We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: The Volkswagen Golf GTI is as fun to drive as many sports cars, as comfortable as many luxury sedans, and as spacious as many small SUVs. It really is the whole package. As Mary Poppins would say, it’s practically perfect in every way.
And the GTI’s Sport trim level, which is new for 2017, just may be the ideal version of this ideal car. It bundles the GTI’s most desirable optional content into one handy trim level that starts at $28,815. For that price, you get the iconic plaid fabric upholstery, bixenon headlights, attractive 18-inch wheels, an upgraded touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and proximity entry with push-button start.
The Sport also comes standard with the Performance package, meaning it’s the least expensive way to get the 10-hp bump up to 220 horsepower, as well as a limited-slip differential and larger brakes. Honestly, we’re not sure why anyone would pay extra for the SE or Autobahn trim levels, unless you’re dead set on getting VW’s active-safety features, leather seats, and a Fender audio system.
Equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission, our test GTI Sport sprinted from zero to 60 mph in a brisk 5.9 seconds, just 0.1 second behind a GTI manual we tested in 2014. The optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic ($1100 extra) makes for even quicker times—we tested one at 5.6 seconds—and is one of the few automatic transmissions that presents a strong case against opting for the manual. The DSG’s quick shifts are satisfying, although the stick shift—replete with a dimpled, golf-ball-like shift knob—ups the GTI’s engagement factor. The manual’s long clutch travel, which becomes annoying in traffic, is the only downside.
Volkswagen’s turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four is getting on in years, but its 258 lb-ft of torque still comes on strong and early. It’s smooth, too, and has a pleasant exhaust note that’s slightly aggressive without being obnoxious. Tall gearing means you don’t have to shift all that often, as the engine’s broad torque band makes the car feel responsive even when loping along on the highway in sixth gear. On top of all that, it’s remarkably efficient. Our observed average of 27 mpg falls just 1 mpg short of the EPA’s combined rating, impressive for a performance-oriented car in our lead-footed, er, hands.
The GTI’s chassis is as accomplished as its engine. This car makes it easy to get into a rhythm through the corners thanks to light and accurate steering, along with taut suspension tuning that limits body roll. And yet, the ride is more compliant than you’ll find in most of the GTI’s sport-compact competitors—it’s firm and composed, like you’d expect to find in a luxury sports sedan.
We’re not sure which is more impressive: that a car this fun to drive can offer a hugely practical interior package, or that a car this spacious can be so dynamically satisfying. The boxy hatchback silhouette that has been a Golf staple for decades affords a capacious cargo area—23 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 53 cubes with the rear seats folded, or nearly as much as VW’s own Tiguan small SUV. The GTI’s rear-seat accommodations are top-notch for this class thanks to well-sculpted seat cushions and a clear view out the side windows.
Not that the driver and front passenger get the short end of the stick. The front seats are nicely bolstered, and large glass areas make for excellent visibility. High-quality plastics abound, and assembly quality is unimpeachable. Volkswagen installed a newer infotainment system in 2016, and it’s well organized and easy to use, whether you’re using the native interface or an integrated smartphone.
If you’re waiting for the catch, prepare to be disappointed. In our eyes, the Golf GTI has no significant flaws and that kept it on our 10Best Cars list for 2017. Some of us find its boxy styling too bland, but no one actually calls its ugly. You won’t find another car for less than $30,000 that so deftly combines practicality and driving enjoyment while also feeling like a premium piece.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $28,815 (base price: $26,415)
ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 121 cu in, 1984 cc
Power: 220 hp @ 4700 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 103.6 in
Length: 168.0 in
Width: 70.8 in Height: 56.8 in
Passenger volume: 93 cu ft
Cargo volume: 23 cu ft
Curb weight: 3116 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 5.9 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 14.6 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 22.2 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 6.5 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 11.7 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 7.8 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 14.6 sec @ 100 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 126 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 154 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.94 g
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 28/24/34 mpg
C/D observed: 27 mpg