2018 VW GTI

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The  VW GTI hatchback sedan doesn’t look like a Corvette, but it reminds me of one.

Not a new one.

My high school buddy’s 1978 L-82 coupe

The GTI has a 220 hp engine. So did my friend’s Corvette.

Both engines make almost exactly the same torque, too: 258 ft.-lbs. for the VW’s vs. 260 ft.-lbs. for the Chevy’s.

This is interesting given the VW’s engine is a 2.0 liter four and only about a third the size of the Corvette’s 5.7 liter V8.

A gulf of 40 years separates these cars.

One’s American muscle, two doors and rear-wheel-drive; the other’s German, front-wheel-drive and a hatchback sedan.

And yet you end up with something similar.

WHAT IT IS

The GTI is a hotted-up version of VW’s popular Golf four-door hatchback – though not quite as hotted-up as the 292 hp and all-wheel-drive Golf R hatchback (reviewed separately, here).

It comes with a larger, more powerful 2.0 liter turbo four in place of the Golf’s 1.8 liter four – along with upgraded wheels and tires, high-capacity brakes, dual exhaust, a sport-tuned suspension and different exterior/interior trim.  

Base price is $26,415 for the S trim with a six-speed manual transmission.

With the available six-speed automated manual (DSG) transmission, the price rises to $27,515.

A top-of-the-line Autobahn edition with an adaptive four-mode suspension, larger diameter rear stabilizer bar, navigation, automatic climate control and trim upgrades stickers for $35,070 with the manual transmission and $36,170 with the automated manual transmission.

The main cross-shops now that the  MazdaSpeed3 is no longer available are the Ford Focus ST and Honda Civic Si – both of which come only with a manual transmission.

And the Subaru WRX.

The Ford – like the VW – is only available in four-door hatchback form. Base price is $26,045.

The Subaru is only available as a sedan. Its base price is $26,995.

The Honda is available three ways: You can go with the two-door coupe, three-door hatchback or the sedan.

Base price is $24,100.

WHAT’S NEW

All GTI trims come standard with the 220 hp engine upgrade which was optional last year.

SE and Autobahn trims get a larger LCD touchscreen and LED headlights.

WHAT’S GOOD

As much power – and better performance – than a ’78 Corvette, with twice-plus the seating capacity (and gas mileage).

Four door/hatchback layout is practical. Plenty of leg, head and cargo room. The WRX sedan has a small trunk.

Go manual – or automatic (Focus ST/Civic Si are manual-only).

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Four door hatchback-only layout . . . in the U.S. (In Europe, you can buy a two-door hatchback GTI).

Honda Civic Si costs about $2,300 less to start.

Subaru WRX comes standard with AWD; the GTI and all the others come only with FWD.

UNDER THE HOOD

The GTI’s powerplant is a 2.0 liter turbo four making 220 hp and 258 ft.-lbs. at 1,500 RPM. You can go with a six-speed manual or VW’s six-speed Direct Shift (DSG) dual-clutch automated manual.

Either way, the GTI is the speediest car in its class .

Speedier, even, than the stronger-engined (262 hp) Subaru WRX and Ford Focus ST (252 hp).

It gets to 60 in 5.9 seconds 6.2 for the WRX and 6.4 seconds for the Ford ST. 

The why has to do with weight.

The Subaru – which weighs a stout 3,272 lbs. (vs. 3,031 lbs. for the GTI) has the excuse of being AWD. The extra driveline parts bulk it up vs. the FWD-only VW and also give it a handling and traction edge.

But the 3,223 lb. and FWD-only Focus ST is just heavy.

Nearly as heavy as my high school friend’s Corvette – which weighed 3,500 lbs. – and the ‘Vette had the excuse of a massive (and massively heavy) cast iron V8 engine under its hood.

The new Honda Civic Si is lighter than all of them – just 2,923 lbs. – but it hasn’t got as much power as the VW – and a lot less torque. Its turbo 1.5 liter engine makes 205 hp (close) but only 192 ft.-lbs. of torque (not even close).

Zero to 60 takes about 6.7 seconds.

Interestingly, the VW’s best gas mileage rating (25 city, 33 highway) is achieved with the manual transmission – as used to be the case generally – but is generally the opposite now.

Usually – in a new car – the automatic-equipped version will score higher on the EPA’s test loop because it can be programmed to the test.

Kind of like coaching kids for SOL testing.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the automatic will deliver better MPGs in the real world – especially if you know what you’re doing with a third pedal.

In this case, though, the manual edges out the automated manual on the EPA’s tests: 25 city, 33 highway vs. 24 city, 32 highway for the automated manual.

But the car is quickest with the automated manual – and you get rev-matched downshifts, too. 

