Seven. It is a lucky number, by rule of thumb.
Since 1975, we have been graced with seven generations of the Volkswagen Golf. In the USA, we called two of those generations the Rabbit. No matter what you called it, this was VW’s best answer to continue the legacy of the original Beetle.
The front-engine, transverse-mounted, water-cooled compact remained a mainstay in the VW lineup for North America. Though eclipsed by the Jetta in terms of sales, the Golf reminds us of how the breed has evolved. Yet, it also serves as the platform of one of the most beloved hot hatches of all time – the GTI.
After reading about it from Europe, the GTI was finally introduced in the USA in 1982. It was a Rabbit, yes – built at the VW works in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania for our consumption. Yet, it gave us a hero. It showed us that we can have hot hatches for years to come.
From then, we had our share of GTI competitors. From the Dodge Omni GLHS to the Ford Focus ST, they came to battle the GTI throughout its six lives. Still, the GTI was the shining example of the complete package amongst the breed. You could point to one and know exactly what it is all about.
For 2015, the seventh generation model arrived. I had a brief stint in one with the Autobahn package with the DSG transmission. Being no stranger to GTIs, I had to experience the new one to see if it remained part of the breed.
The first thing to note on the Mark VII GTI is the ride. The prior generation was firm and choppy. The ride is smoother, but still firm. There was no give to bounce hard, as it appeared VW worked on the dampening of the suspension and the suspension geometry. For once, the GTI felt civilized.
While on the subject of dynamics, the drive modes have changed to go along with the DSG. If you go normal, DSG gearchange behavior will be fine, while the steering has a tinge of softness to it. These are not bad things, but it does go along with the "civilized" theme. Put it into Sport and you do feel the difference. Gearchange will require some engagement through the paddles. What I like about this is the transmission will comply with your request to up or downshift when needed. There is no hesitation and no "beep" refusing your shift request. Steering felt sharp with a weighted feel and perfect on-center feel. You can also individualize these settings to make engine response in either sport or normal, while keeping the steering the opposite.
Under the hood is a new 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder. Standard horsepower is 210, but you can order an option to bump it up another 10HP. The engine is well-matched and comfortable with its new skin. The DSG is a good transmission that needs to be worked by the driver. If you are clutch-challenged, this will give you a great opportunity to learn how to work the revs to gain better gear and drive control. If you are amongst the "save the manuals" crowd, a six-speed gearbox is available.
Step inside and you will experience the most premium cabin in Golf/GTI history. The center stack is canted to the driver for the first time ever. Dials and TFT screens have improved for improved readability and clarity. VW has moved the cruise control off of the turn signal stalk onto a new multifunction steering wheel. The flat-bottom wheel is fantastic with new switchgear that will become familiar across the VW line in the next few years. The key word here is "logical" – something we hoped VW would embrace for us. They did fantastically.
The huge change is the infotainment interface. The touchscreen is much improved with more logical readouts and controls. That also includes the climate controls and functions related to Car-Net, VW's new connected car suite. Everything you touch has a premium feel. Again, this is a welcomed feel for the Golf and the GTI. In this class, you have to step up your game – VW has responded accordingly.
One thing that was a bit of a head scratcher was the use of big wheels on the GTI. I do not mind the eighteen-inch size – fitted with Pirelli P-Zero Nero rubber. However, it is that design. It is of personal taste, but I would love a return to those classic spoked wheels of GTIs past – even if you had to fashion them for the eighteen-inch size.
Another point – why is the GTI only available in four doors? I get this one, too. Who buys a three-door hatchback anymore? And, why offer one when your major competition comes in four doors, too? I have plenty of space, the seats are bolstered perfectly, the Fender audio system sounds wonderful and when you look at it – it is indeed a GTI.
The GTI starts off at $24,995 for an S model. There are a few models inside of the GTI line, topping off with the Autobahn model driven with a base price of $29,595.
To the point, the GTI is more civilized with a premium look, smoother driving dynamics with a familiar shape that has been sharpened for the seventh time. This will be one of those vehicles that will require a full review to truly see whether these conclusions hold up in the daily commute and a few roads it needs to take a few laps on. This lucky devil is already making some good impressions.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Luther Brookdale Volkswagen, Brooklyn Park, MN
Photo by Randy Stern