There’s a certain kind of magic that comes with the 2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
You can feel it as soon as you nestle into the plaid-upholstered driver’s seat and grip the dimpled shift knob (because buying one with leather seats and an automatic transmission borders on a criminal offence).
Maybe it’s the way it packs the right amount of power into its compact dimensions, or how it dispels any notion of torque steer, or even the spunky character that shines through despite its distinctive German restraint. More likely, though, it’s the way all of that and more blends together in one of the most transcendent cars of its kind.
The next-gen GTI that’s on its way for 2022 will surely turn some heads for its funky front end alone. This Mk7 model is far more understated – particularly when finished in a colour like this cold-steel grey. Of course, there are the requisite red accents that help the GTI stand out from the rest of the Golf lineup, as well as twin exhaust tips around back.
Inside, the seats are covered in swathes of signature plaid upholstery, a hallmark of the very first version of this car built back in 1976. You can, of course, opt for leather in this top Autobahn trim, but why would you? The Council on the Coolness of Cars wrote into law long ago that all GTIs must be optioned with this classic Clark cloth, and certain rules simply must be respected.
A manual transmission may as well be mandatory, too. While the optional dual-clutch automatic – dubbed DSG in Volkswagen parlance – is a great gearbox in its own right, this is a car that’s meant to be driven with three pedals. The six-speed pairs perfectly with the turbocharged 2.0L tucked between the front wheels, allowing smooth runs all the way up to its 6,800-rpm redline.
Output stands at 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, all of which is sent to the front wheels with a limited-slip differential acting as an intermediary. That’s a heck of a lot of twist to put to the pavement through the front wheels alone – doubly so considering it all kicks in at just 1,500 rpm – yet the GTI is no torque-steer monster. Drop the hammer midway through a corner and the hot hatch simply claws its way through without much fuss but with a whole lot of fury.
Driving Feel: 9/10
Heel-and-toe downshifts aren’t especially easy in the GTI, but they are possible with some practice (it’s the car’s chunky plastic centre console that caused your long-legged author problems). Spiking the revs into the meaty part of the powerband – right around 4,500–5,000 rpm – is where it really comes alive, acting as the centrepiece from which the rest of this perfectly crafted sport compact is built.
With sport mode engaged via the selector button on the centre console, the eager little hatchback is superbly playful. The top trim tested here comes fitted with adaptive dampers that stiffen noticeably in their sharpest setting, though it’s either of the forgiving modes – comfort and normal – that provide more car control by leaning into the suspension.
The brakes bite hard with anything more than a breath applied to the pedal, allowing the vehicle’s weight to shift forward on the softer dampers. Get on the gas at apex and the load will quickly move backward as the motor muscles the 1,417-kg (3,124-lb) GTI back into a straight line.
Steering has never been among Volkswagen’s strengths and it shows here. It’s not that the electrically power-assisted system isn’t responsive, but it’s the lack of feel and feedback that leads to some guesswork as to which direction the wheels are pointed during spirited cornering. Even in its sportiest setting the GTI’s steering wouldn’t exactly be described as sharp.
User Friendliness: 8/10
It’s also odd that in a performance car like this there’s no way to fully defeat the traction and stability control nannies in order to launch hard from a standing start. Sure, the instrument cluster will claim traction control has been shut off, but as soon as you dump the clutch and the tires start to spin, the assistants kick back in, killing power in the process. That leaves slipping the clutch as the only viable alternative, causing unnecessary wear to the clutch plate in the process – though it is effective.
But where the GTI truly shines is in its duality. Because as soon as the various drive settings are dialled back it operates like any old gas-powered Golf. Its demeanour switches from raucous to relaxed, gently cruising like the commuter car on which it’s based. The suspension damping is smooth enough to rival the Toyota Corolla as one of the best in the class, while the sterile steering pays dividends, adding to the laid-back disposition.
The cabin is a commute-friendly space, too. While the trio of rear headrests obstructs the view through the back glass, this hatchback benefits from big windows all around that provide outstanding outward visibility. Occupants of varying stature can also configure the driver’s seat to best suit their needs, while controls on the steering wheel and centre stack provide convenient access to all manner of features and functions.
Volkswagen’s infotainment interface isn’t the best out there, with a few quirky nuances – hitting the “Phone” shortcut doesn’t call up Apple CarPlay when a device is connected, for example – but the eight-inch touchscreen it runs through is responsive and boasts a crisp and bright display. The standard CarPlay and Android Auto connections are handy, too, though plugging the requisite cable into the cabin’s lone USB port is something of a challenge. Located in the narrow cubby ahead of the gear shifter, those with large hands are advised to exercise patience as they attempt to get connected.