No matter which way you go, you’ll get a 13.2 gallon gas tank – which gives you about an extra gallon of gas vs. the Ford’s just over 12 gallon tank, which works out to an extra 50-ish miles of range in between fill-ups when you also take into account the Ford’s 22 city, 30 highway mileage rating.

The new Civic has the smallest tank of the bunch – 12.4 gallons – but its gas mileage is also the highest of the bunch and not by just a little bit: 28 city, 38 highway.

That’s within 2-3 MPG of the mileage you get out of the best economy cars currently available.

And – for the historical record – a 1987 Corvette averaged about 14 MPG and did 0-60 in about 6.5 seconds.

ON THE ROAD

It’d be interesting to teleport back to 1986 and line up the GTI against my high school friend’s ‘Vette.

Well, revelatory.

If the VW’s turbo four were about the same size as the V8 in my buddy’s Corvette, it’d be making in the neighborhood of 640 hp. That’s a measure of how much they’re squeezing out of little engines today. And how little they were squeezing out of big engines back when I was in high school in the ’80s.

Squeeze, by the way, is just the right word.

The GTI’s turbo pumps as much as 30 psi of pressurized air into the 2.0 liter four. That’s a whole lot more air than a four barrel Quadrajet could suck down into the cylinders of my buddy’s 5.7 liter 350.

You can watch the boost build by pushing the “car” button on the right-hand side of the LCD display; this dials up a digital three-pack accessory gauge cluster, which also includes a lateral G meter to measure cornering forces.

But you’ll know by feel that this is a big boost engine. Hit it and the tires claw the asphalt like a bear trying to rip open a mummy bag full of sleeping camper.

All the way through second gear, it’s a tussle for traction.

This thing does a better burnout than my friend’s ’78 Corvette.

Which is also a function of the torque it makes.

The L-82 350 in my buddy’s Corvette only made 260 ft.-lbs. and didn’t make it until the engine was spinning 3,000 RPM – more than halfway to its single exhaust-choked 5,500 RPM redline. The Instant On torque of the VW’s turbo four arrives at just 1,500 RPM – which is nowhere near its 6,700 RPM redline but very near idling speed.

Which means no waiting around for things to happen.

Modern turbocharged gas fours like the GTI’s use quick to spool up “twin scroll” turbochargers that do not need a moment (or three) to gather breath and build up the boost – as used to be the case with turbocharged engines. The power – torque and horsepower – are there, right now.

No waiting. Lots of going.

This is a little engine with a bigger engine’s bottom end and mid-range and the high-rpm sing that used to be the one thing a high-performance four did better than a high-performance six or eight.

Now you get all three things – plus the four’s almost-economy car gas mileage.

If, of course, you can drive it like an economy car. Which is a rough assignment.

My test car had the four-setting (Comfort, Normal, Sport, Custom) adjustable suspension – which you get if you spring for the top-of-the-line Autobahn package. It’s a big jump in price from the base S and even the SE and Sport to the Autobahn version of the GT, but being able to instantly tailor the car’s ride quality from Comfort and Normal settings to Let’s Rock (it’s not called that but could be) is not only nice, it’s something you can’t do in the Focus ST, which does not even offer the option of an adjustable suspension. The Ford’s seats are also more focused. They are great for track days, not so great for the daily commute.

Probably that – plus a very cramped back seat, which we’ll get into below – explains why the ST hasn’t sold sell nearly as well as the GTI, which is superior as both a performance car and an everyday car.

Speaking everyday cars…

The AWD-equipped Subaru is the only snow-day car of the bunch. But, you can’t burn rubber or chirp the tires changing gears.

The AWD Soobie is more controlled. The VW is more fun.

And hell – it’s quicker, too!

AT THE CURB

You can still see the Rabbit underneath all that Golf.

Actually, the Rabbit was a Golf – everywhere except the United States, where VW figured that “Rabbit” sounded more marketable. Then it became Golf here, too.

And the GTI is a Golf with Goodies, most of them mechanical and not obvious – which is good in the same way it’s desirable to not have white powder under your nose when you walk past a cop.

What’s not debatable is the VW’s space-efficiency vs. several of its rivals but especially vs. the Focus ST.

Even though the ST is a larger car – 171.7 inches bumper to bumper vs. 168 inches for the GTI – the Ford’s back seat is much tighter: 33.2 inches of legroom vs. 35.6 in the GTI. Although both cars have about the same headroom in both rows, the VW’s taller/boxier profile and big car doors makes it seem like there’s more because you don’t have to duck as much to get in.

Both the Ford and the VW have about the same room for cargo behind their second rows – 23.8 cubic feet and 22.8 cubic feet, respectively – but the VW has a bit more total capacity: 52.7 cubic feet with the second row folded vs. 43.9 for the Focus.

