Over the past four decades, Volkswagen has seen many models come and go, including the iconic Beetle, the enthusiast favorite Scirocco, and the much-maligned Fox. But one model has managed to weather the ever-changing preferences of the American car buyer: the Golf GTI.
It’s easy to see why, as the car is a blast to drive. While the GTI certainly isn’t the fastest hatchback on the road, it is by far the most practical. It’s aggressive, but not obnoxious; It’s pricey, but not unaffordable. In the 2019 model, the GTI gets an 8 hp bump to 228hp, and great driver assistance tech makes it all the way down to the base model, including forward collision warning and pedestrian detection with automatic braking, and blind spot monitoring with rear traffic alert.
The Base GTI S starts at $28,490 (the driver assistance tech is a $450 option), while the special Rabbit Edition comes in at $29,790 adding LED headlights, keyless access with push-button start, and an exclusive and sharp Urano Grey and Cornflower Blue paint option. Stepping up to the SE for $32,690 adds a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, and an 8” touchscreen infotainment system. You can opt for the Experience package with the SE, which adds the great sounding Fender premium audio system and dynamic chassis control to customize ride experience for an additional $860.
The top-of-the-line Autobahn gives you everything plus adaptive cruise and dual-climate control for $36,890, but if you’re looking to spend that kind of money on a hatchback, we’d argue the Golf R is a better option all around for about $4,000 more.
We chose to test the SE with the Experience Package over the Rabbit Edition to get the better seats, that impressive panoramic sunroof, and better tech inside and out. MSRP on our test model was $33,550.
Interior and exterior design
The current design of the GTI is somewhat long in the tooth, as we’re nearing the end of the model generation. Regardless, the MK7 GTI finally strikes a balance between aerodynamics and the traditional hard lines of a Volkswagen exterior. This is what gives Volkswagens their personality, and it’s what Volkswagens lost in their unimaginative bubble-like exteriors and interiors of the mid-to-late 2000s.
In the Mk7, ystill get the trademark red lines across the grill and front fascia, extending across the bottom of the headlights. A sportier suspension sits the GTI a little over a half inch lower to the ground than its Golf brethren, and when combined with now standard limited slip differential and larger brakes means you’ll be able to drive this car aggressively without fear of body roll or losing control.
On the inside, while we miss the trademark GTI Clark Plaid seats in the SE (this previously was an option), the leather seats are comfortable and of good quality, accented with red stitching. The interior makes good use of a small space, and in this smaller interior the 8” touchscreen looks sizeable – although the 6.5” screen found in the Rabbit Edition we also got a look at was underwhelming, especially in a car this expensive.
The 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI constantly monitors your surroundings.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and the infotainment system sports an easy-to-use menu system navigable via steering wheel controls, with select information including navigation displayed in the center display so you’ll be able to keep your eyes in front of you.
While the interior might feel a little cramped, especially in the backseat, it’s because you’re getting an expansive cargo area in the rear for a hatchback. The rear seats fold down nearly flat, offering plenty of storage space.
The decision to make driver assistance tech standard (or a cheap option for S buyers) is a great call. This is not just limited to a rear backup camera: the car constantly monitors your surroundings, applying the brakes if you appear to be heading for a collision, and warning you if you’re drifting out of a lane or if a vehicle is in your blind spot.
These alerts are both auditory and visual, either in the center dash display or illuminated alerts on your side mirrors for the blind spot detection.
But the car’s tech is not only limited to improving your driving, the infotainment system with integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allows you to use select apps right from your car radio, and Car-Net allows you to lock and unlock your car via VW’s app, and automatic crash detection will have help should you end up in an accident.
The Car-Net app is certainly a low point – it isn’t well designed and is often laggy. But in a pinch it works. Just.
What can we say about driving the GTI other than it will put a smile on your face. In an aggressive test drive, we whipped the car around some of Pennsylvania’s windy roads, and at no time did we feel like the car was getting away from us. While certainly a bit of a stiffer ride than the Jetta or the Golf (you’ll feel those Pennsylvania potholes more, too), it’s not uncomfortable by any means.
In highway driving, you’ll appreciate the responsiveness when making a quick pass, and those driver assistance features come in handy in traffic and busy city streets – although you’ll enjoy this car much more out on the open road, that’s for sure.
For the driving performance of the GTI, we’ll take the middling fuel economy.
Acceleration is smooth and spirited and the exhaust note sounds great for a stock car. For a sportier feel, we’d appreciate a little less clutch and shift travel – but it’s more of an annoyance than a deal breaker.
One area that might be a bit of an annoyance is the fuel economy. From our experience and what we’ve gathered, you should expect about 27mpg on average – which is a bit on the low side for its class, and with the need for premium gas, may put a dent in your pocketbook.
But for the driving performance of the GTI, we’ll take the middling fuel economy. This car isn’t meant to be Sunday driven anyway.
Up until recently, we would have mentioned the Focus ST as perhaps the closest American-made car to the GTI, however the Focus is no longer available in the US. Perhaps the next best alternative currently out would be the Hyundai Veloster N, which we got to take a look at late last year.
The Veloster N has a more power (23 hp to be exact) at its base model, you’ll get the limited slip differential, and it’s got a fair amount of tech for its $27,820 base MSRP. It’s biggest issues however is a lack of refinement. We would recommend test driving both if you’re in the market for a performance hatchback, though.
Peace of mind
Yes, Volkswagens certainly has a reputation for issues in reliability, but the GTI seems to survive these rumors pretty well. That said, Volkswagen’s six-year 72,000 mile warranty is pretty generous. We’d also opt for the Car-Net just in case, which will set you back $199 for the year. Monthly and lifetime plans are also available, and you get a six-month trial with any new car purchase.
Thanks to our Pennsylvania potholes and a crappy stock jack that is a pain to use, we’ve used this service far too often on our own VWs. Service response times are outstanding. In our three service calls, we’ve never waited more than 30 minutes.
How DT would configure this car
We’d skip the basic S model and the gimmicky Rabbit Edition, opting instead for the SE with the larger touchscreen infotainment system, great driver assistance features, and that stunning panoramic sunroof.
Those planning to drive the car more aggressively will benefit from looking for an SE model with the Experience package to gain the dynamic chassis control. The better sound system is worth it: there is a noticeable difference in sound quality. Our dream GTI configuration would be the one we drove, but perhaps in Tornado Red – the red is VERY sharp looking.
Volkswagen is busy planning its next generation GTI – due in Europe later this year and here in America in 2020. But in this final year for the MK7 generation, there’s enough here to give a good enough reason to make the jump a year early. You’re getting a little more power and an overall more refined car.
But regardless of whether this is this generation’s swan song, it doesn’t take away from Volkswagen’s continuing success in making the GTI one of the most enjoyable cars to drive. That makes it’s now nearly $30,000+ price tag for a decent feature set bearable.
Should you get one?
If you’re a fan of European cars and looking for a sporty yet affordable ride, the GTI stands alone in its capability to mix performance, price, and functionality into an attractive package. They’ve gotten almost everything right in this generation, and it will be hard to top.