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2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE review: Yes, the 2015 VW GTI is still one of the best hot hatches ever

Yes, the car that many say was the original hot hatchback in 1975 is still one of the best in that class some 40 years and seven generations later.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
6 min read

Blasting through the mountains on a sprint toward the Northern California coast, the Tornado Red compact merrily jaunts from left to right along a serpentine decline with the agility of a mogul skier. The lush redwoods whiz by in a green blur and I silence the pounding stereo soundtrack and enjoy the sensation of the drive, the weight of the steering and the noise of the turbocharged engine. I imagine, just for a moment, that I'm instead in Germany's Black Forest or the Nurburgring. I haven't had this much fun in a very long time.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE

The Good

The GTI's turbocharged engine is both more powerful for 2015 and slightly more fuel-efficient. Available performance options make the GTI ever faster and more nimble, but even the base model is a thrilling driver. Simple design and tech keeps the GTI from feeling dated, while still providing thoughtful amenities.

The Bad

The proprietary MDI connection is an annoyance, forcing you to swap proprietary media connections rather than just giving us a simple USB port.

The Bottom Line

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI continues to improve without straying too far from the blueprint that makes the original hot hatchback so great.

Yes, the car that many say started the hot hatchback class in 1975 is still one of the best in that class some 40 years -- and six generations -- later. The 2015 Volkswagen GTI Mk.7 may be bigger, more powerful and more technologically sophisticated than the Mk.1, but the character, the style and the simple core of driving joy that has made this one of the most popular sport compacts on the planet is still at the heart of the hatch.

More powerful

The GTI is powered by a revised version of the automaker's direct injected EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. For 2015, that means a jump to 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The red-hot hatch not only produces a good amount of power and torque for sporty driving, but it also does an excellent job delivering that power. Much of the available torque comes on early in the tachometer's swing, which makes the car feel quick off of the line and responsive around town.

While turbo lag is no longer an issue for the GTI, it would seem that VW has left a bit of the characteristic nonlinear forced induction power delivery in there for longtime fans of small turbocharged engines. Squeeze the throttle for a pass and you'll feel a noticeable surge of power that is both surprising and delightful.

Under the hood, Volkswagen refined the 2-liter four-cylinder engine from the previous version, pushing it up to 210 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The GTI puts its power to the front wheels via either an available six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox. The DSG (a $1,100 upgrade) is plainly the faster option with its lightning quick shifts and launch control, while the manual transmission is more engaging. Both are excellent choices. In a previous test, CNET's Wayne Cunningham found the DSG's chosen ratios to be a bit oddly spaced, which somewhat colored his take on the GTI's responsiveness. My week behind the wheel was with the splendid manual transmission, which featured slightly closer ratios and a rewarding, tactile feel when rowing through the gears.

The GTI's EPA numbers are also better for 2015, at 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway for the six-speed manual version and 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for the DSG.

Volkswagen refines new GTI with handling tech (pictures)

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More nimble

Standard equipment for the GTI is Volkswagen's Cross Differential System (XDS+) which uses bias braking to enhance handling and to coax the hatchback's open differential to behave like a limited slip setup. The system is able to judiciously brake the inside wheel during cornering to reduce understeer and to apply braking pressure to a slipping drive wheel to transfer torque to the opposite end of the axle. It does all of this fairly transparently -- only once during my testing did I notice the system in action tugging the nose back into line.

A true torque-sensing limited slip differential is available as part of a Performance package, which also includes a slight retune to the engine's program that bumps maximum power up to 220 horsepower and the ability to further spec the GTI's first-ever (for the North American market) adaptive suspension (DCC). Our example was not equipped with this $1,495 package or the $800 suspension upgrade, but was still an absolute hoot to drive.

All GTI models also now feature a drive mode selector system that toggles among Normal, Sport and Individual modes, the last of which is customizable. Sport mode adjusts the throttle map for maximum responsiveness and sharpens the electric power steering system. If equipped with either the DSG or the DCC, the transmission program and suspension setup are also altered for driving enjoyment. With our manual gearbox, I struggled to notice much difference between the Sport and Normal programs.

More refined

Though more sharply styled than ever, the 2015 GTI still basically looks like one of a million other VW Golfs parked in a million other driveways and tends to blend in wherever it's parked. The car's exterior doesn't attract much attention and the interior doesn't distract from the simple experience of driving. In the past, I've called the VW's design "boring," but that opinion has evolved alongside the GTI's design. These days, I tend to think of the hatchback's aesthetic as "timeless."

The interior is all high quality black plastic and no-nonsense straight lines. The instrument cluster and the two displays feature are simple white text and graphics on a black background. Here and there the cabin is spiced up with modern touches for the boy-racer types -- such as faux carbon fiber accents and red stitching, red light piping accents on the doors and kickplates, ambient illumination in the footwells, and the classic dimpled "Golf Ball" shift knob -- but Volkswagen isn't really pushing any design boundaries here. The result of this restraint is that the GTI doesn't have a design expiration date like, for example, the funkily styled Hyundai Veloster Turbo.

Volkswagen reworked its infotainment systems for this generation of the GTI, with a standard 5.8-inch touchscreen.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Standard on the SE trim level is an excellent 400-watt, eight-speaker Fender audio system, which sounds fantastic. The audio rig is headed by a 5.8-inch touchscreen that displays a clean and easy to understand interface. The VW doesn't really boast many bells and whistles, fitting with its less-is-more design, but does feature HD Radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming, and access to USB and iPod connectivity via the VW MDI connection. I'm not a fan of MDI, which requires the driver to switch between proprietary pigtails for USB, Apple Lightning and Apple 30-pin connectivity. Most automakers offer similar or superior connectivity with a plain and simple USB port.

One interesting feature of the infotainment display is VW's inclusion of proximity-activated controls. When the driver or passenger reaches for the screen, an infrared sensor below the display detects the approaching hand and triggers a row of soft keys to appear along the bottom of the screen. This row usually includes skip and pause buttons, shortcuts to settings, or playlist controls that hide themselves when the hand is removed, presenting the driver with a clean and uncluttered view.

Also standard on all GTI models is Volkswagen's Car-Net telematics system, which we've seen in action already on the current generation of Jetta and Passat vehicles. The subscription service brings a level of functionality similar to GM's OnStar to the VW family of cars that the GTI's smartphone toting target market will likely be unimpressed with.

The VW GTI is available with an optional navigation upgrade, but our vehicle was not so equipped. We also didn't have equipped the optional park assist system which gives audible proximity alerts when squeezing the GTI into a parking space. However, our SE trim level does feature a standard rear-view camera, which flips out from behind the VW badge on the rear hatch when reversing. Video quality for that camera isn't the best, but it gets the job done.

Looking back at the hot hatch that started it all (photos)

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Still the best

What's so great about the 2015 VW GTI? Well, pretty much everything. It's timelessly stylish. It's a blast to drive. It's everything that you need in a hot hatchback and not much else. With the DSG, performance package, and adaptive suspension, it has the potential to be a track-day tool. At the base level with the manual transmission, it's as engaging and playful as the original hot hatchback ever was.

The 2015 Volkswagen GTI two-door S starts at $24,785 in the US. In the UK and Australia, the GTI starts at £26,580 and AU$46,811, respectively. Our GTI SE 2-door adds many creature comforts such as keyless start and entry, a power moonroof, Fender audio and a rear camera for $27,395. Along with $820 for destination fees, our as-tested price is $28,215.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE

Score Breakdown

Performance 9Features 7Design 9Media 7