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2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI: The Gray Man’s Hot Hatch

2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Sport

What is a “gray man”? Urban Dictionary says, “A man who can blend in to any scene or situation without standing out, hiding his skills and qualities  OK, the red GTI that I had in for the week isn’t exactly subtle, but take off the minimal badging ( badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges) and it looks like any other Golf five-door, and therein lies the beauty.

Today’s landscape of hot hatches in the U.S. is two, the Focus ST and the Golf GTI.  The forthcoming Civic Type R is more in line with the Golf R and Focus RS, toss the WRX STI in even though it’s a sedan.  Even in Golf R form, in a world where everyone else tacks on body kit parts like there is a 70% off sale at J.C. Whitney, The GTI, and the R, keep a low profile.

Now, perhaps your personality is one where you do like to shout “look at me”, and that’s cool, this hobby takes all kinds, but there are some who like to have all of the fun, and fly below the radar.  It’s this slot where the GTI shines.  Like the grey man, the GTI just blends in with it’s very conservative, though still handsome shape.  On the inside of our Sport edition it has one fashion statement, the heated tartan cloth seats, other than that one item, the interior is the well appointed and well done Golf.  If you want leather you can get that in the SE and Autobahn models.

In reality, the Sport model is the “perfect” GTI save that you can’t get the very good Fender audio in it, even as an additional option.  The Sport has only what you need to have fun.  It comes standard with the Performance Package, that includes: brakes from the Golf R; electronically controlled, torque sensing, limited-slip VAQ differential; and a 10-horsepower increase to 220 horsepower (achieved with premium fuel) — as well as 18-inch “Nogaro” aluminum-alloy wheels and Bi-Xenon headlamps with LED Daytime Running Lights.  The Bi-Xenon headlights are excellent, they also pivot with the wheel to really light up the corners in the dark of night.

As tested the review unit GTI was priced at $28,815, which in today’s world is excellent value for money if you are paying MSRP.  Here is the thing, given that at this moment in time VW is doing whatever it takes to move metal, on a GTI, you can most likely get $2,000-$4,000 off that price, depending on when in the month you purchase.  For the Golf R, given that it has limited availability, you are going to pay the sticker price of right at, or just over $40,000.  So, while it’s easy to say, just step up to the Golf R, a $15,000 real world difference in price between the two probably makes the delineation between the two much easier.  That fifteen grand will likely pay for all of your fuel, maintenance and repairs over the next ten years of GTI ownership, have a think about that for a few ticks of the clock.

2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Sport Interior tartan seats

You get three driving modes in the GTI.  We just left it in “Sport” for the sharper throttle response and the fruitier sounding exhaust note.  A nice feature is that VW doesn’t reset the driving mode every time you turn it off, select “Sport” and it stays in “Sport” until you choose otherwise, no matter how many times you turn the car on and off.

When you compare the Golf GTI against the Focus ST, what comes immediately to mind is that the GTI feels grown up and has nothing to prove, almost a premium quality.  Whereas the ST comes off that it’s trying to be at the same level of as the GTI, it is trying and being obvious about it. Slipping into the GTI, it is like it’s been around this block twenty or thirty times and has this down to a science, the Focus ST feels less sophisticated.  Whatever your personality type, that is the one you’ll likely be drawn to.  Not because it’s “the better car” but that it reflects your outlook on life and the world.  In reality, Focus ST and Golf GTI are equals.  Oh sure those who make decisions and grand pronouncements all over the internet based on spreadsheets and stats pages will say differently but spend actual time behind the wheel, rather than a keyboard and the truth is self-evident.

The great thing about the GTI is that is is very comfortable in the day to day grind of the commute.  The suspension is firm without being harsh or wearing you out on crappy roads, and here in the Detroit area, we have plenty of crappy roads.

The turbo spools up quickly and gets you into the meat of the power band quickly, so powering away from stoplights, as well as coming up to speed on the ramps to the freeways are a non-issue.  The manual transmission is nice and crisp, the clutch has the right amount of heft and easy engagement.  Drop the second row of seats and they fold almost flat giving you a very generous cargo area.  It’s these items that will be 80% of the life and use of the GTI, so it’s important that it does them well, and it does.

If 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque isn’t enough for you, drop a grand with APR or COBB and you can get an ECU flash to put you around 300 horsepower and 370 lb/ft on 87 octane fuel,  Another $300-$400 for an upgraded intercooler from VS Racing (it’s the same one COBB and APR will charge you grand for) and all the power you can realistically use on a day in, day out basis, is at your beck and call.

Our review unit had the six-speed manual, but should you choose the DSG you will be well served.  Purists will decry the choice that you didn’t go with a manual, but in the reality of the real world, it’s probably the better choice.  Better for the daily commute, (the clutch is light enough it’s not an issue in stop and go driving, but it can get old) and better for track work.  On the occasional back road or Sunday morning drive, yes the manual is much more satisfying, but ask yourself how much are you willing to give up for those fleeting moments.  The answer is, if you are over the age of 30, you are likely going to choose the DSG.

Fuel economy for the GTI was fairly spot on, EPA rates the GTI manual at 24 city, 34 highway and 28 combined.  If you go with the DSG, EPA rates that at 24/32/27.  The driving style for the week the car was in for review was fairly spirited, the GTI showed an indicated 27-28 mpg on winter gas.

