After driving the Golf R for Jalopnik, I couldn’t help but wonder what the GTI would feel like. And since several people asked me in the comments which one I’d prefer to own, I can tell you right away that although I have massive respect for the R’s performance and sophistication, if it were up to me, I’d stick to the hu-hum, plaid seats, front-wheel-drive Golf GTI.
I’ve always had a secret love affair with the Golf, and the GTI has always been the hot hatch I wouldn’t be ashamed to introduce to my parents. Volkswagen’s modded compact is not only a blast to throw around on a country road, but it’s one of the rare automobiles that transcends all social classes. Wherever you’ll drive a Golf GTI, whether it be to the country club golf course, or the university campus parking lot, you’ll fit right in. Most importantly, whatever roads you’ll devour with your little hatch, you’ll have a big fat grin plastered all over your face, because this thing is absolutely epic.
The Two-Box Icon
What you’re looking at is the seventh generation Golf, or the MK7. Riding on the Volkswagen group’s MQB platform, the same one that underpins several vehicles at Audi as well, this latest generation Golf is, simply put, one of the best automobiles in the world right now. No joke. In all its different forms, from the base Trendline with the 1.8T, to the Sportwagen Alltrack, and all the way to the almighty R, the Golf is an overachieving small car that will give larger, more expensive vehicles a run for their money.
And this model is absolutely gorgeous. For its seventh opus, the classic two-box design, distinctively similar to the original Rabbit introduced over 40 years ago, has been stretched, widened, and solidified, but not so much as to lose its charming proportions. This is still a humble, understated little car, one that will easily engulf a mountain bike through its rear hatch and fit a baby seat across its rear doors. In GTI trim, the Golf wears a stylish set of 18-inch running shoes, GTI lettering across its body, a different set of headlights, and a sportier, more menacing face.
Let’s not forget a subtle strike of red lipstick that gives it that extra edge of charm.
All Golf GTIs can be had in a three- or five-door configuration. But hurry up, because 2017 is the last year you’ll be able to buy a 3-door GTI in Canada, which is a big downer. My tester was the five-door, which not only proved to be more practical for the everyday bro-ride-sharing duties, but also gave my GTI a more mature demeanor, especially painted in the absolutely elegant Night Blue Metallic paint job.
Just Enough Power
Many people will argue the Golf R is superior to the GTI in every way for its increased power figures and the fact that it’s all-wheel-drive. But I beg to differ. There are far more important things to consider when shopping for a sports car than the amount of power that’s sent through its wheels, and in the GTI’s case, it definitely doesn’t tell the whole story.
Mind you, the GTI shares many mechanical components with the R. Under its hood lies the same 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct-injection four cylinder. In this application, however, it pumps out, according to VW, 210 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Opt for the Performance package, and you’ll get an additional ten horsepower from your GTI, along with upgraded brakes and a torque-sensing limited-slip differential. My tester was dressed up in the Autobahn trim, without the added Performance package.
The GTI sends its power to the front wheels via a 6-speed manual, or, in this case, the same excellent 6-speed dual-clutch, DSG, automatic as in the R. Actually, this is one of the rare cars I wouldn’t mind having with an automatic. The system is quick to respond, either in manual or automatic mode, and while not as aggressive as the R with slightly toned down exhaust farts, overall operation remains simple and efficient, with significantly improved performance. I don’t think there’s another car in this price range that can top the precision of this transmission.
Maybe the Acura ILX comes close.
Just like in the Golf R, or any other versions of the Golf for that matter, the first impression behind the wheel of the GTI is how solid and buttoned down its composure feels on the road. This is a formidably well put together little car, and the suspension calibration, although not adjustable like in the R, is impeccably well sorted out, never too stiff, never too soft. The entire time I had my GTI, it absorbed Québec’s garbage roads like a champ, free of unwanted chassis quibbles or cabin rattles. Power delivery is equally impressive: while not as visceral as the R’s, that 2.0-liter turbo remains a gem, maintaining a solid, flat line of torque all the way to its 6,000 rpm redline once it gets rid of that dreaded turbo lag.
