2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI review: Parting is such sweet sorrow
The Volkswagen Golf GTI is one of the all-time greats, spending seven generations in the sweet spot between daily usability and an old-fashioned good time. In its final year before the introduction of an all-new eight generation, the Golf's hot-hatch variant continues to remind us why it remains a darling of critics and car geeks alike.
The GTI doesn't look much different than the Golf, but that's fine, because it's never been a shouty car. My Tornado Red tester does grab some eyes with its paint color, but most of the stuff that sets the GTI apart takes some effort to find, like the slightly more aggressive air intakes on the bumper, the sensible number of GTI badges or the trick red elements tucked into the LED headlights. Even the 18-inch alloy wheels are appropriately sized. It's a look that flies under the radar, which is fine, because who really needs more points on their license?
My Autobahn-trim GTI foregoes the ubiquitous plaid seats in favor of something far less exciting: black leather. Honestly, that might be my biggest problem with the GTI. If it were possible to retain those excellent cloth seats on higher trims, I'd be a happy camper. That said, the leather-clad cushions aren't bad, with plenty of support and heaters that fire up pretty quickly in chilly weather. The Golf is an inexpensive car, but the interior isn't exactly bargain-basement; build quality is top-notch and most of the plastics aren't offensively hard or unsightly. A smattering of piano-black trim breaks up the dashboard's monotony, too.
From a family-car perspective, there's plenty to like about the GTI. The rear seats have ample space and the hatchback's flat roof provides more than enough headroom for all occupants. Its 16.5-cubic-foot cargo area is sufficiently sized for a family's worth of groceries or a couple suitcases. Tchotchke storage is a little limited, with sizable door pockets but cramped cubbies in the center console and under the armrest. Thin A-pillars and an upright body means the GTI also offers up an impressive view, not only of the road ahead but also in every other direction.
It's hard not to have fun
Not every sports car needs some sky-high output figure to return a large number of smiles per gallon. The GTI makes do with an amount that isn't even considered sporty in many cars: Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine puts out 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to have a good time. Almost every spot on the tachometer is a good starting point for fun, as the four-pot spits out enough torque to push the GTI with sufficient haste, making it easy to slide into traffic from an on-ramp or shoot ahead at a green light. It's an approachable kind of powerband, too, never feeling like it's overwhelming the car (or the driver). Even the exhaust note is on the demure side, generating enough bass to sound interesting without so much as to alert the neighbors.
On my tester, that power makes its way to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. The action between the gears is a little rubbery, but it's not imprecise, accepting shifts whether they arrive with haste or not. The clutch pedal offers just enough bite-point feedback to make smooth starts possible every time and the throttle manipulation in any vehicle mode is sufficient to ensure rev-matched downshifts can be rattled off without upsetting everyone inside. The steering is direct, if a little light, but it feels perfectly matched to the rest of the GTI.
Like several other inexpensive good-time-mobiles, the GTI Autobahn packs a set of adaptive dampers. In Normal mode, the suspension does a good job preventing most of the road's nastier elements from making a mess of the ride quality, aided by summer tires that buck the trend of eliminating unwanted millimeters of sidewall. In Sport mode and beyond, things get… stiff, but that's by design. If you want to shut the door on body roll's face, this is the way to do it, but as always, there's a ride-quality tradeoff involved. No matter the mode, this front-drive hot hatch is a perennial hoot. Toss it into a corner, cackle as the two-liter's torque pulls you out the other side, rinse and repeat. It's front-wheel drive, so there are very few situations where overdriving results in anything other than a bit of understeer.
Despite a turbocharged engine that doesn't break output records, the GTI isn't the most efficient hatchback on the block. The EPA estimates my tester at 24 miles per gallon city and 32 mpg highway. While my city economy lands closer to 20 mpg, I have no problem stretching beyond the highway rating, seeing up to 35 mpg if I maintain a light foot and avoid spooling up the turbocharger.
Straightforward, usable tech
All GTI trims make use of Volkswagen 's MIB II infotainment system, with the base model rocking a 6.5-inch touchscreen while SE and Autobahn variants sporting a fancier, glass-covered 8-inch display. It's an easy system to get used to, with a straightforward layout and a quick-access dock that disappears from the screen until your hand approaches. Navigation is available on the larger display, and while the graphics might feel old, destination entry is easy (whether using voice or the on-screen keyboard) and it can even recommend endpoints based on your prior activity.
Buyers also get five free years of VW's Car-Net Remote Access connected-car tech, which allows owners to use a mobile app (available on both phones and smartwatches) to control the GTI's door locks and headlights, and some models also include remote start. A 4G LTE hotspot powered by Verizon Wireless is also available, with prepaid plans costing about $20 per month.
For its final model year, VW makes forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking and rear cross-traffic alert standard on all GTI variants. My Autobahn tester further enhances safety with standard adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and parking sensors. Nothing works with too heavy a hand; even the lane-keeping assist does a pretty good job of subtly changing vehicle position without being annoying. There's no advanced lane-centering, highway-driving trickery here, but what does come standard works very well for what it is.
Down to brass tacks
While a manual-transmission GTI S can be had for $29,690 (including $995 for destination), the price can quickly reach quasi-wonky heights, with my 6MT Autobahn rolling out of the dealership with a $37,940 price tag. There's a good deal of competition in this segment. There are older guards like the Civic Si, which is down on power but also down on price (and fun factor), but there's neat new rivals on the horizon, like the Mazda3 Turbo, which will pack 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque in conjunction with all-wheel drive. The Subaru WRX is in there, too, but with a new one on the way, it might be worth holding off -- then again, the same can be said of the GTI.
It's always a shame to say goodbye to a beloved model, but there's no need to weep over the 2021 Volkswagen GTI. While it remains one of my favorite cars thanks to its equal-dose blend of pragmatism and excitement, there's a brand new one on the horizon and it's likely to take all the good parts of the current model while enhancing the aesthetics, technology and more. But for now, the current model scratches just about every itch there is.