Hey, do you guys like hatchbacks? Me too, which is good because the front page here at Hooniverse now has two red, relatively hot four-door hatchbacks. Fresh off of the 2023 Mazda Mazda3 AWD Premium Plus review this Golf GTI Autobahn got delivered for a week of driving fun. It’s about $4,000 more than the top spec Mazda3 (sort of, actually only about $3,000, more on that in a minute) so I was curious how they stacked up. The GTI has more horsepower, but the Mazda3 has more torque. So it’s a good ole-fashioned showdown. Sort of.
Let’s get it on!
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI Overview
Most of you know your VW Golf and GTI history, this Mk8 version of their popular hatchback debuted for the 2022 model year. With a totally new exterior and revamped interior, the GTI is actually the entry point to the “Golf” range now. Gone is the base Golf leaving just the GTI and the Golf R. The Golf GTI has a pretty broad range of starting MSRPs from just over $30,500 to just over $39,000.
All Golf GTI models get the same engine, a 2.0L inline four making 241 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 273 lb-ft at 1600 rpm. So that means the not-insignificant $8,540 delta in pricing is purely based on features and options. I don’t feel like copying and pasting them, so they are in the screenshot below from the VW GTI builder.
The S comes pretty well-equipped for a $30K, with lots of great stuff for the price. Our top-trim Autobahn tester came with the six-speed manual (the seven-speed DSG automatic adds $800) and was painted in Kings Red Metallic ($395) while the Titan Black leather interior was substituted Scalepaper Plaid inserts on the seats (which I adore!).
Interestingly, as you can see by the monroney above, there is a $1,225 credit for swapping in the much cooler plaid seats. However, you lose a few features from the Autobahn like power seats with position memory and ventilation. A good change in my opinion, though I wasn’t able to replicate it on VW’s website unfortunately. It’s possible that this was supply-chain related. That makes the delta between the GTI and the Mazda3 a bit smaller. Let’s get into some of the details on the VW hatch and I’ll try and weave in some Mazda3 comparisons along the way and pick an outright winner at the end.
Inside & Out
The latest GTI looks fantastic, with just the right level of aggression mixed with upscale touches. The LED headlights curl up into the front fenders and give it a devilish look, while the lower air dam is covered in hexagons which are some of my favorite gons (my favorite being Egon from Ghostbusters). I even like that the 19-inch wheels aren’t all black, with a nice chrome over dark gray finish. Like the Mazda3, it foregoes a lot of the over-the-top styling found in a lot of modern designs. I’m a big fan of both designs, but for sheer overall attractiveness, I’d have to give a slight edge to the Mazda3, but the competition is tight.
Exterior Winner – Mazda3
On the inside, it’s a mixed bag for the GTI. The overall design is upscale with a very clean design, just like the Mazda3. Unfortunately, the “clean design” part comes from the fact that it is largely free of buttons. Other than the hazard button and the parking brake, there are no real buttons, and that was a major problem from a usability perspective. Everything is controlled by flat touch-sensitive buttons, some with haptic feedback, others without. Some backlit, some not.
If the minimalist approach in the Mazda3 created a bit of a learning curve, in the GTI it created a learning brick wall (so, like it’s not even a curve, it’s just…you get it). Almost nothing about it is intuitive, even opening the sunroof didn’t make sense. You slide your finger from to front to back to open it, but to just vent it…I guess you’re supposed to touch it…somewhere in the middle? It wasn’t clear. Are the touch-sensitive “buttons” cheaper to produce, are they more reliable than hard buttons? Is it just done to seem like it’s from the future, or packed with technology?
The overall aesthetic of the interior is great though, the GTI features some nice touches of red on the wheel and shifter, while the plaid seats are just phenomenal. Not just to look at, but to spend time in. The bolsters are fantastic and the seats even have small pockets in the back hold items like cell phones (lol, like a kid would put that down in the car).