The current generation of VW infotainment is solid, Apple CarPlay worked as it should, can’t speak to AndroidAuto since I don’t own one of those devices.  Other OEM’s units with CarPlay sometimes are finicky, but the last three VW’s that have been in for review haven’t had any glitches, so well done there.

Sure when you buy a GTI the idea is that it’s all autocross, HPDE’s, and back road carving, but reality is, if that’s 20% of the ownership experience then you have done very well!  What I want, what’s most important to me (™ Michael Corleone) is that a vehicle can do the daily grind and not be so worn out or pissed off at the vehicle that when it comes time to go do the things you bought the vehicle to do, you don’t want to go near it.  The GTI avoids this situation very well.

Sure, it may not have the “sense of occasion” that a Focus RS or a used Lotus Elise might have, then again neither of those can do the daily anywhere near as good as the GTI.  It may not create the #emogins (™ Bradley Brownell) of other vehicles, but the ability to hoon in relative stealth has its benefits.  If you had to choose just one vehicle that you wanted to do all the things on a real working person (sub $100,000 income) budget, then there are few choices better than the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

  • Ross Ballot

    Dammit, every time I read about the GTI I’m more and more intrigued. Gotta drive one of these like…now

    • JayP

      Any GTI is gonna be a good time. Event the worst (MKIII) GTI is a blast.

      • Ol’ Shel’

        I thought MKIIs were the worst.

        And I thought that because I owned one.

        • JayP

          I loved mine, the 16v was a blast.

        • phinn

          I thought the MKIV is generally considered to be the worst.

    • phinn

      Just bought this exact car, 2017 GTI Sport with manual in Night Blue. Absolutely love it so far.

  • Fred Talmadge

    When ever I read about the GTI I think, would it really be hard to put more luxury into it and make a Audi A3 S-line? They did it with my 2007 A3 and it was really the best new car I ever had. Oh well, we move on.

    • phinn

      Sounds like a waste of money when the A3 doesn’t have the GTI heritage and appeal. It’s kind of a joke in comparison. Regarding the S3, yea you got me there that’s an amazing car.

  • outback_ute

    It​ is interesting that the R is even more low key than the GTi, without the red stripe on the front.

    • dr zero

      And don’t tend to be driven by bell ends like the GTI.

  • Marto

    “Gray man” in that sense is also terminology sometimes used in the military to identify newbies who are potential officer material. The ability to do the grunt stuff without behaving like a grunt … And to run things without being a haughty jerk. You could be saying that the new Golf GTI, being something of a junior exec car, is “officer material”. Possibly in line for promotion to 5 Series (army), E Class (navy) or XF (air force).

  • Maymar

    The GTI is damn well near my platonic idea of a new car (I wouldn’t be disappointed with a wagon option, or RWD, but I can live without either), for its relatively subdued, do-everything mentality. Just, it costs nearly twice what my current car does. I’d love to see a mid-level Golf with some of the GTI’s trim (maybe the plaid seats are a little too GTI-signature, but I can dream) and sporty bits, without needing the full 2.0T (the 1.8 is no slouch), but that’s unlikely.

  • Douche_McGee

    I’m not really a fan of that plaid interior, but the fact that the MkIV GTI I owned had a nicer interior than my ’15 FiST makes me constantly consider a change. I’m just not sure the driving experience would be better.

  • cap’n fast

    but the cup holders, man! the cup holders! how many are there!!???

  • Ol’ Shel’

    Folks who have never had a great rear-drive car are lucky. They can look at this and think it would be fun to drive.

    I always wonder how many months it would take me to convert it to rwd.

  • JBsC6

    Sound so like the GTI would be a fun daily driver hot hatch so for kicks I went and test drove one… I don’t mind mean to rude but talk about over hyped,,,sorry guys …just my opinion but even in a spirited and long test drive…I didn’t really find the GTI all that great…

    It was ok,,,,no negative issues but..just nothing said to me…you want to own this box on wheels…the driving experience that had been waxed on about for decades was a disappointment..it was competent for sure…but exciting? Not really…I caned it and still nothing…

    Kind of reminded me of my drive of the Mini Cooper S….cute little car but nothing really as impressive as all the automotive journalist reviews…

    Both tragic in the reliability department or so the story goes…I couldn’t tell you…I just found out after my test drives…who cared about nice storage space or inexpensive pricing…I was just bored and disappointed….

    I’m sure for many the GTI remains a pinnacle of driver excitement….and that’s awesome…but for me…the GTI had been way over hyped…

    Don’t feel insulted I wasn’t impressed with my recent test drive of the stunningly beautiful jaguar f type either…

    To me that jaguar f type was just a hotted up Buick with the sexiest sheet metal known to man…

    Auto journalists often paint a beautiful painting of what some vehicles are like and it’s really just an individuals opinion and driving experience that matter to us as buyers in the end…

    Don’t believe all the hype…make sure to test drive each and every on you are considering yourself before signing on the dotted line,

    JMO

  • Rod Reichardt

    I bought one of these (SE trim) a few weeks ago. Manual trans even though I’m an old guy. Really solid car. Lots of fun to drive. I am a fan of the Fender audio system. Likely will tune it but may replace the clutch first with the RSR version.