When I drove the Mk 7 Golf and GTI last year, I was happy that the GTI was only slightly better than the outgoing model.
For a start, the Mk 6 GTI was a great drive, but more importantly, I have one of them and if the new one was vastly better I was afraid I’d burst into tears every time I got into my car.
That wasn’t the case. The base GTI feels a little lighter than the old car and the engine’s bump in torque makes it much more flexible and power more immediate. It’s basically a Mk 6 that’s 10 percent better.
But what if you add the Performance Package? That brings 10 more horsepower, for a total of 220, as well as a mechanical limited-slip front differential. And then throw in both the adaptive dampers and, controversially, the DSG dual-clutch transmission instead of the six-speed manual?
All of these add-ons make the car better here and there. And the percentages start to add up.
Play, but look like a grownup
I’d call the Golf GTI the most polished car I’ve driven this year, but 2015 hasn’t exactly gifted me Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
But every time I pressed the start button and turned the wheel, though, the polish teamed with sharpness shocked me. This is a damn good car for every road. Which means it puts a smile on your face everywhere you go.
I call the DSG controversial because plenty of people bemoan a car like this is even available with a self-shifting option. But I’m of the belief that you’re probably making the GTI worse by trying to change the gears by yourself. Even in gotta-get-to-sixth D mode, pushing the right pedal down quickly woke it up and got power.
It isn’t without its faults. DSG is irritating at slow speeds, never quite delivering an appropriate level of power for stop-and-go traffic. It’s also an $1,100 option that could be spent elsewhere. But the net gain is, probably, 10 percent better to live with than the three-pedal setup.
My favorite thing to do was to put the selectable driving modes all GTIs come with in Sport, but put the transmission in normal D mode. Sport makes things a tad skittish for everyday driving, but the DCC adaptive dampers do work to keep everything tied down, but the ride compliant. It’s, perhaps, 10 percent better than the standard car. There’s no hint of torque steer, either. This is the car for anyone who still vilifies front-wheel drive.
The GTI is special because it manages a trick unlike any other car. Its abilities encourage you to press harder and drive faster, but its refinement and solidity mutter at you the entire time, “Grow the f—k up.”
The car you’ll love to explain
Someone, who drove a Scion tC – I’ll leave it at that, once asked me if the GTI was a nerd’s car. I said yes and left it at that, because I find that term endearing and the GTI is a car you’re always going to have to explain to non-car people.
Well, it’s a Golf, but with the bigger engine. And the bigger brakes. And bigger wheels…
You’ll get the concise wording down eventually.
VW of America could have added a single external difference to the Performance pack cars, but all GTIs regardless of trim level look pretty much the same now. And that makes the case for getting a base S with Performance Pack for less than $27,000. You’ll get the awesome plaid seats, but give up a sunroof. SE gets you that, but forces you to accept dour black leather, ridding the interior of any personality. “We make it easy for you” is not one of VW’s retired marketing slogans.
I wish paying more money could rid you of the VW infotainment system that’s so shockingly slow and crunchy to look at. The backup camera is grainy. Trying to adjust the radio volume overwhelms the system from start. It’s not until you’re three blocks past your house that the compass and navigation system finally calibrates. Ten points from Wolfsburg.
And the voice recognition system didn’t understand any destination in Southern California that sounded vaguely Spanish unless I spoke like Alicia Silverstone. You’re not finding my Clueless impersonations anywhere on the Internet.
40 years of lessons
But the GTI is so good that it really is possible to put aside the quibbles of confounding electronics and option packages. Once you’ve given up on the nav, you say, “I don’t care where I’m going,” and just go.
The Performance Package is worth the money, period. I’d give up on the Autobahn trim, but it scores a few percentage points for the immensely comfy power driver’s seat and automatic climate control. The leather chairs are actually quite comfy, too, even if they lack personality.
At $34,280, a four-door GTI Autobahn with Performance Package, DCC and DSG isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s kind of a lot of money for a small hatchback. And I’d probably add another $995 for the xenon headlamps.
But take into account the GTI is also priced about 10 percent better than the mechanically similar Audi A3. Aside from the Audi having a radio/navigation system that actually works, the price hike isn’t worth it in my book.
I’ve already been on the record saying the original GTI is dead and never coming back – it’s a fact and crusty auto pundits need to accept it. But the qualities that made that old Golf (or Rabbit) GTI so playful and fizzy are present and accounted for in this new one.
I’d say VW gave 140 percent here.
(VW provided me with this GTI for a week and when I said I wanted to love it and keep it forever, they said no and made me give it back.)
Photos: Zac Estrada / Carscoops