REVIEW: I’ve fallen in and out of love with the VW GTI — but the 44-year-old hot hatch can still work its magic on me

VW GTI
VW GTI

 

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is a legend. It's the car that created the "hot hatch" category back in the 1980s. But its triple-threat — small, fast, and surprisingly versatile — has been supplanted in the US over the past 10 years by consumer preference for larger vehicles. SUVs and pickups sell. Compact hatches don't. 

So my recent test of the 2020 GTI forced me to grapple with how a great car can fall out of favor, even when it's as good as it's ever been.

Basically, the Volkswagen Golf is everything the American auto market doesn't want right now: a modest car with room for ... let's call it four, uncomfortably, less-than-awesome cargo capacity, and a relatively teensy engine. But when the Golf arrived, it was a revelation. 

Introduced in 1974, it succeeded the Beetle as the VW people's car, and for Americans already educated in the virtues of German engineering, an object of desire. Easy on gas, fairly reliable, fun to drive — who needed a V8 and eight mpg?

VW GTI
VW GTI

By 1983, when I got my license, the performance-happy, GTI version of the Golf had arrived in the US, after captivating the European enthusiast crowd for about a decade. I wanted one. My friends wanted one. By the early days of the Reagan administration, it was possible to be a complete snob about VW's hot hatch. Why pay more for performance? The GTI offered all the punch required, and the popularity of what was then called the Rabbit — later rechristened the Golf, to match the Euro designation — had established the boxy liftback as a player.

Outgrowing the GTI, but coming back

VW GTI
VW GTI

I never owned a GTI, but I got my share of rides. Then the mood changed. Hatches gave way to wagons and then to SUVs. The 2020 equivalent of the Golf for most customers is the VW Tiguan crossover. The Golf, in assorted variants, has sold capably in the US for the past ten years, at times breaching 60,000 annual units, but lately falling below 40,000. 

Then VW loaned me a GTI "Autobahn," at $38,215 the top trim of the aging icon. (The base GTI S is about $30,000.)

VW GTI
VW GTI

The GTI is a light, lively, even jittery thing, throwing power to the front wheels in quick, turbocharged surges and often advertising its sporty insubstantial-ness. 

But after a day or two, the inverted learning curve kicked in, and I remember why the GTI has been beloved: because it's a light, lively, even jittery thing, throwing power to the front wheels in quick, turbocharged surges and often advertising its sporty insubstantial-ness. 

Once we were reacquainted, the Grand Tourer Injection (back in the day, fuel injection was a so tremendous an innovation that automakers touted it in their cars' monikers) and I settled into a familiar pattern: I hunted down corners, and the GTI made them a reason for being. 

Minus the front-wheel-drive, this is what driving a sports car is supposed to feel like. I mean, I like the new Porsche 911 4S about as much as I like coffee — which is to say I couldn't live without it — but just try to unsettle the masterpiece from Stuttgart.

VW GTI
VW GTI

The GTI's 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder powerplant makes 228 horsepower with 258 pound-feet of torque, piping the thrust through a seven-speed automatic transmission. (A six-speed manual is available, and I sure wished I had been testing that.) This car tips the scales at just over 3,100 lbs. so the power-to-weight ratio is a formula for tossability. 

The 0 to 60 mph dash clocks in at less than six seconds, en route to a 155 mph top speed. This is why the GTI has been fun forever and remains one of the best cars I've ever taken around a race track. For less than $40,000, I can be as engaged as Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel of his Mercedes F1 ride.

VW GTI
VW GTI

Amid the moderately frightening joy, one periodically remembers that this isn't a MINI John Cooper Works or a Mazda Miata. You've got a back seat — it's snug, but still — and a perfectly reasonable 17 cubic feet of cargo area at the stern, 54 cubic feet with the rear seats dropped. You could plausibly use the GTI as a "family car," as long as your family is composed mostly of travel-light pre-tweens. 

My test car, unfortunately, had an all-white exterior, punctuated only with dashes of red here and there, a motif that was echoed in the red highlights of the black interior. This is a stately combo, but I'd probably drop down to a lower trim and get the glorious plaid upholstery that has made the vee-dub not just one of the best values in performance motoring but also one of the kookiest cars on the road. The opportunities for pattern-clash, unless your wardrobe is undertaker-inspired, are endless.