From a non-button-related tech perspective, the GTI Autobahn has a nicely sized 10.3-inch gauge cluster and a 10.0-inch touchscreen that are both surrounded in a piano black housing. VW’s touchscreen interface was easy to use, and unlike the Mazda3, you could actually control things by…touching the screen. Apple CarPlay wouldn’t connect at first, I had to pull off the road and fiddle with it, and even had to restart the car to get it to take. However, it connected reliably after that.
There are lots of neat little features in the menu system, my daughter even changed all of the ambient lighting to pink. Not sure it went matched well with the red accents, but at night it actually looked good. Plus, I like pink. Speaking of lighting, during the day you can see the plus/minus HVAC button to control the temperature, but you can’t at night since it’s not lit. I had the same issue in the new RS3 that I recently reviewed. At night I could see the backlit sunroof button, but not during the day. I’ll note that I really liked the extensive configurability of the driver’s gauge cluster. I like that I can see which gear I was in on one side and what song is playing on the other, and the tachometer and speedometer sitting right in the middle of the displays were large and easy to read. Even the numbers were animated, the number that you were closest in the RMP range gets slightly larger as the needle nears it.
But…at the risk of making this review about buttons, I’ll note that because the steering wheel controls weren’t actual buttons I ended up changing songs on Spotify three times while trying to modify the driver’s display.
In the back the GTI has a bit more headroom over the Mazda3 (38.1 inches vs. 36.5 inches) which was nice for tall back seat passengers. However, legroom and shoulder room were both fairly close to being the same. Cargo capacity is nearly identical as well, with the GTI coming in at 19.9 cu. ft. and the Mazda3 measuring 20.1 cu. ft. Both provide a nicely practical space to haul stuff in between hauling ass.
So, who wins on the interior battle between the GTI and the Mazda3? Well the tech in the VW infuriated me constantly, but so did the Mazda’s. Both have nice looking interiors, and the two cars are comparably sized, so let’s call it a draw.
Interior – Tie
Damn Buttons!!!! I’m fine, this is all fine.
On The Road
Speaking of hauling ass (which I spoke of two-ish paragraphs ago if you recall), the GTI can certainly do it. Car & Driver pegged it at 5.1 seconds to sixty mph, and clocked a 13.6 sec @ 105 mph quarter-mile time. That’s much, much, quicker than the Mazda3, even with the 2.5L turbo engine it was closer to six-seconds. However, C&D tested a DSG-equipped GTI which is likely quicker than the six-speed. Regardless, the FWD GTI only has 14 more horsepower more than the Mazda3 but is down by a lofty 37 lb. ft. of torque so the performance is impressive. There is a 260 pound weight difference, the advantage going to the GTI, which likely helped.
Out on the road, it’s a great driver’s car. The shift knob it’s particularly pretty, I miss the old golf ball, but it fell easily to hand and the shifts were crisp and easy. Not quite as “snickety-snicky” precise as a manual in a Honda, but good. It also has a temporary brake hold which lasts 2-3 seconds which was handy on hills or stop-and-go traffic. Regardless, the performance round goes to the GTI. Not only is it quicker, you can have a manual transmission mated to a great engine. The Mazda3 only lets you opt for a manual with the naturally aspirated 2.5L.
Performance – GTI
So, who wins the shootout between the Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn and the Mazda Mazda3 2.5 Turbo Premium AWD? Well, the looks (exterior) round went to the Mazda3, the interior round was a draw (they both pissed me off), and the performance round went to the GTI. Oh shit, that’s a tie.
In a Ted Lasso voice “you can tieee?”.
Oh, well…ahem…that’s not gone well. I guess I’d have to choose which one I’d actually buy, and that would have to be the Golf GTI. But the sweet spot in the lineup is really the SE trim in my mind. The features added on the Autobahn are great, but if you want a fun to drive hatchback with most of the creature comforts you’d hope to find in a $35,000 car, plus a few more, check out the GTI SE. Same engine, plaid interior, manual gearbox, all part of a great recipe that VW has worked on for decades.
Now just ditch the silly touch-sensitive buttons. Please. I beg you.
Up next in the press loan queue…checks notes…a VW ID4.