While Volkswagen has lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons thanks to its self-inflicted Dieselgate scandal, the company’s sporty-yet-practical Golf GTI serves as a vivid reminder that Volkswagen still gets a lot of things really very right. The current, seventh-generation Golf GTI was introduced for the 2015 model year. It has sharper, more slab-sided styling than the previous-generation version, slightly lighter bodywork, and a more powerful new 2.0L turbocharged engine, the latter traits making this thoroughly-entertaining little hot hatch friskier than ever.
For 2016, Volkswagen has finally tackled the one area where the Golf GTI and its siblings always fell a little flat, and has installed an all-new infotainment system with a larger touchscreen, standard back-up camera, universal USB input (replacing the annoying proprietary MDI plug), improved interface, voice-to-text messaging, and smartphone integration via Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink. In addition, Volkswagen has expanded the Golf GTI’s available Driver Assistance package to provide autonomous parallel parking as well as adaptive cruise control, emergency brake assist, lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring.
One of the great things about the Golf GTI is its spot-on balance, its seamless blending of sportiness and practicality, aggression and civility, power and frugality. My Reflex Silver five-door test car, fitted out in range-topping Performance trim, didn’t disappoint. The styling is generally pretty low-key – the regular Golf’s timeless hatchback lines and generous greenhouse dictate the overall look – but the GTI spices things up with unique wheels, a deeply-scooped and slotted front valance, a GTI-specific honeycomb grille with red piping, and a rear spoiler atop the hatch. From certain angles the rear end can look a little stubby, but overall the Golf GTI is handsome and uncluttered, with just enough boy-racer bling to give it street cred.
Inside, it’s easy to fall in love with the GTI. The cabin is cleanly styled, well fitted out, beautifully detailed for a car in this segment, and loaded with standard equipment including dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, tilt-and-telescoping steering, cruise control and more. Standard seat upholstery for the 2016 GTI is a tartan cloth that hearkens back to the original GTI of 1976, complemented by red contrast stitching. It’s a perfect retro-touch, and somehow more subtle and classy-looking in person than photos might suggest.
The seats themselves are nicely supportive and thoroughly comfortable for my 5’11”, 165 pound frame. The back seat offers real room for two adults (or three passengers in a squeeze), and there’s 645 L of cargo space with the 60/40 split folding seats up and 1,492 L with them both folded. In-cabin storage is taken care of with generous door pockets, a glovebox, and a smallish console bin with a pair of cupholders forward of it.
In Pictures: GTI Treffen at Worthersee, Austria
Soft-surfaced materials are strategically employed for the dash top, front door uppers and arm rests, and the rigid plastics used elsewhere are nicely grained and good-looking, set off by brushed metallic and patterned black trim surfaces. Cloth-wrapped A-pillars elevate things a notch above typical compact fare, and other premium details include a fat, flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel, a standard panoramic sunroof in all but the base three-door model, and ambient glowing red lines below the door trim and on the sills. I was also impressed with the instrument glass which is either very strategically angled or uses an anti-reflective coating to completely eliminate the reflections you get in many other cars. The effect is that the precision-looking instruments maintain their crispness even in the harshest lighting.