Volkswagen has the recipe to mix just the right amounts of speed and practicality in its GTI. And the 2019 Volkswagen GTI is the latest example of that. It is a car that is both outrageously fun to drive and usable as a daily driver.
GTI is a hatchback lover’s dream
The Golf in all of its forms has gotten bigger and more costly over the years, but the increase hasn’t come at the expense of the things that made the car a hatchback lover’s dream.
As the almost-best Golf you can buy, the current-edition GTI has clever options at any equipment level, and our top-of-the-line Autobahn model sported every bell and whistle available. The test car had leather upholstery, full LED headlights and a suite of active safety features, among other things, which added up to a total price of around $37,000 before destination charges. Navigation is also on that list, but the included Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be enough for most people, which could allow you to knock down that $37K at least a bit.
I happily gave up the ability to daily-drive performance cars a long time ago when my family grew into a foursome, but I could almost swing the GTI for most tasks. Two kids are comfy in back; the hatch offers more utility than most small sedans, and the car is comfortable enough to take on longer road trips. It’s not a crossover SUV, but it can do family-car service. Many great things in life come with tradeoffs, and the Volkswagen GTI is no exception – though the complaints are few and far in between.
Designers of hatchbacks sometimes veer to the outrageous, but the VW Golf happily avoids design extremism. The GTI’s sporty front end serves not only to increase engine cooling and downforce for better grip, but also helps make the car look wider and more proportionate. The hood sweeps down quickly toward the front bumper, giving great visibility from inside the cabin. It’s a very useful touch when parking and maneuvering around the city, but the effect creates an odd aspect from inside the car because the nose of the car seems to fall away in front of you.
The rest of the GTI’s profile follows the standard hatchback script – just a bit lower and sharper than most others. Large 19-inch “fan-blade” wheels and dual exhaust exits cap off the sporting look.
Volkswagen gifted the GTI’s interior with many touches that evoke memories of the storied hatchback’s lineage. In less-expensive configurations, the upholstery is finished in plaid with red accents, but our Autobahn model was on another level entirely. With leather-wrapped seats, steering wheel and door panels, the GTI’s top trim borders on luxury status. The quality of fit and finish at this level can’t be overstated.
Controls are intuitive, typical of a VW, but the gauges are partially obscured by the thick steering wheel when adjusted to my settings. This isn’t unique to the GTI but is more noticeable in the GTI because of the steering wheel’s ample girth.
In daily driving, there are very few opportunities to stretch the GTI’s legs to anywhere near their full extent, though with 220 horsepower and our tester’s six-speed manual, even daily daycare runs felt exciting. This is where the magic of the car really starts to pop, because while it’s capable and exhilarating on the track, the GTI makes the chore of routine driving fun.
The 2.0-liter engine is responsive and more powerful than most people will ever need. Buyers who opt for a manual transmission will find a smooth, light clutch pedal and satisfying shifts, but VW’s dual-clutch automatic gearbox is more than good enough to get a look.
The GTI’s ability to take a turn is legendary, but it doesn’t favor handling at the expense of everyday comfort. At least not too much. The ride is noticeably stiffer than a standard Golf, but not to the extent of being irritating. Steering is immediate and offers good feedback on what is happening under the wheels, which isn’t a common feature in most commuter cars. The same goes for braking, where the resistance of the pedal correlates closely with the amount of stopping force being applied.
VW easily has one of the best infotainment units on the market, and it’s on full display in the Autobahn GTI – all eight inches of it. The touchscreen is colorful, intuitive and has a neat proximity-sensor party trick that responds as your hand gets close to the unit. The Fender sound system upgrade is more than loud enough for a car this size, delivering clear and balanced sound at any volume.
Safety tech is plentiful at this trim level, which includes blind spot monitor, forward collision warning and pedestrian monitor. The GTI and other new VWs with these features integrate them into the driving experience more seamlessly than others we’ve tested recently.
Small car, big wheels, sport-tuned suspension. If we were on Jeopardy, the answer would be “Things that ruin a car’s ride.” Not here. While the going can border on harsh at times, the GTI’s suspension does a better-than-decent job of soaking up all but the worst Maine backroads can offer. A fair bit of road noise sneaks past the sound deadening, but there are much worse offenders in this category.
At six feet and 215 pounds, I found the bolstering on the seats just wide enough for my rear, but my five-foot tall wife and others taller than me raved about the support and adjustment options on tap from the Volkswagen GTI’s seating. I was able to move the seat downward enough to get a low position with good headroom while maintaining great visibility.
Rear seats suffer from space distribution that favors front passengers, but my kids’ two car seats fit without issue. The Volkswagen GTI is wide enough that we squeezed in three children on occasion, though this was only possible with two boosters and one full-size seat. As a person who installs, moves and uninstalls car seats multiple times per week between cars, I give VW the best marks of any carmaker for their LATCH placement, labeling and ease of access. Adult-sized rear passengers can survive, but there will be a tug of war for legroom with the driver and front passenger.
I expected to give up a lot more practicality and day-to-day comfort than I did to get the performance return that the Volkswagen GTI delivers. But if I were forced to name the biggest “give” would be the cost. At $37,000 the GTI is not cheap. And even in its base form at $27,000 or so, it is an expensive compact hatchback. But that’s the price you pay for turning the droning commute into a magic carpet ride. VW has had more than enough time to get the “hot-hatch” formula just right – and it shows.