VW’s GTI packs plenty of performance, even with an automatic …
Volkswagen fans know all about the Golf GTI, the sporty hatchback has been a mainstay performance friendly version of its compact runabout for 40 years.
Golfs (and Rabbits) have been VW’s go-to entry-level car basically since the original Beetle was discontinued in the US in 1979. While this current version looks crisply styled, to be honest, Golf styling has remained somewhat like that of the Porsche 911, consistent through the decades.
What changes, naturally, is all the interior features, the safety gear, along with the engine and tranny.
This GTI S has more power, a more modern dash and interior, plus a 7-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic (manual-shift) feature. One can argue all of that is both good and, well …
Let’s start with the big positive, the 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, same as in the Jetta sedan Autobahn model I tested last year. It cranks a generous 241 horsepower with 273 pound-feet of torque. That’s sufficient to jazz this hatch to 100 on a highway entry ramp, but be sure to select the Sport drive mode. It changes shift points for faster acceleration.
The Comfort setting is fine most of the time and Eco is good when trying to stretch mileage. Note too that there’s considerable turbo lag upon acceleration in these two modes.
If power to the pavement is your goal then you’ll certainly want to use the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. With those you can manually control shift points and really rev this sweet-sounding engine to the max for quicker picker upper power. In Sport mode the exhaust tone also sounds throaty, a win for those who enjoy hearing their car engine flex its muscles.
An even better solution, for the power hungry, is a 6-speed manual transmission, which is standard and saves a buyer $800 over the automatic. Ironically the automatic (thanks to computerization) is more efficient than the manual, so is rated at 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway by the EPA. I managed 29.6 mpg and the turbo drinks regular unleaded.
Folks with a little more cash and a craving for more oomph can move up to the Golf R with AWD, an adaptive suspension, and an amazing 315 horsepower from its turbo I4. Entry price is $44,390. The R comes only in red or gray.
Watch our video: https://youtu.be/wMzaRqZhFgA
The tested S model, the entry-level GTI, was Reflex Silver Metallic, a bright silver. Naturally there’s GTI badging and the seats also carry the GTI moniker, as does the flat-bottom steering wheel.
While power is impressive, it’s the handling that likely will sell sporty hatch aficionados on GTI. Steering is light and responsive and allows a driver to aim and shoot for any corner’s apex. The chassis here is well tuned for fluid handling and stability in corners.
Then there’s the ride. As with many VW’s and German makes, the sporty nature of the car leads to a firm (some might call it stiff) ride. That isn’t an issue on most highways, but around town it can be a bit wearing. Note too, if you like most of this package, but prefer a somewhat better ride, the VW Jetta sedan’s wheelbase is a couple inches longer.
Inside? Well, I remember wearing plaid pants in the 1970s and when the Golf GTI first came out it followed the fashion trend with cloth plaid seats to distinguish it from other models, not to mention it displayed how hip and trendy the GTI was. Well, VW continues the tradition, for better or worse. The gray and red plaid on the black cloth seats looks nice now, but I’d question how long before an owner might tire of the swingin’ ’70s look. I’m sure Austin Powers would approve.
Whatever you think of its look, the seats are extremely supportive and comfortable with major side bolsters on both cushions. Seats are manual to save weight and include a pump handle to raise or lower the seats. Ironically though, the seat backs are powered. Front seats also are heated.
The black interior does feature some red stitching on the steering wheel and a few accents to those plaid seats. Dash and door trim is a flat black mesh pattern and the console and shifter are surrounded by shiny gloss black trim, a reflection catcher on sunny days.
The dash is all digital now although the infotainment screen remains on the small side, not to mention (but I will) that it is overly complex to say the least. It took me half a day to get the radio to offer me channels to select from, and then the Favorites feature did not work like any I’ve experienced before, necessitating manually adjusting to the station if I’d moved on to another. First world problem? Yes, but not user friendly and not something you want to fiddle with while driving.
Also, the radio tuning and volume knobs are tiny.
Speaking of which, the transmission shift lever on the console is also wee, requiring just a finger tap or flick to change gears. I’d prefer something more substantial.
I love the VW flat-bottom steering wheel as it looks sporty, like the car, and also provides a bit more legroom, a help to taller drivers. But us short folks will prefer to flip up the manual tilt/telescope steering wheel to get in and out of the car as the steering column is quite deep so can be quite the right knee thumper when entering or exiting.
Note too that VW now puts all the light functions on a touchpad on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, which was fine because it’s rarely used if set to automatic. However, the climate controls and drive modes are on another touchpad below the info screen. That occasionally adjusted itself without me touching it, so not sure if it was motion sensitive or just a road vibration set it off. But a couple times the climate control fan jumped to high speed.
On the brighter side, VW includes a wireless charger under the center stack, plus a couple plug-ins.
Rear seat room is moderate, yet enough that four adults can zip about, but comfort dictates this is primarily a two-person vehicle. The rear seats split and fold flat, but there’s a goodly amount of cargo space under the hatch before folding the seats. I like hatches too because most, like the Golf, have a rear window wiper, a benefit in Wisconsin’s climate.
The GTI S is the base model here, starting at $31,625 with a 6-speed manual. This was the automatic version and listed at $32,425, including delivery. There were no options added.
One might consider moving up to the SE trim at $36,425. For the extra cash it adds a sunroof, fancy 480-watt Harman Kardon stereo, and an illuminated grille for some spiff.
A special 40th Anniversary trim sneaks in between these models at $34,150 and offers some additional graphics.
Move all the way up to the Autobahn trim and get 19-inch wheels vs. 18-inchers on S and SE, plus the SE added features. Price grows to $40,165. To compare with similar models look at the Mazda 3, Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Elantra N.
VW pricing is smartly value-oriented for a sporty entry-level hatch, until you get to the higher trim levels or go crazy and bump up to the high-horse R models. Your call, but for fun’s sake, do get a manual tranny!
FAST STATS: 2023 VW Golf GTI 2.0T S
Hits: Sporty handling, good power when using paddle shifters, nice engine tone, heated well-shaped seats, flat-bottom steering wheel, wireless charger, big cargo area, rear wiper, value pricing and decent gas mileage.
Misses: Firm ride, turbo lag on acceleration, overly complex radio tuning and info screen, plaid seats, tiny finger shift lever, climate controls sometimes activate themselves, steering column so deep knees hit it when exiting the car.
Made in: Wolfsburg, Germany
Engine: 2.0-liter turbo I4, 241 hp/273 torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic w/Tiptronic
Weight: 3,206 lbs.
Wheelbase: 103.6 in.
Length: 168.8 in.
Cargo: 19.9/34.5 cu.ft.
MPG: 29.6 (tested)
Base Price: $32,425
Major Options: None
Test vehicle: $32,425
Sources: VW, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage