Volkswagen has done a pretty good job of creating automotive icons during the past 85 years or so.
The VW Bus has become a smile-inducing symbol of an earlier era, and the Beetle is recognizable around the world — even by those who weren’t alive during its storied production run. Arguably approaching a similarly iconic level, the Golf-based GTI has stayed true to form since its introduction way back in the mid-1970s. Now in its eighth generation, the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI lives on as the most refined version of the brand’s front-wheel-drive hot hatch.
To the delight of the GTI’s significant fanbase, Volkswagen has maintained certain traits and design elements throughout its nearly half-century lineage. In the beginning, the hatchback was based on a modest econo-car foundation and was spruced up with subtle yet effective sporty bits like a deeper chin spoiler, larger wheels, and some red accent trim. And so it remains to this day.
As they’ve always done, Volkswagen’s designers have continued to resist tarnishing the GTI’s image with garish vents, flares, or oversized wings, for which they deserve much applause. Even still, this newest GTI is decidedly more aggressive looking than its predecessors, especially from the front with its squinting headlights and gaping scowl.
The front is the GTI’s best angle, but it still casts a handsome profile, squatting over the 19-inch wheels of this test car, and its tidy butt is now symmetrically styled with the name badge centred below the Volkswagen logo (that doubles as the hatch opening handle and rear camera). Perhaps it’s my advancing age, but to my eye this is not only the best-looking GTI since the early 1980s, but the best-looking sport compact car on the market today.
The clean design ethos carries into the interior, where the only real flourish is usually the plaid-pattern cloth seats (another nod to GTI heritage) — although this American test car wore the optional leather finish available here in top Performance models. There has been plenty of internet griping over Volkswagen’s apparent cost-cutting measures for the new GTI, and while there are some hard plastics evident, key touch points like the steering wheel, armrests, and seats all feel top shelf.
A more obvious cost-cutting measure is Volkswagen’s decision to incorporate nearly all controls in the touchscreen. The result is a contemporary minimalist design, but one that trades away functionality for slickness. The all-digital gauge display is effective, with plenty of configurability, but the central infotainment screen requires a few taps to make most rudimentary climate control adjustments. The one exception is for the temperature sliders located at the bottom of the screen, flanking the haptic volume bar that’s easy to trigger when trying to steady one’s hand to push the on-screen buttons. Even stranger is the absence of backlighting for these controls, and they virtually disappear at night.
The rest of the infotainment interface is a good one, with sensible menu navigation and good wireless connectivity to both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Beyond interacting with the car’s switchgear, the driving position is excellent and outward visibility is very good thanks to the GTI’s boxy shape and large windows.
This Autobahn tester, which is the top trim south of the border, is similarly equipped to a Canadian Performance model and includes an impressive amount of kit as standard equipment. Dynamic Chassis Control, three-zone climate control, heated and ventilated front seats, a panoramic sunroof, head-up display, 19-inch wheels, and a great-sounding stereo are notable features found here.
The GTI’s adaptive suspension helps take the edge off pavement imperfections, providing a decent ride for a sporty car. It’s still firm, but not punishing the way some low-priced sporty cars are with their overly-stiff chassis setups that can be borderline abusive to passengers on our frost-battered, Canadian roads. [There’s your age showing again, Jeff.––Ed.]
The front seats definitely help with passenger comfort, offering generous bolstering to keep occupants in place during spirited driving, yet balancing firmness for support with suppleness for comfort. Volkswagen has done a good job suppressing road and wind noise, with modest, growly engine noise when the GTI is driven spiritedly being a fitting accompaniment for this sort of car.
Volkswagen gives the base GTI a decent suite of safety features as standard equipment, like automatic headlight control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, plus front and rear parking sensors. Step up to the mid-trim Autobahn models and adaptive cruise control with lane keep-assist plus emergency autonomous braking and dynamic road sign display are added. From a safety standpoint, the top Performance trim only benefits from the head-up display, plus a more advanced adaptive lighting system.
The GTI misses out on a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) due to the marginal performance of the headlights found on the base model; otherwise, the VW fared very well in crash testing.
One of the GTI’s most endearing (and enduring) qualities is the duality of its personality. It makes a pretty convincing replacement for a small SUV, with similar proportions allowing for a decently spacious luggage area that’s got a wide, square hatchback opening to swallow big, bulky cargo. Front-seat occupants are offered abundant head- and legroom, and while rear-seat legroom is limited, headroom is very generous. Four adults can easily fit in the GTI, with a seatbelt for a fifth occupant for occasional trips.
