On the Road Review: Volkswagen GTI SE



 

We buy cars for transportation. We buy cars that look good, and make us feel good. We buy cars to be functional, practical, economical and reliable. Yet, we don’t buy enough cars that are truly fun; the ear-to-ear grin kind of fun every time you slip behind the wheel, even if it’s to take your mother-in-law to the hairdresser kind of fun.

Since 1983, Volkswagen has been sending us the almost-perfect rendition of automotive fun — the affordable, flexible, comfortable, swift, smooth, well-put-together and almost luxurious Golf GTI.

Now selling the seventh-generation GTI (the eighth generation will arrive late next year), today’s model retains all of the virtues that GTI fans have come to love — plus some updates and surprises to keep buyers entertained, and interested. My youngest brother, a detail-focused engineer, is on GTI number three — a sixth-gen four-door. This three-pedal version had him salivating for his next GTI.

If you have never enjoyed the visceral thrills provided by the sporty GTI, you are saying to yourself what could possibly be so exciting about this tiny compact car. Well, just about everything.

It starts with the polished construction and detailed finishing inside. When the doors close, it is with a refined thud — almost tomb-like solidity inside and tight from the outside. Wrap your hands around the leather-clad, flat-bottom steering wheel; it feels just right in diameter, rim thickness and heft as you drive, giving perfect signals of what is happening in this snappy front-driver.

Push the console-mounted ignition button. The 2.0-liter turbo-four is rated at 220 hp and 258 pound/feet of immediate torque — numbers that most drivers will tell you feels vastly underrated. Now featuring a torque-sensing limited slip front differential, all of that power gets to the ground without drama, capably managed by a slick-shifting six-speed manual (gotta love the three-pedal setup), or the optional ($1,100) seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

With your right foot controlling the rheostat throttle, the GTI lunges urgently forward, pushing you deeply into the sculptured sport seat. Second gear redlines after 60 mph, third gear tops out at 90 mph and the engine never seems stressed. Buttery smooth, the motor can lug along in any gear you like, ready to energize at a moment’s notice in case you forgot to shift into a more efficient gear. EPA estimates are 24/34 mpg; our abbreviated visit generated 33 mpg for 850 miles of spirited operation.

While exploring the GTI’s velocity levels, you operate with a keen sense of appreciation of how good this nimble chassis is. Zipping through holes in greater-Boston traffic, pushing the pace down your favorite rural road, or just commuting and nudging that responsive go-pedal when a passing-zone opens up rewards your driving senses over and over.

Steering feel, cornering levels, cornering grip, braking power, plus the compliant ride all combine to make the GTI’s rivals look less well rounded. While sporty compacts from Ford and Honda might have better performance specs in certain areas, neither competitor reflects the overall refinement level of the GTI. Clearly, the GTI is the benchmark small sporty car for any enthusiast driver who recognizes value, practicality and competence.

Inside, a larger central screen features Apple/Android functionality, plus Fender audio. The plaid cloth seats, a GTI staple, remain on base S Models, ($26,415) while LED lamps all around, the hidden rear-view camera, plus a new longer six-year/72,000-mile warranty is all standard. Visibility is great, even in the adult-friendly rear seat, which naturally splits and folds to offer a hatchback-enabled 53 cubic feet of cargo room — almost as much as the Tiguan crossover.

The driving position is upright, so you don’t feel as low as you are. The communicative controls make you feel like part of the car, while the fluidity and seamless operation of all components become an extension of your mental intentions.

SE trim ($31,165 with heated leather, big sunroof, more) adds active safety features — blind-spot detection, cross traffic alerts, automatic emergency braking, plus adaptive cruise — yet this is such an engaging car to drive, your senses are usually ahead of the electrics. Only two other small cars generate this level of admiration: Subaru’s AWD WRX and BMW’s rear-drive M2.

If the VW Beetle was the everyman’s car, the VW GTI is so much more than a fancy Golf; it is the poor man’s Porsche. It is driving finesse all of the time, spine-tingling fun when you want it to be, and premium functional car when life’s responsibilities demand so.

In Tornado Red, the newest GTI is also a fetching car that few will miss seeing. Buyers beware.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.