As new as the seventh-generation Volkswagen GTI seems to us here in the United States, it can be difficult to imagine a refresh of the German hot-hatch staple was in order. In reality, the changes made to the 2018 Volkswagen GTI make for a vehicle that competes with almost anything in its class (and above); not only in everyday use but also around the race track.

Exterior alterations to the 2018 GTI are subtle but enough in total to make previous MkVII models seem a bit dated; the most obvious being the new, fully LED, lights all around. Under the hood the 2.0-liter TSI four-cylinder engine receives a modest boost in power, up to 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft from 210 horsepower and 230 lb-ft in the previous model. The most impactful revisions in the 2018 GTI are found on the inside, where an optional large display combines with the already excellent interior to deliver an experience that competes with entry-level luxury vehicles.

Behind the wheel

The bump in power found in the 2018 GTI is small enough that you won’t likely notice a difference if you’ve spent any significant time in a previous MkVII version. Don’t be let down, though: the GTI was already a close-to-perfect everyday performance car, and the 2018 lives up to that standard with aplomb.

Driving a 2018 GTI in SE trim with the DSG automatic transmission equipped, we found quick throttle response and even acceleration. The 220 horsepower isn’t overwhelming but the 258 lb-ft of torque is everywhere; more than enough to handle highway speeds while giving you the option to cut loose and have a little fun where you can find it.

Aiding that fun is the “VAQ” electronically controlled front differential found in the Performance Package, standard in SE and Autobahn trim levels. The differential shuffles the torque between the front wheels as deemed necessary. A bit of time on the track brings out a bit of predictable front-wheel drive understeer, found whether the nannies (we mean driver assist systems, of course) were on or off. In some instances, we found we could “trick” some of the systems by upsetting the car’s balance just before plowing into a corner, causing it to apply the rear inside brake and resulting in a little bit of rotation—not that would necessarily be useful on the road, but good to know nonetheless.

Also: Get your first look at the new and redesigned cars of 2018

Refined performance

The horsepower bump in the 2018 GTI may not be huge, but the TSI engine is strong; after dozens of laps around the race track on a muggy summer day, it never felt out-of-breath due to heat-soak. The big Golf R-sourced brakes (also a part of the Performance Package) did suffer a little near the very end of the day, but nothing out of the ordinary considering the kind of usage they were getting. Overall, the driving dynamics of the 2018 GTI are very similar to those of the 2017—which is to say, excellent. It doesn’t have the spastic turn-in and puppy dog eagerness found in, say, the Ford Fiesta ST, but performance is hardly lacking. At the same time the GTI offers a level of interior refinement that simply cannot be matched by any other hot hatch in its price range.

Though the U.S.-spec 2018 GTI won’t carry over the brilliant digital Active Info Display from the current Audi A4 or the 9.2-inch buttonless touch screen in the center stack with gesture controls,  our 8.0-inch version offered in SE and Autobahn trim is a welcome upgrade nonetheless. Its integration into the dash is seamless, and using it is intuitive enough that you’ll finally reach for the dash instead of your iPhone. Features are quick to access and function fantastically, and the infotainment interface feels as natural to use as any modern smartphone.

The bottom line

What you won’t find in the 2018 Volkswagen Golf or GTI lineups is the TDI diesel engine option. This is relevant, because thanks to the fallout from “Dieselgate” you’re looking at a refresh that offers more car than ever for the price, and the prices might be impossible to pass up. An Audi A3 or A4 may be more luxurious, but a well-optioned GTI can get you almost all the way there for much less. You can feel however you like about the ethics of financially supporting a company in the wake of controversy, but it might just be worth throwing the ethics out the window to pick up a true “total package” car like the GTI at a steal of a price.

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