What you need to know is that the GTI feels much more powerful than its numbers suggest.
Volkswagen claims a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 5.6 seconds when equipped with the DSG. Like in the R, there’s a launch control feature, and when tuned to its Sport setting, that transmission changes the speed at which it shifts its gears, hangs on the revs longer, and the electric power steering stiffens up, providing just enough heft to make it feel sporty and engaging. Sadly, there’s very little feedback that transcends through that steering wheel.
But my, oh my does this little GTI go! And not only in a straight line, but in the bends as well. It never feels unsettled and simply takes it in, all the time. Is there understeer? You bet there is, but it’s easily corrected through slight throttle lift-off, and the Golf’s tight little chassis moves its tail back into place for you to carry your line. The GTI feels dialed in, and the handling (and braking) is impeccable, and it never misses a beat, as if professional grade chassis engineers took the time to sort this thing out until it was perfect.
Come to think of it, that’s actually what happened. It just so happens that the man in charge of chassis and suspension tuning for the GTI is the same dude that fiddled with the Porsche 911 GT3. Not a bad resume to begin with.
The Best Daily Driver
But the GTI’s best asset is not its ability to get your pulse running on a country road, although it does this fantastically well, as expected, but rather how it gracefully accomplishes the everyday duties of our lives. This is, above all, a Golf, which means it’s insanely practical, smooth, comfortable, and quiet during casual driving. Fold those rear seats flat, and your GTI will engulf 1492 liters of cargo.
That’s more than some crossovers.
Step inside the 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI, and you’re greeted to one of the most beautiful interiors this side of a luxury sedan. My tester had the instantly identifiable plaid cloth seats, a reference to the original GTI, and I absolutely adore them. If the flannel look isn’t your thing though, you can order your Golf with leather.
No matter the fabric, however, these are a massively comfortable and supportive pair of benches. Instrumentation in the Golf GTI is simple and well laid out, with a pair of traditional analogue gauges sitting in front of you, and a tiny LCD screen in the middle for additional information such as fuel consumption or music selection. This is a no-frills, functional interior that manages to remain elegant through the use of high-grade materials, above-average build quality, and subtle GTI touches inserted here and there such as red stitching and attractive red LED lighting at night.
The flat-bottom steering wheel, which absolutely looks bitchin’ and a peach to hang onto, houses most of the car’s infotainment and driving controls. I’m a big fan of how the GTI’s semi-autonomous tech hides in the background and is quickly accessible via a tiny button located on the blinker stalk. Never did the systems feel obtrusive, and that lane assist system is among one of the best I’ve tested so far.
Yes, I’m actually praising the semi-autonomous tech in a Golf GTI.
That’s because the GTI is a car that does everything impeccably well, and makes an argument as to why you’d buy anything else. While the Golf R pushes the boundaries of the kind of performance that can be had in a Golf, the GTI wraps it all up in a beautifully crafted all-around package that feels more like a precision tool than an actual automobile.
The Premium Hot Hatch
As perfect as the GTI may seem, and trust me, it’s very hard to find faults to this car, it still has its share of shortcomings. As I had mentioned in my review of the R, that simulated Soundaktor engine sound is downright infuriating. It’s not as intense in the GTI, but it still annoyingly vibrates throughout the cabin. What’s more, since it’s essentially a large vibrator that shakes the windshield with the engine’s decibels, once that windshield is covered in ice during a nail-biting winter day, it sounds completely off, as if the car were a huge digital device, glitching away like a malfunctioning android.
Then, there’s the GTI’s price, which isn’t exactly cheap. Stick to a base three-door model with a manual and things do remain somewhat acceptable. GTI prices kickoff at $29 495. Add an extra set of doors to your GTI, and the pretty wheels you see here, and you’re already at $34 845. But that’s not the end of it. If you want the full GTI experience, with the added performance package, increased horsepower and that cool trick differential, your hot Golf will set you back $38 695. At that price, you could be knocking on Audi’s door, which doesn’t make much sense if you ask me.
