Performance and quality shine in the Volkswagen Golf GTI, a refined choice among sport-compacts.
Versus the competiton:
Quicker than its power specifications suggest, the Golf GTI will give any performance compact a run for its money, and it has a cut-above interior to boot.
Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2016 about the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI, but little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Volkswagen overhauled the GTI’s multimedia system for 2016, addressing one of our few complaints about a hatchback that thumped seven competitors two years ago in Cars.com’s $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge (see the results here).
That was a 2015 car, the first year of the GTI’s current generation. With the subsequent updates, the 2016 GTI is as strong a choice as ever.
The GTI is a middle child of VW’s larger Golf lineup, which ranges from the sub-$20,000 Golf to the highest-performance Golf R (compare them here). We cover the others separately in Cars.com’s Research section. The GTI comes in two- and four-door versions, with three trim levels and manual or dual-clutch automatic transmissions. Go here to stack them up or here to compare the 2015 and 2016 Golf GTI.
We tested a two-door, manual-transmission 2016 GTI SE.
Exterior & Styling
The GTI’s claw-like bumper strakes make it easy to distinguish from other Golf models, but onlookers might mistake the rear for the prior-generation GTI. Such is the evolution of the Golf family, whose design hasn’t radically changed over the past decade despite the entire group’s redesign for 2015. Dual tailpipes and 18-inch alloy wheels are standard on the GTI.
How It Drives
Absent much of the accelerator lag that’s plagued earlier Volkswagens, the GTI is easy to ram through gears, rev-match on downshifts and have a general heck of a good time in. Rated at 210 horsepower and a robust 258 pounds-feet of torque, the GTI’s turbocharged four-cylinder exhibits some noticeable turbo lag off the line, but it dissipates soon enough for smooth, powerful revving all the way up to the car’s 6,000-rpm redline.
The six-speed manual has direct, medium throws and a light clutch, but it suffers a tall second gear that seems too widely spaced from first. Wind out the latter and the GTI can still dump you into awkwardly low rpm on the upshift. The GTI’s optional dual-clutch automatic transmission, however, is a terrific unit, with rapid shifts and little of the low-speed hesitation that accompanies some dual-clutch transmissions.
Available on all trims, a $1,495 Performance Package adds 10 hp but no torque along with larger brakes and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential; it’s available with either gearbox.
Ride quality is firm but livable, and — apart from a bit of numb steering feedback — handling shines as far as front-wheel-drive cars go. Understeer creeps in at the limits, but it’s mild enough to stay out of the picture in most maneuvers. Body roll is well contained and the chassis stays planted over mid-corner bumps. The brakes are both strong and linear — a point driven home by the 2015 GTI’s 114.2-foot stopping performance from 60 mph in Cars.com’s Cheap Speed Challenge. No competitor came close.
Save some rickety climate controls, cabin quality is impressive. Materials are padded where your arms and elbows land, and the optional leather upholstery is rich, high-grade stuff. Numerous little touches — from fabric-wrapped A-pillars to a height-adjustable armrest and one-touch windows all around — put the GTI, like other Golf models, a cut above most compact-car interiors.
It’s practical, too. The hip-hugging seats are narrow but comfortable, and the GTI’s upright dashboard preserves space for your knees and legs in a manner that cockpit-style wraparound interiors do not. (You can keep those layouts; I’m way over the whole cockpit thing.) Visibility is good, too. In an era where rear windows seem to be shrinking with every redesign, the GTI’s expansive glass is a breath of fresh air.
Both front seats have a slide-forward feature for backseat access that returns them to their prior position when you reset them, but the slow, crank-knob reclining adjusters in two-door models are a drag. Four-door models have standard power recliners, with an optional full-power driver’s seat.
Backseat dimensions are nearly identical between the two- and four-door GTI, and rear legroom and headroom are abundant as compact cars go. Volkswagen stashes numerous amenities in there, as well, from air vents and reading lights to an armrest and four cupholders. Other small-coupe backseats are penalty boxes by comparison. Road-trip away.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Updated for 2016, the GTI’s standard 6.5-inch touch-screen adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Bluetooth, HD radio and a USB port are also standard. The system has middling graphics but an intuitive interface, with physical shortcut buttons and volume and tuning knobs. Other automakers — OK, mostly Honda — should take note. If you prefer not to use smartphone-based Apple or Google Maps for in-dash routing, a navigation system is optional, as is Volkswagen’s very good Fender premium stereo.
Cargo & Storage
Cargo volume behind the backseat is 22.8 cubic feet; the seats fold in a 60/40 split to create 52.7 cubic feet of maximum room, with a tall center pass-through if you need to carry long, narrow items. The layout is identical in both two- and four-door GTIs, and their cargo volumes are competitive with other small hatchbacks.
The GTI earned top marks in crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as well as a rating of advanced for its optional forward collision warning system with automatic emergency braking. (IIHS rates such systems basic, advanced or superior.) VW packages that system with lane departure and blind spot warning systems, plus a self-parking system, in the Driver Assistance Package, which is optional on all but the GTI’s lowest trim level.
Value in Its Class
Prices range from about $26,000 to roughly $37,000 with all options. That’s on the pricey side for a performance compact, but the GTI is worth it. Honda’s forthcoming high-performance versions of its excellent Civic redesign might give shoppers a compelling alternative, but until then, Volkswagen has the best all-around pocket rocket on the market.