Driving Feel: 8/10
The comfort, safety, and practicality of the GTI is how a pragmatic buyer can justify the expenditure, but it’s the driving enjoyment that will win over an enthusiast’s heart. The standard limited-slip differential helps the GTI put its considerable torque down to the front wheel that can best utilize it. The grippy summer performance tires keep Volkswagen’s hot-hatch glued to the pavement when cornering at speeds that would’ve had earlier generations howling for mercy and washing out in understeer. Of course, being a front-driver, getting on the throttle too hard and fast coming out of a curve will still ultimately result in understeer, but the limits of the GTI are now high enough that when zipping around the canyon roads near Malibu, Calif., it was easy to maintain a very brisk pace without the car losing composure.
There’s a solidity and weightiness to the feel of the GTI that the model has enjoyed for the past few generations, giving it a more grownup feel than some of its more raw competitors like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Si, and certainly the Hyundai Elantra N, but a more engaging experience than a Mazda3 Sport Turbo. While the GTI is not as visceral as some of its peers in the segment, it is easier to live with for the daily commute and a car you won’t need to apologize for when taking clients out to lunch, or picking up your mother-in-law from the airport. If those other cars are hyper-active terriers, yapping and running in dizzying circles, the GTI is a happy golden retriever, faithfully playing fetch all day long as a loyal companion.
Braking is another of the GTI’s strong suits, with impressive stopping power and great pedal feel instilling trust when approaching those canyon-side curves at speed.
The 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder received a modest power bump with this generation, now delivering 241 hp — a figure that’s well north of the Civic Si’s output , but south of a WRX or Elantra N. The GTI has never been a big horsepower car anyway, and besides: the meat of its 273 lb-ft of torque is doled out throughout much of the rev range, resulting in a car that’s real-world quick. The power delivery is also smoother than the frenetic nature of some of the GTI’s competitors, making it feel like it’s got a larger displacement engine than it does.
Those looking for the quickest GTI will want to opt for the dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission, but I was grateful for the six-speed manual in this tester that offers great shift feel and a light but precise clutch, making it a joy to row gears.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
Buyers of the automatic GTI will also get a slightly more efficient car, with its combined consumption rating of 8.5 L/100 km bettering the manual car’s by a modest 0.3 L/100 km. For a sporty car that’ll zip to 100 km/h in roughly six seconds, plus offer as much practicality as the GTI does, it’s impressively frugal. Even more noteworthy is that the GTI doesn’t need premium fuel to achieve those numbers, which is a rare treat for performance car buyers.
At $32,000, the well-equipped base GTI represents a solid value, undercutting the Civic Si, Mazda3 Sport Turbo, and Hyundai Elantra N. A buyer needs to cough up nearly $40,000 if they want the adaptive suspension, premium sound system, 19-inch wheels, and the luxuries that help the GTI feel like a much more premium machine than some of its competitors, and spring for the top trim Performance model. At this price, the GTI is approaching the cost of spicier performance cars like the new Toyota GR Corolla, Honda Civic Type R, or Volkswagen’s own 315-hp, all-wheel-drive Golf R. At the other end of the spectrum, for the cost of a basic GTI, a Volkswagen Jetta GLI also offers a turbocharged four-cylinder (albeit with less power), adaptive suspension, leather upholstery, a premium sound system, and an interior design that doesn’t suffer some of the obtuse controls of the GTI.
For decades, Volkswagen’s GTI has been synonymous with practical, frugal, compact fun. Most of that remains true, but as the technology, safety, and performance have all improved with this latest generation, the cost is increasing notably, too, making it less of a bargain than it used to be. Still, for fans of this iconic VW nameplate, the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI remains a wholly rewarding car to live with every day, offering year-round sports car enjoyment in a package that adds more luxury than its competitors.
NOTE: While the test car was a 2022 model, changes for the 2023 model are limited to minor interior aesthetic details only, including different stitching on the steering wheel, centre console in high-gloss finish, “GTI” logo on front seats, door panel material finish. A 40th Anniversary model will be a later addition in 2023.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I4|
|Peak Horsepower||241 hp @ 5,000 rpm|
|Peak Torque||273 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||9.8 / 6.9 / 8.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||564 / 977 L seats up/down|
|Model Tested||2023 Volkswagen GTI Performance|
|Price as Tested||$41,245|