The thing is, as premium as the Golf GTI feels, if I were Volkswagen, I’d leave the fancy expensive stuff to the R, and keep the GTI’s price down. Because the idea behind this car has always been to deliver cheap performance to the masses, and at 40 grand, I don’t consider this to be a smart purchase. Also, don’t forget Volkswagen’s higher than average maintenance costs.
My recommendation would be to stick to the base GTI trim levels. You’ll get the same massively fun, excessively refined, and insanely practical little hatchback as in higher trims at a more affordable price. Pricing aside, the 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI is a stellar vehicle in every respect, one which will satisfy both your inner boy racer and your new parent status without attracting too much attention.
At the end of the day, aren’t these undeniable qualities that are worth paying a lot of money for?
Review of the 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI by William Clavey
+ Impressive performance and handling.
+ Sophisticated and efficient dual-clutch automatic.
+ Very practical and comfortable.
– Soundaktor engine sound amplifier.
– Can become expensive with options.
– Higher than average maintenance costs.
Clavey’s Corner is located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Prices and trim levels discussed in this article reflect the Canadian car market.
Special thanks: Volkswagen Canada
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Ah, but to eliminate one of your gripes… The Soundaktor is disable-able via a control module setting. You can do it yourself with a smartphone and the OBDEleven bluetooth dongle, or ask your dealer to turn the bloody thing off.
Yeah I’ve heard it was easy to remove. Thanks for this. I still think VW should consider removing it from the factory.
I have to disagree with your speculation on pricing. My Autobahn w/ lighting package, DSG and performance pack was NOWHERE near $38k… I don’t think it’s fair to discredit the car based on that outrageous number. I really enjoyed the rest of your article, though. Good stuff.
Remember, these are Canadian prices. Thanks and glad you enjoyed the read.
Ah, now that makes sense.
My base 3 door manual was $28, 400 a performance bargain short a few bells and whistles. Only trouble is the automatic temperature controls….Hot….Cold….Hot and the dealer is having a hard tome finding the glitch which is pretty common from articles I have read.
I have to agree with you on the pricing. As much as I like the GTI, I’d want it with the performance pack and leather. The latter only because I own a dog. Leather is a lot of easier to keep clean. If I have to pay $40k for a GTI it just doesn’t make sense. If I have to pay that I might as well pony up the extra for the Golf R, or if I wanted to save myself some money, buy a Focus ST instead.
I was shopping for a Golf R but have decided it’s just too expensive at $41,275 (US). I will have 2 kids in college the next couple of years so price matters. In the US I think the GTI sweet spot is the SE trim. You get the leather (plaid cloth is cool but leather is much easier to keep clean) and the Fender stereo plus the performance package for about $27,500 (my local dealers in Austin, TX). You miss out on auto climate control and nav but with CarPlay and Android Auto you don’t really need the Nav. You also have to manually adjust your seat. I would likely be the only driver so that’s not an issue for me. I noticed a red manual GLI at a dealer for a little over $21K. I could almost live with that. Almost.
You will also miss out on the dual-climate control, heated leather seats, and limited slip differential. I got my GTI DSG Autobahn for $30K and it was worth every penny over the SE model 😉
The R starts at 40695 and is one of the very rare cars that cost similar to the US price. R offers 4WD and much more powerful engine also, and not so many options (only a $200 wheel, $2k tech whatever pack and the DSG to be chosen). If I am aiming at a premium performance hatch with a manual gearbox, would you agree it is more reasonable to simply go for an R?
The R is definitely a good value, and offers a lot of car and performance for the price. It feels much more premium than its direct competitor the Focus RS and the adjustable dampers really give it an edge for daily driving.
Great article. Got 300K kms in my MKIII GTI. 270K kms so far in my MKV GTI. Both 3 doors. Would already have an R if you could get a 3 door. Disappointed to learn this will be the last year for the 3 door GTI. Will have to expand my search for my next car I guess.
