and slide sunroof, and eight-inch touchscreen. Autobahn includes all of the aforementioned equipment, plus the DCC active damping system, dual-zone climate control, auto dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, park distance control, and park assist self-parking.

Standard equipment on our S trim included the classy Clark Plaid cloth upholstery that’s only available on the S; 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels; a flat-bottom, red-stitched leather multifunctional steering wheel; ambient cabin lighting; heated front seats; rear seat air vents; hill hold control; tilt-telescoping steering wheel; 60/40 split folding rear seat; stainless steel pedal cluster, and more. The Golf emblem on the tailgate flips up for the rearview camera when the car is put into reverse.

The interior is exceptional and is one of the nicest in its class. Most controls have a high-quality feel, with solid detent clicks when operating. The audio system is basic but proved more than acceptable. For its size, the GTI seats five people with excellent head, hip, shoulder and leg room. There’s good visibility out over the hood and rear of the vehicle. Seats are well shaped, and offer firm cushions, lots of support and ample seat bolstering. They are comfortable and supportive, even on long drives.

There’s 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. That’s enough for a couple sets of golf clubs or luggage. Folding the second-row seats increases cargo space to 52.7 feet. Few other compact vehicles can match that amount of capacity.
Our test car with the automatic transmission carried a bottom line of $30,315 including destination charge.

FYI — Volkswagen will be introducing the eighth-generation Golf GTI as a 2021 model. The new GTI will feature tweaks to the current 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that will increase horsepower to 241. Other changes will be a redesigned front end and freshened rear end. It’s rumored that there will also be improvements to the car’s handling dynamics. There’s better tech, including a new digital gauge cluster, automatic climate control, a new steering wheel with touch-sensitive multi-function controls. What will carryover for 2021 is the plaid-pattern seats and golf-ball-style shift knob for the manual-transmission models.

2020 VW Golf GTI

Base price: $29,515; as driven: $30,315
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 228 @ 4,700 rpm
Torque: 258 foot-pounds @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.6 inches
Length: 168.0 inches
Curb weight: 3,128 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 22.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 52.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 24 city, 32 highway, 27 combined
0-60: 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, VW Jetti GLI

The Good
• Sports car credentials
• Pleasing ride
• High-quality interior

The Bad
• Plaid seats available only on S trim

The Ugly
• All-new GTI due in 2021