The GTI stands alone, sort of

VW GTI
VW GTI

Competition for the GTI sparks an awkward analysis. The Honda Civic Type R offers a 21st-century take on youthful exuberance, while the GTI continues to evoke the 1970s. Other performance cars that are easy on the budget have two doors and two seats (the Toyota Supra, for instance). The GTI isn't utterly sui generis, but I tend to think of it in a class of one. 

Bear in mind, too, that while the GTI's 24 mpg city/32 highway/27 combined fuel-economy rating looks good on paper, the machine doesn't invite you to drive it conservatively and therefore could lead to a few more fill-ups than planned. I burned up most of a tank in a week's worth of bold motoring around the New Jersey suburbs.

VW GTI
VW GTI

Build quality and fit-and-finish are excellent. The exterior design — for the seventh generation of the mighty Golf — is extremely familiar (gen eight launched last year, but the GTI version won't land until 2021). The GTI is a streamlined little box, nothing fancy. Some character lines and an angular fascia add panache, but I'm being charitable. You don't really need to dress up to get behind the wheel. 

Inside, the appointments are classic VW, smack in between mass-market and luxury. Everything is studiously nice, nothing is notably special. On the plus side, you won't weep if you spill some coffee or skip the vacuuming for a month to two. If you don't like it, buy a Buick. (My Autobahn trim did swap the pleather for actual hides, to give credit where due.)

VW GTI
VW GTI

The fronts are heated and intended to grab hold of your haunches when you indulge the GTI's addiction to curves. The rear is a bench, and feels like a bench. I was able to accustom myself to it, but beware: I'm not tall, and anybody even slightly larger than me, including two of my family members, would be entitled to complain. 

The infotainment technology is medium-wattage, based on a responsive central touchscreen (the Fender premium audio system, by the way, is a gem). It gets the job done, neither visually thrilling nor needlessly complicated. The assumption among automakers is that you have to deliver the goods with these setups nowadays or risk alienating younger customers, but the GTI is one of those traditionally youthful cars that can actually be enjoyed without being plugged into the grid.

VW GTI
VW GTI

The best way to consider the interior overall is to put yourself in the mindset of a European designer in the postwar period: opulence was out, rebuilding society, in a spirit of shared peace and prosperity, was in.

That makes the Golf GTI a reassuring essay in frugality, leaving out what isn't required and maximizing utility in a small vehicle intended for road systems that could date to the Roman Empire. 

VW GTI
VW GTI

You could consider it boring, and if you don't harbor affections for small-ish hatchbacks, you should focus your attention on the more serious people haulers that industry has given us since the late 1980s and 1990s. 

Well-mannered wild thing

VW GTI
VW GTI

It's hard to get away from the GTI's demeanor: apply the power and once you're in third gear, the chassis starts that bouncy thing. More power, more bounce. 

But that's about it for the seat-of-the-pants part of the story. There's no meaningful understeer, and the suspension rapidly absorbs and mitigates what little torque steer the four-banger generates under hard acceleration. 

VW GTI
VW GTI

There isn't enough power to worry about the brakes not being up to the task. Steering is bliss, ideally balanced, and matched to the GTI's need for a lot of little micro-adjustments.

There are five drive modes to play with: Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Custom. Too much choice. You bought a GTI. Stick to Sport.

VW GTI
VW GTI

An icon, a classic, and still impossible to beat for the price

I'm a lucky guy. I get to drive nearly every high-performance automobile that shapes the dreams of drivers everywhere. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Porsches, Corvettes, Mustangs, BMW M cars, Mercedes-AMGs. On and on.

But in that exalted company, the GTI remains special. It's incredibly good and incredibly cheap. If you think it through, it's all the car most folks need, if you want some fun combined with versatility and a lack of styling bravado.

The GTI costs well under $50,000, completely tricked out, and it can be used for everything from daily commutes to school drop offs to grocery store runs to medium-length road trips, and even hot laps (with some sticky performance tires). 

The Golf could be going away in the US market, but the GTI and Golf R will remain, in the upcoming eighth generation iterations. 

Few vehicles could claim a greater prerogative to fade away with dignity and reputation, as the US is conquered by SUVs and pickups. But the GTI continues to carry the banner it always has: driving should be an absolute blast, every single day, and it shouldn't cost very much at all.

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