Kleiner GTI, du siehst prima aus…
This is the opening to an iconic 1980s Volkswagen commercial. The TV spot’s musical theme was set to the 1964 tune G.T.O. by Ronnie and the Daytonas. The original song’s Pontiac-themed verses were replaced line-by-line with German lyrics extolling the virtues of Wolfsburg’s spunky “little GTI.”
Of course, the similarities between an American muscle-car and a European hot-hatchback just about end at each having four wheels and a front-mounted engine, but the three-letter names and catchy theme worked too well together for VW not to pen a Teutonic parody.
And the fun continues, even decades later. The latest-generation GTI is implausibly entertaining to drive, unexpectedly premium inside and incredibly versatile. It could be one of the best all-around vehicles on the market today, titillating enthusiasts while remaining plenty practical.
This car is built on the Volkswagen Group’s versatile MQB architecture, a German initialism standing for Modularer Querbaukasten. Roughly translated, it means modular transverse matrix. No matter the language, GTI feels incredibly sturdy and is roomy inside.
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Up to the parcel shelf, this car offers 16.5 cubic feet (467 liters) of luggage space. Pull that divider out and load it to the roof and you have 22.8 (646 liters) at your disposal. Go all in and fold the rear seats down and this hatchback tops out at an impressive 52.7 cubes (1,492 liters) of junk-swallowing trunk.
For 2019, the GTI is offered in three basic trim levels: S, SE and Autobahn. A limited-production Rabbit Edition is also on the menu, slotting between S and SE models. It supposedly pays homage to the GTI’s heritage and includes things like 18-inch gloss-black wheels, adaptive LED headlights, rabbit-badged seat tags and red-stitched floormats. A blacked-out rear spoiler, keyless entry with push-button start plus a load of driver-assistance tech is also included. This special model can also be had in four exterior colors: Cornflower Blue, Pure White, Deep Black Pearl and the curiously named Urano Grey.
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Helping these cars feel just a little more upscale, rain-sensing windshield wipers and automatic headlights are standard across the board. Midrange SE models come with keyless entry and push-button start. A host of driver-assistance technology is on the options menu including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, automatic high beams and more.
Just one engine is offered in the GTI, a tried and true, fun and friendly 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with direct fuel injection. Fill this bunny’s tank with premium gasoline and you’re rewarded with an advertised 228 horsepower at an accessible 4,700 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque from 1500 to 4,500 revs.
A slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox is standard, but a new seven-ratio DSG automatic is available for 2019; it’s a $1,100 option.
No matter the transmission, this car is quite efficient, stickering at 24 mpg city (9.8 l/100 km), 32 highway (7.3 l/100 km) and 27 (8.7 l/100 km) combined with the stick. Grab the self-shifting unit and you should expect 25, 31 and 27, respectively (9.6, 7.5, 8.6 l/100 km).
Helping put its prodigious torque to the pavement, all GTIs feature VAQ limited-slip differential. This feature helps route twist to the front wheel with the most grip. In practice, it allegedly helped slash the car’s Nürburgring Nordschleife lap time by eight seconds, an undoubtedly impressive performance.
Giving it a firmer, more controlled ride, the GTI suspension is more than half an inch (15 mm) lower than a standard Golf’s. The stabilizer bars are also larger, 24 mm in diameter up front and 20 at the rear, increases of 2 mm and 1 mm, respectively.
Despite having “just” 228 ponies in its under-hood stable, the GTI is a quick little breadbox and feels far fleeter than it should. Based on its seat-of-the-pants experience, the engine feels at least 50 horsepower stronger than advertised, though the lightning-quick DSG transmission undoubtedly plays a large role in enabling this shocking performance.
Straight-line romps are accompanied by a small amount of intake rumble and a touch of exhaust noise, sounds that reinforce the car’s sporty demeanor. The EA888 engine is, as always, a paragon of refinement, one of the smoothest four-bangers available on the market today.
The GTI’s powerplant may be silken but its stop-start system could be improved. This feature kills combustion when the vehicle is stopped, like at a red light. When the driver is ready to go once again, it quickly restarts the engine. In theory, there should be a seamless transition from off to on, but in reality, it’s annoyingly jerky, juddering the car at each restart. It seems other automakers have done a much better job with their stop-start systems than VW has, at least with the GTI.
SEE ALSO: 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan Review
When it comes to reining in all that power, this hot hatch can stop on a dime. All GTIs feature 13.4-inch front rotors and 12.2-inch vented discs at the rear. Everything is squeezed by single-piston calipers. Stopping power is never in doubt, but unfortunately, like other VWs, the pedal is mushy; it feels like you’re stepping on a wet loaf of bread every time you need to slow down. Another annoyance is the pedal itself. It’s too high relative to the accelerator, meaning it’s not as easy to pivot your foot from one to the other as it should be.
With its sport-tuned chassis the GTI handles well, staying flat through corners. Its steering wheel provides good feedback and a firm feel, though it gets feather light at parking-lot speeds for easy maneuvering.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to this VW is its fuel efficiency. After a 200-mile daytrip this car returned a claimed 36 miles per gallon. 36! That’s five better than its advertised highway rating and damn impressive for anything this quick and engaging to drive.
Efficient, practical and fun, what more could you ask for in a vehicle? This Volkswagen does just about everything; it’s even attainable for many budget-minded enthusiasts.
Base price for the most affordable GTI is roughly $28,490. The slightly more-upscale Rabbit Edition tested here checked out for a still-reasonable $30,890. Both prices include $895 in delivery fees.
As it has been for generations, the GTI is still a riot. Kleiner GTI… Ich liebe dich zu fahren!
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