Since the model was first introduced in 1983 people who like to drive for the sheer enjoyment of it have been naturally drawn to the Volkswagen GTI, because virtually nothing in its price range offers the same level of performance and precision. But the newest, seventh-generation GTI, which also bears the Golf moniker, is not the frisky puppy that the original GTI was. Oh, it is still frisky and still a blast to push through a series of tight turns, but its sophistication level has ramped up considerably versus that spunky little hatchback many of us fell in love with way back when. These days, it's not a lean, go-fast young hooligan nearly as much as it was, since in ensuing generations it has grown bigger. At the same time it has become significantly more sophisticated and satisfying for all types of driving. You might think of it as the middle-aged dude who still works out and still loves rock-n-roll.
The new GTI checks a lot of the right boxes when compared with its immediate predecessor, which we liked a lot. It is lighter, roomier, more fuel-efficient, more powerful and more versatile than ever before. With impressive technology like an electronically controlled torque-sensing limited slip differential and DCC Adaptive Damping, it is obviously more technically sophisticated than the sixth-gen GTI, too. And while those two systems are optional, even the base GTI features a driving mode selection feature that enables you to dial up "Normal," "Sport" and "Individual" settings. Shifting from "Normal" to "Sport" kicks up steering weight, sucking away numb from the on-center feel, and speeds throttle response. If you really care to, you can tweak both steering and throttle settings to your preferences in "Individual" mode, which in my GTI I would label "Jax."
The new GTI also features an all-new engine. The 2.0-liter TSI, offering turbocharging and direct-injection, is a part of the vaunted EA888 engine family. In standard GTI trim it whirs out 210 horsepower (10 more than the previous engine) and, more important, it cranks up the torque to 258 lb-ft beginning at just 1,500 on your rpm band. The increase is noticeable in a number of instances ranging from off-the-line launch to acceleration out of corners. A Performance Package that boosts peak horsepower to 220 is available, but the extra 10 horsepower are achieved by extending the rev range 200 rpm, so the real-world benefits might be negligible. We didn't have enough time with that version to tell.
So how does all this translate into performance where the rubber hits the road? We think in every way the new GTI is both better and more cosmopolitan than the car it replaces. The additional length and width result in a much roomier and accommodating cabin. In fact Volkswagen execs made a lot of the fact that the hatchback GTI has more cargo room than a midsize sedan - 22.8 cubic feet of space if you fill it from floor to roof.
The comfy cabin is filled with niceties like the standard touchscreen information center, which offers 5.8 inches of capacitive touch-sensor display area. (Capacitive touch means it functions like the typical smartphone rather than requiring a firm button push, which in a moving vehicle is mostly a good thing.) The display also has a proximity sensor function that senses when a hand is nearby and automatically switches its display to what VW describes as "a more finger-friendly layout." How cool is that?
Well, we think pretty much everything about the new Golf GTI is cool, from its suave, Euro-metro interior complete with plaid cloth seats to the roominess and comfort afforded by its available 4-door configuration. It looks great, and it is a hoot to drive on canyon roads, yet it is perfectly at home in the maw of urban stop-and-go. It is one of the few relatively inexpensive cars that we could live with - and love - for a long, long time.
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