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Quick Spin: 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE

The GTI shouldn’t need an introduction. Even its model name, despite being used on many other cars, can only be related to one vehicle without further specification. In the decades that the GTI has been around it remained shockingly true to its roots – a hot-hatch version of the Volkswagen Golf.

For 2018, the evolution of the recipe continues and remains amazingly simple: a turbocharged 220hp (@4700rpm) and 258lb.-ft. (@1500rpm) four-cylinder engine, a choice of a proper manual or dual-clutch (automatic-ish) transmissions, plaid cloth or leather seats, and some other minor options available across three model trims. The functional and fun-to-drive GTI is topped off with a reasonable price, too.  

No wings, fat fenders, or ground effects. Remove the two badges and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the GTI apart from a conventional Golf. The subdued looks are part of the GTIs charm. Those who have actually grown up may not want to drive a boy-racer car but still want something fun, and that’s where the GTI delivers. It’s almost refreshing when compared to the Speed Racer wing of the WRX STI and the Fast n’ Furious look of the Civic Type R.

For better or worse the interior is unmistakably Volkswagen; intuitive, efficient, and ergonomic, if rather bland. VW’s eight-inch MIB II infotainment center is new for this year on the SE and Autobahn models. It is nice but still a bit awkward to use. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration is standard on all models, even the base model without the MIB II. The audio system sounds good.

Seats are one of the things that separate the GTI from the regular Golfs. Available in a cool plaid fabric or black leather, they are supportive without being uncomfortable even for bigger people. They’re much more of a bucket seat, for lack of a better term, than they look. The most surprising thing is that the rear outboard passenger seats are almost equally supportive. Three stage butt-warmers are standard in the front.

The most important thing about the GTI is how it drives. There are many faster cars and there are many better handling cars, but that’s not the point here. The point of the GTI is that it is fun to drive not matter what the latest competition offers. And it delivers – the engine is flexible enough to pull the hatchback around town at slow speeds at low rpm, but it’s at its best north of the 3000 rpm line and loves to rev. Power levels out at high engine speeds but I hear after-market tuners have a solution for that.

Throwing the GTI into a sharp corner exhibits slightly more body roll than I expected. That’s not a bad thing but rather part of its charm. It remains unfazed in sudden lane changes, though. Despite the VAQ limited slip differential (and traction control), I did notice a good amount of inside wheel spin, more than I’d personally care for. The system uses the brakes to control the wheel spin (like the Focus ST) as opposed to a mechanical device (like the Civic Si/Type R). The ride, even over crap New England roads is smooth, which nicely match the GTI’s understated tone. It’s fun and handles well without being jarring – it’s exactly what it’s always been.

The biggest question about the GTI comes down to which model to get. The S model, at $26,415 is totally fine, providing the basic necessities. For $30,470 the SE adds LED headlights, the not-so-limited limited-slip differential, sunroof, heated seats, MIB II system, and bigger brakes from the Golf R. It also includes big ticket items like dynamic cruise control, emergency braking, and blind-spot detection. The pimped out Autobahn is $35,070 and adds adjustable suspension and a ParkPilot system. Those who are nervous about buying the GTI because of Volkswagen’s checkered past in terms of reliability should know that the new cars come with a six-year, 72,000-mile warranty.

Picking the right model is a personal choice. I look at the Golf as a budget vehicle and therefore I think the base S model is the one to get. The bigger brakes on the SE and Autobahn models are really only needed to dissipate heat in lengthy track driving. And I wasn’t sold on the LSD that uses those brakes to distribute power. The S has a smaller 6.5-inch display and no factory nav, but it does come with Apple CarPlay. Lack of sunroof adds headroom, and I love those plaid seats. But [flame suit on] I’d spend the $1500 for the dual-clutch transmission.

For those who are questioning my judgement on the affordable S, those who frequently autocross or use their GTI for track events, I suggest spending a little more money and getting the Golf R. The difference between the GTI and the R is more substantial than it appears – it’s like they’re totally different cars, with the R being superior in performance. Buy the GTI for its bang-for-the-buck factor, its functionality and versatility, and buy it because it is just fun to drive while looking mature. Buy the GTI for what it’s always been. 

[Disclaimer: Volkswagen provided the GTI for the purpose of this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Hooniverse 2018]

  • Zentropy

    In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of FWD. Not at all. Being pulled by the front wheels doesn’t communicate the full chassis to me, somehow, and I always feel like I’m driving half a car with steering feel muted by the drivetrain. That said, there are few cars, should I be forced to drive a FWD, that I would prefer over a GTI. This is a nice car.

    • crank_case

      Yup, it’s nice, and I wouldn’t slate anyone for choosing one, but it always seems the slightly sober choice when it comes to FWD hatchbacks.

      • Zentropy

        Sober choices seem to suit me at my age. My hooning days are far from over, but at this stage I tend to lean towards an appreciation of subjective handling and feel, rather than objective speed and lateral Gs. As FWD hot hatches go, the GTI is a good one. (However, I wouldn’t pass on a test drive of a Focus RS.)

        • crank_case

          I guess we have a wider choice in Europe, but it’s subjective handling and feel that I mean. I have no doubt the Golf is a nice drive perfectly capable of entertaining, but VWs historically always seemed to strike me as a bit more businesslike than the competition, even in the MK1/2 days. They were fun, but other things were “funner” (e.g. 205 GTI vs MK2 Golf).

          If I didn’t need a Golf sized car, I reckon a Fiesta ST or Peugeot 208GTI would offer more accessible hilarity. In Golf sized cars (Euro specific I know), if fun and the driving experience was high on the priorities list, I think the Focus ST, something from Renaultsport (sort of in-between generations at the moment, waiting for a new one, but the last one was ridiculously good) or Peugeot, possibly even the Hyundai N would be my first ports of call before setting foot in a VW showroom. Even within the VW family – I’d probably look at its SEAT Cupra equivalent first.

          I haven’t mentioned the Focus RS or Civic Type R as they’d be quite a step up pricewise.

          • Zentropy

            Genuine hot hatch choices are indeed slim in the U.S., but the VW GTI always struck me as a smart one. I even enjoyed the Golf TDI. Perhaps if I lived in Europe I’d have a better appreciation for small, well-engineered FWDs, but here they’re pretty banal. Sadly, we lack Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots for comparison. The Focus RS is tempting, with 350hp and AWD, but most others are neutered econoboxes. The Civic Type R might have been great (and given its FWD handicap, it’s actually pretty spectacular), but its ridiculous styling means only Honda fanboys need apply. You couldn’t pay me enough to be seen driving that.

  • neight428

    Does the torque peak at 1500 rpm?

    • Yes, and remains rather flat until 4500-5000rom, when it starts dropping off.

      • neight428

        Fabulous things these turbochargers.

        • crank_case

          I dunno, “free” energy from exhaust gasses? Sounds a bit hokey to me.

  • I assume “breaking” is what happens when one presses the “break” “petal.”

    • I’m firing the ediotr.

    • crank_case

      It’s what happens once it’s out of warranty.