The Subaru – which is a sedan with a trunk – only has 12 cubic feet of cargo capacity, almost exactly half what the VW has behind its back seats and less than a third what the VW has with its back seats folded flat.

The Civic beats them all, though. It has 42.3 inches of legroom up front and 37.4 inches in the back – plus you can buy the two door, three-door or the four-door.

THE REST

One small item worth a big mention is that the GTI still has an emergency brake lever – as opposed to a parking brake button. This means you will have the ability to stop the car if the engine dies – because a pull-up emergency brake lever is not dependent on electricity, as the “e” brake is.

Also – and let’s be honest, far more important –  you can use a pull-up emergency brake to lock the rear wheels, which is essential for doing certain high-performance maneuvers.

It’s becoming as hard to find pull-up emergency brake levers that allow the driver to manually control the action as it is to find ashtrays in new cars. Part of the reason for this is the demented obsession with electrifiying and gadget-izing everything, including things that arguably work better (and certainly with less complexity and cost) when they are simple mechanical things.

The standard  GTI’s flush-mounted secondary LCD touchscreen is handsome to look at and also among the easier-to-use units on the market. It also has features others haven’t got, such as being able to pair two Bluetooth devices at once and a kind of gesture-control feature similar to BMW’s that recognizes hand waves and makes displays larger or smaller just by waving your hand at the screen.

Great three-stage seat heaters and – unusually, for a German car – better-than-decent accommodations for beverages, including oversize water bottle holders molded into the lower door panels.

Also: The USB port is located where it can be seen – and reached – ahead of the shifter, at the bottom of the center stack – and not hidden inside the center console storage cubby.

It’s surprising how poorly located such an essential hook-up is in a not-small number of other cars.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There’s no Quadrajet moan as the secondaries kick in – because there aren’t any secondaries.

But 30 pounds of boost is a not-bad replacement for yesterday’s displacement!

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I test drove the 2016 Ford Focus ST, then went across the street and tested the 2016 Golf GTI. The Ford sales guy was desperate to get the ST off his lot, it had been sitting there unloved for months and months. Five minutes into a test drive and I could see why. The seats (recaros) were absolutely unbearable in their tightness, and I’m a skinny guy. The interior was cheap and flimsy. The torque steer was noticeable and ruined the fun of quick stop light take offs.

    The GTI on the other hand was like a breath of fresh air compared to the ST. The seats were comfy, the interior was noticeably high quality and refined. The acceleration was potent and torque steer subdued. It was a wonderful car! I really want one but I don’t want the $25K loan that comes with it, so I’ll wait a few years and save up my $$.

    • Hi Mike,

      This was my take as well. The ST is fun, but harder to live with. The GTI does everything the ST does as far as performance (and better) and it’s a car you can drive every day, too.

  2. 80’s “Rabbit” GTIs sometimes show up on the car auction sites in the $8-11k price range. They’re only 90 horsepower, but their light weight meant you’d have lots of fun.

  3. I have this car and I ADORE it. It is so much fun to drive. I try to putter around like the old lady that I am, but darn it, when the kid in the Civic pulls up next to me with his bass speakers booming, I just have to let the 220 horses run free – and no DSG for me – I love all 6 gears. I have wanted a GTI since my wedding day when one of our bridegrooms took me out, in my wedding dress and pulled a “high performance maneuver” on a two lane road. His 1984 GTI had the requisite e-brake lever, and he put it to some strenuous use that day. I thought I would die on my wedding day. Fast forward some 30+ years, and I now own the car of my dreams. I don’t care if people think my dreams are limited in scope – I <3 this car!

  4. I was glad to have owned and driven one of these for about a year last year. I highly recommend them. The regular Golf is actually pretty sporty and fun to drive and costs quite a bit less, and the Golf R is AWD with a lot more horsepower but it also costs a ridiculous amount of money for what you get and, by that point, you’ve got much better performance options available. The GTI really is the sweet spot in the lineup for price/performance.

    I think you nailed the review pretty well. I’m 6’3″ and pretty hefty and had plenty of head, shoulder, and hip room in the driver’s seat. Heck. I even fit in the back seat just fine. Getting 3 average sized adults in the back is also not difficult at all, and with the seats folded, the cargo room is impressive. It also doesn’t draw too much attention to itself in traffic. It’s not so much boy-racer as the other competition is. The exterior is actually quite clean and nice looking, and the interior is very upmarket for this class of vehicle. It’s a nice place to be. I had the automatic, and even though it was rated at 32 mpg highway, it was quite easy to get 36mpg on back roads and two-lane sweeping highways all day long averaging between 60-70mph. Corner entry speeds could be kept high so that little speed is lost and you simply kick back and enjoy the car’s handling dynamics rather than brute acceleration.