That there’s only one USB port in the entire cabin is a testament to the car’s age (there are a pair of 12-volt power outlets inside, too). Ditto the steering wheel, which isn’t offered with supplementary heat, though heated front seats are standard. So, too, is a dual-zone automatic climate control system and that eight-inch infotainment system.
Plenty of other practical items are packed in, too, like rain-sensing wipers, heated washer nozzles (German ingenuity at its finest), and fully automatic LED exterior lighting. Moving up to the loaded version adds stuff like steering-responsive headlights, keyless entry and push-button start, an upgraded stereo, a panoramic sunroof, and upgraded 18-inch alloy wheels (17-inch alloys are standard).
There’s also a package that can be added to the GTI that includes all kinds of advanced safety and driver-assist aids. Adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, forward automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, and even a self-parking system that works with forward and reverse perpendicular parking, and getting into and out of parallel spots.
The need for a self-parking system in a car as small as this is debatable, with the short and squat hatchback incredibly easy to manoeuvre – excellent for around town. It punches well above its weight when it comes time to pack the GTI full of people and stuff, however, with a roomy cabin and generous cargo space. It’s no Golf wagon, but the trunk is big enough to pack full of gear for a weekend away. It also benefits from a centre pass-through in the rear seat (more of that clever German creativity at work) to accommodate longer items like skis while still allowing four people to fit inside comfortably.
The GTI’s cabin is generally just a good place to spend time. While so many other compact cars are loaded with cheap plastic panels, the materials here look and feel far superior. No, it’s not quite on a premium level, but it’s not far from something like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class either.
When wrapped in cloth upholstery, the GTI’s seats remain among the most comfortable on the market, managing to gobble up endless hours of driving with few complaints. Then there’s that ride quality that rivals the best in the segment, while outside interference is mostly kept at bay. Again, it’s part of the split personality of this benchmark-setting sport compact; it’s sporty and agile when called upon, but it can be quiet and comfortable, too.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
If there was one area the Volkswagen GTI could use some work it would be how much gas it sucks back. It’s no surprise that spirited driving is met with more substantial consumption, but despite efforts to keep it reasonable, a weeklong test ended at about 9.5 L/100 km over the course of a little more than 750 km. That’s worse than the combined 8.7 L/100 km it’s rated for by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) despite most of those kilometres being racked up on the highway.
The NRCan guide claims the GTI runs on regular-grade gasoline, yet the owner’s manual recommends premium in order to ensure it’s making peak output, which is a fairly significant cost increase to account for. (It’s not the only sport compact to call for higher-grade gas, with both the Honda Civic Si and Subaru WRX also requiring the expensive stuff.)
With or without the increased fuel bill, the sweet spot in the GTI lineup lies with its base model. Priced at just $30,845 before freight and taxes, it’s a downright bargain. The only item missing from its performance repertoire is the adjustable damper system; otherwise, everything else is there.
Adding the automatic transmission is another $1,400 – inexpensive, but not how this car is best enjoyed. Stepping up to the Autobahn trim, meanwhile, adds significantly to the selling price, with the manual version ringing in at $36,745. The driver assistance stuff pushed the price of the model tested here to $40,280 before tax. It’s not exactly eye-popping, but that’s a lot of money for a compact car, sport or otherwise. Ultimately, sticking to the base version of the Volkswagen GTI delivers one of the finest all-around packages currently available on the new car market.
At the end of the day, a lot of what makes the GTI so special is tied to the fact it still feels like a Volkswagen Golf, just cranked up to another level. And really, that’s what a sport compact car should feel like. As this niche segment has gotten better, faster, and more sophisticated, a lot of the connection to the cars on which they’re based has been lost. But when you drive this GTI, it’s plain to see exactly where it came from.
The Mk8 model will no doubt be better in its own ways, because that’s generally how this business works. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s not forget the car that raised the bar yet again for what a hot hatch is capable of.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I4|
|Peak Horsepower||228 hp @ 4,700 rpm|
|Peak Torque||258 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||9.8 / 7.3 / 8.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||645 / 1,492 L seats up/down|
|Model Tested||2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI|
|Price as Tested||$40,280|
$1,750 – Driver Assistance Package, $1,750