Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Five-Door

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

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.

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.

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.

The new infotainment system's standard 6.5-inch touchscreen isn't gigantic by any means, but it's a significant improvement over the previous 5.8-inch screen, and Performance-trim cars like my tester now get a big 8-inch proximity-sensing touchscreen that offers crisp graphics and quick input responses. I found the interface to be decently intuitive, and there are redundant buttons (as well as proper volume and tuning controls) to make accessing the main functions a snap. Dig around a little and you can find things like a g-force display for when you're feeling sporty, and a "Blue Drive" display for when you're feeling economy-minded.

Voice-activated navigation is standard in all but base three-door GTI, and even without it you'd be able to get navigation functions through your smartphone thanks to the GTI's standard-across-the-range Smartphone integration. In terms of audio, the eight-speaker Fender system in my test car was plenty potent and finally up to "premium audio" snuff, with noticeably improved clarity compared to previous Fender systems I've encountered.

For those who dread parking in tight spots, the addition of automated parking assist to the Performance trim for 2016 should prove a boon, and here again Volkswagen wins points for an intuitive and easy-to-use interface that lets you easily select between parallel and perpendicular parking and keeps you well informed about what the system is doing. I found it to be one of the easiest-to-use systems yet. The remainder of the driver assist technologies all work as expected (you owe it to yourself to experience adaptive cruise control if you haven't already), and given the GTI's generally good outward sightlines the blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert really are more of an assist than a necessity.

All of the foregoing, however, is really just icing on the cake, because it's on the road where the Golf GTI has traditionally shined brightest, and the 2016 is no exception. The 2.0L turbocharged engine in the 2016 GTI makes 210 hp (220 hp in Performance trim), with a big flat torque curve that serves up 258 lb-ft of twist from 1,600 rpm onward. This is a gain of 10 hp (20 hp in Performance trim) and 51 lb-ft of torque compared to the previous engine, and it combines with the lighter bodywork (about 25 kg lighter than the previous generation car) to give the GTI truly satisfying performance.

The power is delivered via either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic, with the engine producing a gruff exhaust note and a nice blat between shifts when you rev it high enough. Floor the gas pedal and the Golf GTI will scoot from 0 to 100 km/h in about 6.3 seconds when equipped with my test car's Performance package and dual-clutch automatic. That's not so fast as to frighten BMW M3 drivers, it's true, but it's plenty fast enough to quicken your pulse and plaster a smile on your face, and it's about a second quicker than the garden-variety 1.8l Golf.

The GTI's power doesn't come with excessive pain at the pump, either: Official ratings are 9.5/7.2 l/100 km (city/highway), and despite some spirited driving I managed fuel economy within reasonable striking distance of the official numbers, with an average of 9.4 l/100 km in mixed driving and mid-8s on a mountainous highway drive. I likely could've achieved numbers even closer to the official ratings if I'd been content to leave the transmission in Drive, but I find that the Volkswagen's otherwise excellent DSG transmission remains a bit overeager to upshift in its search for efficiency, and so I was constantly either slapping it into Sport mode (which has the opposite trait of frequently staying too long in lower gears) or flicking the somewhat small and plasticky paddle-shifters to force a downshift. I've said it before, but I think Volkswagen needs a third, semi-sport mode for the DSG transmission.

Around the corners, the GTI is tossable and fun, with precise steering, tenacious grip, and admirable balance for a front-drive car (and if you want all-wheel drive, there's always the Golf R). The brakes live up to the promise of their red-painted calipers with confidence-inspiring stopping power and an easy to modulate pedal action. The Performance trim comes with selectable dynamic chassis control that offers Comfort, Normal and Sport modes, and to the chassis's credit I found all modes offered a reasonable balance between ride and handling. Normal mode offers a fairly firm ride, certainly, but it doesn't jostle you around and I found it just about perfect for everyday driving enjoyment. Comfort mode is a wee bit softer riding without becoming mushy, and Sport firms things up a little for even crisper handling, without becoming harsh.

By the end of the week, the Volkswagen GTI had won over our entire family. I enjoyed the spirited driving dynamics, my long-legged teenage daughter appreciated the rear-seat legroom, my mother-in-law was impressed with the well-appointed interior, and my wife simply didn't want to give the GTI back. While my top-of-the-line test car priced out at a fairly heady $39,495 before freight, if you can forego the automatic transmission and the Performances package's 10 extra horsepower, dynamic chassis control, big touchscreen, and driver assist features, then you can get into an Autobahn trim five-door for a more family-friendly $33,995. At that price it's still not the least expensive hatchback out there, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining and well-rounded.

4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI 5-Door
Base Price $38,095
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,605
Price as Tested $41,200
Optional Equipment
$1,400 (DSG automatic)