    As for the e-brake, be aware that, at least in the year model I had (2017), only the automatic had the handbrake. The manual transmission model came with the E-button brake. The stated reason I’ve heard for this trend towards electronic e-brakes is to save console/dashboard space. It also, at least in theory, would allow for a more forceful application of the e-brake under duress. It’s interesting, though, that it is now generally referred to as the “parking brake” rather then the emergency brake, which makes me wonder if you have an emergency, will the computer not permit you to use the e-brake, assuming of course you can find the little piddly button in the middle of a real emergency and actuate it.

    Incidentally, I also worry about the longevity of the DSG automatic. It’ll be an expensive repair bill when it goes, and it’s not as long-lived as a traditional automatic (or manual).

    As for fun-to-drive, this is one of the most fun cars you can buy today. It’s more quick than fast. Being FWD with that much torque and the sudden turbo boost (the lag is minimal, as you said), it can be difficult to control on anything other than the most pristine asphalt. Any sorts of bumps, potholes, ridges, etc. that it encounters under even moderate acceleration causes it to dart left or right as one wheel keeps traction and the other loses it. It actually hampered acceleration as the traction control constantly cuts in to shave power off and permit traction to return at the cost of forward progression. It wasn’t unusual to be left behind by more pedestrian cars with much more compliant suspensions. It wasn’t even close if you were pitted against anything with RWD unless you had smooth pavement ahead.

    Additionally, I found that it tended to run out of breath anywhere above about 80mph. Getting from 0-80mph was snappy and fun. If you were already doing 75mph on the interstate and needed to get through/around an obstacle, you had little more to work with. It hits a wall at about 100mph.

    I had a couple of reasons for moving on from the GTI. First, I found it was uncomfortable for long trips mostly due to having inadequate leg room up front. I had no real room to shift my legs around and keep changing the angle of my knee, which has a touch of arthritis. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not by any means cramped, and I was actually surprised at how much room was actually there (much more than a C3 Corvette, to borrow your comparison), but it was awkward and the dead pedal was a bit oddly placed such that my food never rested flat on it. Second, in my particular profession, it was a bit frowned upon to be arriving in a teenager’s “ricer” car (even though it’s German and invented the hot hatch category, it competes against mostly Japanese models). I normally don’t care what others think, and everyone who rode in it universally agreed it was a much nicer car than they expected it to be, it still has a stigma to it.

    This is generally considered the best “one car garage” car out there for driving enthusiasts on a budget. If you need daily driving practicality, comfort, features, and fun to drive, nothing else comes close. The Civic Si may be more reliable, but it’s less nice and much more boy racer. Plus the styling his hideous. The Ford Focus ST is similarly hideous in styling, impractical in daily utility, and notoriously unreliable. The Mazda Miata actually makes a bit of a case due to its fun to drive nature and cost, but it is wholly impractical for anyone over 6 feet tall or who needs something to be useful for more than fun weekends. Not a great all-arounder. Similarly, the Toyota/Subaru twins 86/BRZ are not very reliable, supposedly, or practical, though are fun to drive and look good. In short, nearly all the other vehicles are a compromise compared to the GTI.

  5. One of the two main reasons I purchased an Audi S1 over a TT is the S1 has a real handbrake. I had an Electric Handbrake on my A3 Audi and hated it. It was early impossible to pull up onto service ramps and although it had the Hill Holder feature, I never was able to smoothly start on a grade without riding the clutch. When stopped at traffic lights, I normally wait in neutral with the Handbrake engaged. With the A3, I didn’t do this for fear of the Electric Handbrake not releasing – as I had witnessed on an Opel which was stuck in a parking space at the gym. Also, there is a special and more time consuming (expensive) way to change the rear brake pads with this system. Although they are lighter and less expensive (the real reasons vehicle manufacturers are going to them) I doubt I will ever buy another car with one – which is why I have written-off Porsche as one of my possible future purchases.

  6. You mention entry and exit is easier on the GTI because of the taller roofline. One thing that always was a chore for me in the old Audi A3 was getting in and out of the thing. Mostly due to my weight at the time but also because the B pillar position. In order to have the rear doors even remotely functional it had to be placed so far forward that my shoulder was just behind it when I was sitting in the driver’s seat. Once inside I was fine but it made getting in and out a pretty strange motion. And of course the back seat was worthless for passengers behind me.

    BTW speaking of Audi/sorry to go way off topic have you seen their electric supercharger? Looks like a lot of work for a little gain.

    • Hi RK,

      Given the range of variability – leg/torso/arm/width (and so on) that mass produced cars must accommodate, it’s a small miracle anyone is accommodated!

      Stock advice from me to anyone considering any car: Be sure to drive it for at least an hour before you buy it!

      On the supercharger: I understand why they are doing this; superchargers use a fair amount of mechanical energy to drive. I just wonder whether the efficiency gains are offset by the complexity/cost needed to make this work.

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