After decades of buyers shunning the hatchback, the segment is now packed with more options than we’ve seen in years. Even Toyota just announced the return of the Corolla Hatchback and of course there’s the excellent Honda Civic and Mazda3 hatchbacks, but one model has been here all along – the Volkswagen Golf. Even when buyers couldn’t see the added versatility and yes, fun that you can have with a small hatchback, VW kept it going. Now nearing the end of its seventh generation, the Golf still holds it own against its newest rivals.
With the expansion of the hatchback segment, that also means that we’re getting more hot hatchbacks. If you aren’t familiar with the term, the hot hatchback or hot hatch for short is basically the sportier version of the practical hatchback. The reason they have a cult following is because of everything that they can do. First a hot hatch usually has a more powerful engine and suspension setup, which makes it more fun to drive on an open back road. Second thanks to a sportier body kit, wheels and other bolt ons, the hot hatch tries to look as fun as less versatile coupe. Lastly even with all the extra fun added in, the hot hatch still has the ability to be your only car, with the added versatility that its hatchback provides.
While there are several new hot hatches to choose from, there’s one that has continued to be the benchmark for the class – the iconic Volkswagen GTI. Over the years we’ve seen the GTI transform from a slightly more powerful version of the basic Golf to being one of VW’s most iconic models. VW has offered everything from a small turbo to even a six-cylinder engine under the hood of the GTI. Today the GTI options have been simplified with only one engine option and one body style, but that’s because it works.
For the 2018 model year, the VW GTI has gotten a small facelift, which will have to hold GTI fans over until the all-new eighth generation arrives, which isn’t too far away. On the outside the front and rear fascias have been slightly tweaked, but you probably wouldn’t be able to call out the details, unless you parked it right next to the 2017 GTI. The bigger news is that VW has managed to massage an extra 10 horsepower from the GTI’s turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine, compared to the 2015-2017 GTI equipped with the Performance Pack. The 2.0L now generates 220 horsepower and can be mated to either a six-speed manual or the six-speed DSG automatic transmission. The GTI SE and Autobahn trim levels also now get the Golf R’s brakes and to keep you from destroying the GTI, it now has forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking.
Inside you’ll find an eight-inch glass touchscreen that offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, but it still feels a generation behind some of the latest systems that VW’s rivals offer. The lovely plaid seats are still standard and if you prefer leather, that’s an option as well. In front of the driver there’s a small digital display, but overall the gauge cluster is not as cool as the fully digital system Digital Cockpit that’s offered in the Tiguan and Atlas. We’ll have to wait until the next-generation GTI to get that.
The GTI is offered in S, SE and Autobahn trim levels. Our Autobahn tester came fully equipped with features, like leather seats, the eight-inch touchscreen, heated seats, the Fender audio system, adaptive cruise control and the six-speed DSG transmission. Being that the Autobahn trim level starts at $35,070, it’s far out of reach for most hot hatch fans, but the S model starts at an easier to swallow $26,415. The GTI Autobahn is the more grown up trim level, since its interior is mostly dressed in black, the leather seats are supportive but not nearly as fun to look at as the plaid seats.
Trim levels aside one of the main reasons why the GTI makes the perfect every day car is because it’s interior is actual usable. You can easily bring along four of your friends and their gear thanks to decent rear legroom and 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat up. Fold down the rear seats and the GTI can load in the latest from Ikea. That’s something that you definitely can’t do with something like a Toyota 86 or even the sedan-only Subaru WRX.
For most buyers, the VW GTI will be their only car and this is why the GTI is so loved. The 2018 GTI’s 2.0L generates 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque, which is more than enough for a little fun once the road opens up. On the flip side the GTI also won’t make you take too many trips to the gas station, since it’s rated at 25/33 mpg with the manual and 24/32 mpg with the automatic.
Once the road opened our 2018 GTI was an absolute joy. Throw it fast into a curve and there’s minimal body roll and great feedback from the electric power steering system. If you choose the DSG transmission you’ll be happy to know that it actually shifts faster than you can and will likely make your tedious commute a little easier. Would we choose the DSG or manual? Obviously the manual, even with the DSG’s paddle shifters, you won’t have as much fun as you will with the manual.
Since the GTI is so great, are there any negatives? Even with the added horsepower, the GTI still comes up short compared to the Ford Focus ST, with its 252 horsepower and 272 lb-ft. There’s also the fact that the SE and Autobahn trim levels start in the $30k range, which puts the GTI out of reach for some of its most loyal fans.
Even if there are some rivals with more power or maybe even more exciting styling, it’s hard to beat the GTI and it will likely remain the benchmark for many years to come. It’s the perfect small sports car masquerading as a commuter car.