Volkswagen might not have invented the hot hatch, but from the day the first Mk1 GTI rolled off the Wolfsburg line in 1975 it has become synonymous with the concept. And as ideas go, it’s a breathtakingly simple one: take a cheap front-wheel drive hatchback and then add some performance bits. A more powerful engine, better brakes, uprated suspension, and maybe a few styling tweaks to let the cognoscenti know this one is a little bit spicy.
You can blame my background for the fact that I have a huge soft spot for GTIs. There were few cars more desirable yet theoretically attainable to a young driver growing up in London in the early 1990s, though in truth the epidemic of joyriding meant insurance premiums far outside the budgets of most students. Despite this longtime fondness for the GTI, we’ve yet to review one here at Ars. I’ve raced a Mk 2, we’ve tried the more powerful, all-wheel drive Golf R (twice!), and the Jetta GLI, but the week that I just spent with a 2020 GTI is the only seat time I’ve managed in a Mk7 GTI, minus a couple of autocross runs a few years ago when Chevrolet brought one along to benchmark the handling of the Bolt EV.
And yes, I did mean to write Mk7. Although VW revealed the Mk8 Golf late last year, and briefed us on the Mk8 Golf GTI last month, that car won’t go on sale in the US until late 2021. So the Mk7 continues here into model years 2020 and 2021, in large part because the US and Canada make up 45 percent of all GTI sales now.
S, SE, Autobahn
These days, Golf GTIs come in a number of trim levels. The range starts with the $28,595 GTI S, which comes with cloth seats (in the now-traditional plaid), a 6.5-inch infotainment system, and halogen headlights. The GTI SE clocks in at $32,195, and among other upgrades adds the DCC adaptive dampers, an 8-inch infotainment system, leather seats, and LED headlights. Our test car was the GTI Autobahn, which costs $37,295 but comes fully loaded with all the bits from the SE, plus a 12-way power seat for the driver, navigation in the infotainment system, better climate control, and some advanced driver assists like adaptive cruise control, lane assist, parking sensors, and so on.
Regardless of the trim level, they all share the same 2.0L four-cylinder turbocharged, direct-injection gasoline engine, which delivers 228hp (170kW) and 258lb-ft (353Nm), resulting in 27mpg (8.71l/100km) combined, with 24mpg (9.8l/100km) in the city and 32mpg (7.35l/100km) on the highway. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but for an extra $800 a dual-clutch DSG transmission is available.
Our test car came with the latter, and to be honest I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t the three-pedal version. As I wrote in the Golf R review last year, my preference would be a manual gearbox for the GTI and flappy paddles for the R, but VW appears to spec its press fleet exactly the opposite way. As Jim Resnick found with the Jetta GLI, this combination of turbocharged engine and DSG gearbox is less than ideal, and there’s always a slight pause between giving the right pedal a poke and the front wheels responding. Conversely, when I drove a manual Jetta GLI last year I found it a much more harmonious combination. With a manual gearbox, the time I take to change gear would mask the slight hesitation as the turbocharger has to spool up. Conversely I think the flappy paddle setup would work better if the engine had a little bit more to the red line, but the EA888 engine only goes as far as 6,000rpm.
In brief, save the $800 and get a manual; you’ll enjoy it more.
As you might expect for a car in 2020, the GTI has some software-defined sportiness programmed in. There’s Normal mode, and Sport mode, which gives more direct throttle mapping and steering, and if you have a DSG gearbox, faster shifts between gears. Opt for the Autobahn GTI and the DCC adaptive dampers also contribute, getting stiffer in Sport and adding a Comfort mode, which remaps things in the other direction.
Weirdly, I preferred the car in Comfort compared to Normal or Sport, but at the same time that could be entirely psychosomatic because I also don’t think I could tell a huge difference between them. Even in various combinations in the individual settings, I never quite found one I liked as much as just leaving the car in Comfort, which suited that slightly lazy initial power delivery described above.
It’s sporty, it’s utilitarian—shouldn’t that make it an SUV?
The GTI never relinquishes its people’s car roots, even with leather bits on the seats. You notice this by the grade of plastics used in the interior, like the pebble-texture plastic of the dashboard, which is soft to the touch. The ergonomics feel sound, but the interior design is showing its age, most notably the large analogue tachometer and speedometer. While I’m complaining, it would be cool if VW offered the plaid fabric seats as an option for the SE and Autobahn, because I think they’re a lot cooler than black leather (both figuratively and literally in hot weather).
It’s still a Golf, so that means this is a practical car, with a decent cargo volume (16.5 cubic feet/467L with the back seats up, 52.7 cubic feet/1,492L with them folded flat), and room for two full-size adults or three children in the back.
The infotainment system is VW Group’s MIBII system, and while the UI isn’t as flashy as you’d encounter in an Audi or Porsche, the code underneath should be the same, and it’s really one of the best systems on the market. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on both the 6.5-inch and 8-inch units, and all GTIs now get VW’s connected Car-Net feature and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The thing that stands out most about my time with the Mk7 GTI was just how long it took me to gel with the car. If I’d written this review after four days, I’d have summed up the experience as a bit meh. Perhaps that was down to the weight of expectations, given my long backstory with VW’s iconic hot hatch. Nevertheless, by week’s end I’d found the right settings for its digital brain and made peace with the fact that the turbocharged engine feels mismatched to the DSG transmission.
But I’d still prefer it with three pedals.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin