Comfortable, reserved, and still dynamically enjoyable, the 7th-gen GTI is a dual-natured car that’s properly satisfying…so long as you pick the right gearbox
Having spent the majority of my automotive life around rear and all-wheel-drive platforms, my bias has always been somewhat inherently against front-drive even in spite of how well-developed the layout has become in recent years. But I’m not here to tell you, not in this article at least, to which axle I prefer my power sent, but rather to talk about one of, if not the, best FWD cars out there: the GTI. We’ve talked about it recently more than once, and now it was my turn to see if it lives up the hype.
Few cars have as storied, affectionately-remembered pasts as do Volkswagen’s beefed-up Golf. Aside from the iconic Beetle and Microbus, the GTI just might be the brand’s most loved model…and perhaps the most loved front-drive hatch of all time. Now in its Mk. VII generation, the GTI continues to be praised as a fantastic do-it-all, well-rounded car. If you need something to do everything well, but not to do any specific task perfectly, the GTI just might be the car for you. And that’s exactly what it’s the best at: not at any individual task, but at being a complete package, or being a little of everything to everyone.
But, in a package that offers a relatively narrow spread of available options, therein lies a question that deeply affects the GTI’s character: which transmission is the right pick? The six-speed manual is the traditional choice, but is DSG dual-clutch-auto better suited to the car’s mantra? Read on to find out.
I’ll admit upfront that the GTI never crossed my mind as something I’d be even remotely interested in. But searching Autotrader left me wondering, and will likely have the same effect on you, seeing as there’s multiple brand-new 2017 models under $19k, and a plethora of Sport models at around $22-23k. That’s right, brand new. Vee-dub dealers are doing everything they can to win back the good graces of customers, including slashing prices on “desirable” cars. A showroom-new, be-the-first-owner GTI under $25k is a good deal. These prices of low-and-sub-$20k are insane. And as much as it pains me to say this, a comfortable, automatic car might not be a bad choice going forward, given my back problems. And thus, I found myself looking at the GTI.
An attractive albeit somewhat mundane and understated five-door hatch (no more 2-door), the GTI is a car that has the right subtle hints upon close inspection but never really excites from a purely visual standpoint. It’s all part of the car’s charm: pleasantly surprise, rather than build up the suspense. The GTI certainly feels like its compact size, with a noticeably short distance from the steering wheel to the windshield and a rear overhang that almost isn’t there. It drives quite a bit bigger than it looks though, and you get that sense the moment you open the door.
We all know this by now but the GTI’s interior is where it comes into its own. Comfortably spacious but in no way giving off the impression of being hollow or cavernous, there’s plenty of room to stretch out and ample space for storage. But what a bleak place it is: with a driver and a passenger seated up front blocking the glory that is the plaid seats, there’s nearly nothing in one’s range of vision to break up the dark, almost sterile cabin. It’s all very purposeful, and unfortunately fairly devoid of character. But, you say, the seats! The iconic plaid seats! Step up to a higher trim and they’re swapped out in favor of black leather, effectively making every surface black or a shade of darker black. It’s a good thing that material quality is fantastic and that it’s all damn-near ergonomically perfect, but a little spice wouldn’t hurt.
What does hurt though is the size of the screen, seeing as it’s smaller than what even the usually-lacking WRX offers in terms of infotainment. Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto even on the base level are nice standard features, but a dark, expansive swath of material surrounding the screen combined with small knobs and buttons translates to a center stack that perpetually looks like it came out of a lower trim level. In practice, however, the GTI’s in-cabin tech works quite well. Easy to use, nice and responsive, and rather simple, it’s the kind of tech package that’s easily fiddled with when stopped in traffic and also that which can easily be navigated (heh) while at speed. The GTI might not win style points inside, but it definitely wins on functionality.
Not that this is meant to be a direct one-on-one comparison even though I’m making it seem that way but, being that I’ve spent a lot of time in my WRX and they function in nearly the same competitive space and price range, it’s easy to compare and contrast where each has hits and misses. The GTI’s steering wheel, while it has a nice thick rim and a good shape, is simply too large for its own good and for the size of the car. Meanwhile, visibility is equally good: you can see just about everything out the front of the GTI and, while I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the tiny port-windows-for-ants are, the VW’s visibility does rival that of the Subaru, which is something I thought I’d never say about another car short of maybe the almost-entirely-glass Teslas. And as for the seats, of which I’m hyper-critical now that my spine has been surgically modified, they are in fact pretty decent. Not great, but certainly better than the concrete slabs that are those in the WRX. Adjustability is good, but they narrow a bit at the top where they could stay wide for increased comfort. Overall though the seats are good, if not up to snuff with what I require when critiquing front-seat thrones, and they’re unquestionably road-trip if not cross-country worthy. And it’s impossible to ignore how great they look; they’re the highlight of the interior, and probably the styling highlight of the car.
Before we get to the topic of transmission choice, which is the meat of this conversation, let’s discuss power. With 220 HP the Performance Pack cars aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but they’re definitely underrated and have room on top for added boost (and efficiency). There’s ample torque to start from 2nd gear at a stoplight while also being able to cruise along at 45 MPH in 5th or 6th, and there’s quite a bit of fun to be had from the punchy hot-hatch. Flooring it from a 10 MPH roll in 1st gear will result in a screech of front-drive burnout as the car fights for traction, and will pull hard all the way through the rev range while pumping good-sounding enhanced engine noises into the cabin until power, or you, give out. The DSG without a doubt helps the car feel more peppy, with its ability to hit the next gear in the meat of the turbo, but the manual model is no slouch. The WRX is quicker, but the GTI is plenty fast for anything front-drive and especially so for anything this comfortable, and there’s a lot of potential even with just an APR Stage 1 tune. The car dares you to floor it but knows that, for the most part, it can handle the power, and not just going straight. It’s quite capable in the corners too.
It dives into a turn eagerly, going exactly where it’s pointed at just the slightest turn of the wheel, and pulls competently when the steering wheel isn’t at zero. The size and turn-in translate to the sensation that it’s easy to place exactly where you want it on the tarmac. All that said, you never forget it’s a front-driver. Not that I could get anywhere near lift-off oversteer on the street, but the back end definitely gets a little light when you brake hard going into a corner then get on the gas quick. Punch the accelerator hard and, while torque steer is mitigated to an extent, there’s no mistaking it for a true sporting-focused platform. Powering and turning the front wheels simultaneously might not be the best way to accomplish two tasks but the GTI does so pretty well, given the inherent limitations. The steering has good feel to it but the weight just isn’t there; in Comfort it’s far too light and in Sport it’s still a little lighter than would be ideal. It’s very comfort-focused and heavy on being easy to drive, like you’d find in a luxury car. Likewise, body motions are very well controlled and the ride quality is nearing that of a luxury quality, if not eclipsing that of some entry-level luxury sedans. It’s light years beyond that of the WRX, that’s for sure.
Now let’s observe the manual-transmission example I drove a few weeks back. Rolling out into first gear is immediately indicative of how comfort-focused the GTI is, and in no way revealing of just how dual-natured can be. The clutch is light and mostly devoid of feeling, just like the shifter itself. With throws far too long for their own good, and especially when compared to the WRX with a factory SPT short-shifter, the GTI’s stick is totally in the wrong league here. It’s not that the shifter itself is the problem, seeing as I’m sure a short-shift kit and upgraded bushings would work wonders, but the whole assembly, knob and lever included, feel loose and behind the quality of the rest of the car. It’s almost like the stick was overlooked and the GTI was meant to have a different gearbox…probably because it was. I came away from the manual less than thrilled. As good as the the car was as a whole, the gearbox brought it down a notch. Or six.
Conversely, the DSG provides the exact opposite experience. I wanted to hate the DSG. Wanted to loathe it, despise it for its automatic-ness. And yet, I couldn’t. Actually, I couldn’t even dislike it. In fact, I liked it. No, I loved it. DSG is as fantastic as an automatic transmission can get, this side of PDK. We drove around at first in its fully automatic position, Drive as they call it, letting the computers do their thing. First and second gear can be laggy and clunky, and the gas pedal has a serious dead spot to it for the first bit of travel, but it still operates just as you’d think an Auto would. Shifts were seamless and it had a pretty keen metaphorical eye for predicting what gear you would want to, or need to, be in for the upcoming intersection, hill, or corner. DSG is, truly, as human-thinking as I thought a gearbox could be…and that’s just in Drive. In Sport mode the transmission holds on to gears just to the point at which you wonder if it’ll actually go up into, or downshift into, the gear you’re waiting for. Its predictions are just a little behind the right-minded brain, almost always ready for what’s being thrown at it. DSG, in all honesty, is pretty damn good: it predicts, drives, and functions just as you’d want an auto that’s equally eco and performance minded to do. But that’s only one side of the DSG’s character. Slap it over to Manual, and things change.
Manual mode is where the GTI’s dual-nature is revealed most. While the stick-shift car is conflicted in how it’s a luxury car trying to be sporty, or a sporty car desperate to be a luxury car, the DSG hits both points and does so hard. Keep in mind that I don’t have a ton of experience with dual-clutch transmissions, and unfortunately haven’t driven a car equipped with PDK, but the GTI’s DSG gearbox is as real-life as I can possibly imagine a video-game transmission being, as quick as one could ever need, and as hard-hitting as one would feel comfortable driving in daily use. Slapping the seemingly lethargic and mundane gear-shift’s lever over into the Manual mode to assume full control via paddle shifters, the GTI suddenly transforms into a lightning-quick reactor, snapping off gear changes and firing through the ratios in a stunningly quick fashion. In first gear but want third? Pull the right-hand ‘Up’ paddle twice and you’re in third before you can pronounce the acronym “DSG.” Cruising along in 6th and need 3rd? Pull the ‘Down’ paddle a trio of times and suddenly you’re in the meat of the powerband. You can’t shift this fast with a manually-operated clutch. And while the third pedal might make the car a whole lot more engaging, DSG is about as much so as an automatic can get (of course, this side of PDK). In summary, DSG completely transforms the character of the GTI and is not only the better transmission for the car, but simply the better transmission.
So what did my findings reveal? The GTI is nearly luxury-car comfortable and quiet, boasts luggage/cargo capacity nearly that of a small CUV, and nearly packs dynamic capabilities on par with the WRX and Focus ST, two of its closest rivals. Is the GTI a car of compromises? No, not really. Rather, it’s a car capable of doing everything well, but that isn’t the best at anything. The GTI is the ultimate multi-tasker.
And perhaps that’s where I’m at with the GTI. It didn’t wow me and its abilities didn’t shock me, but rather I was impressed by how whole the car felt, by how well-rounded it was, by how competent it appeared to be at doing the boring day-to-day stuff while still doing that of the fun. It’s this dual-natured feeling that makes the GTI shine. It’s celebrated as a nearly-perfect car for those who need something comfortable and practical while wanting something enjoyable and amusing, and it is very much exactly that. That too is why the DSG is better suited to the GTI: it’s an all-around transmission, one that does it all.
As a daily driver for those who can only swing one car, or those who simply want what a car like this has to offer, the GTI is hard to beat. There’s absolutely no mistaking it for a true sports car, but it’s a really great car all-around that can also boast being fairly sporty. It makes good sounds, has good power, corners well, and has a transmission that’s unmatched by its peers. And all of this comes in a package that’s spacious, comfortable, efficient, and compact. Jack of all trades, master of being good at all of them. You can’t call it the best at anything, but it’s the best at being a do-it-all package. And it’s a pretty great package, the GTI. Absolutely, unquestionably worth the money, and worth the praise. Especially so with the DSG, the GTI is fully the icon it deserves the recognition for being.