I am undecided between the GTI and Golf R. I have a 2015 GTI Autobahn at the moment and love it. My lease is almost up, so time to change. If had much more expensive cars in the past, like Audi S4’s in the V8 days, but this little GTI is amazing. If the Golf R had a sunroof, it would be my choice. I was hoping that the 2018 would have one, but sadly it won’t here in Canada. I would go with the performance GTI and add the leather and the dynamic suspension, which I find pretty cool. This brings the price up to almost the same cost as an R, but I think the sunroof and interior light you get, is more important to me than the added power and all wheel drive. I wish The Canadian version had the sunroof like the European one does. Anyone else agree?
I agree with you about the sunroof it’s pretty disappointing but definitely not a deal breaker in my opinion. The performance package and the special exhaust that you can get in Europe only is a piss off for me.but You get nice blue interior ambient lighting in the R as to why I’m getting mine with the lapiz blue colour. I took a GTI 220 HP and a golf R 292 HP for a test drive back to back hands-down the R wins me over. Front wheel drive is pretty good in the winter but all wheel drive is that much better. It’s the GTI with a bit more sophistication and it should be commended for because it’s dam good
Hard call, I don’t have a sunroof in my base 3 door and don’t miss it (no sunburned head) The “R” is tempting, we are going to wait until the Golf/GTI Mk 8 is out and maybe get everything and a purported horsepower boost to 250-260 hp…
Why is it that we can buy a GTI with a sunroof, but not a Golf R? As the owner of a 2012 Golf R I am ready to replace with a new R, but the lack of a sunroof is a deal breaker for me. Euro cars have a sunroof. Seems odd to me. And no all wheel drive keeps me away from the GTI, as fun as it is.
That’s because when VW crash tested the R for the North American market, the car it used didn’t have a sunroof. The rumor states that once VW had passed the tests, they didn’t want to risk it on a sunroof-equipped car by fear it wouldn’t pass the test. VW has not yet confirmed that this rumor is true.
I wanted to thank you for this review. Especially since you compared it directly to th GLI in your review of that car on Jalopnik. I bought a GLI for my son in December but he has ended up driving my Jeep Wrangler so I finally relented and gave him that. I liked the GLI with the DSG but after reading your review I decided to go out and drive a GTI. After doing so I went out and bought a 2017 GTI SE with a manual. I live in the US (Texas) and paid $27,000 for it. In some ways I prefer the handling of the GLI, but I think that’s just a function of the longer wheelbase. I would love to compare the two with the same tires. The GTI is noticeably faster and is way more engaging with the manual. I think a GLI with the manual would be really fun. The GTI is definitely punchier. I really notice the torque difference. Mine came with all season Pirelli P7s. I don’t plan to mod the car much, if at all, but I may put some Pilot Sports on it. The whole car feels significantly more solid than the GLI and also feels quite a bit nicer. The seats are really good compared to the GLI. The Fender stereo with the sub sounds a lot better than the subless version in the GLI. I don’t mind the manual seats at all as I’m the only driver so I rarely change them. The manual is very slick. I had a Fiat 500 Abarth in 2013 and the shifter on that car was frustrating and rubbery. This one is the complete opposite. I love it.
No complaints at all about the car so far. I am really having fun with it. My wife is driving the GLI and enjoys that. Kudos to VW for building both of these cars. I traded in a diesel truck that cost more than both VWs put together. I haven’t missed it at all. Thanks again. I’m enjoying your reviews. I don’t think I had seen any of yours before the one you did for the Golf R. I really wanted that but I have two kids in college so it was hard to justify the money. After driving the GTI for a few days I am happy with the choice. Most of time I wouldn’t notice the difference. For $15,000 less.
How do you feel about attending the occasional track day with the non-performance pack GTI?
I agree with all of your points – considering I also live in montreal with our speed limits the power of the R will practically never be used. I’d like to occasionally attend a track day once I acquire the car – maybe a mild tune but nothing crazy. Main goal is fun on the street – similar to what my mx5 does for me now.
Wow thanks for the great article. Ijust purchased a 17 GTI in the sport trim about two weeks ago and man am i happy with it. I feel kind of like a kid again as i just turned 50. I agree with your analysis 100 %. I’m considering some aftermarket performance upgrades in the future. Have you any insight to share on those?
I’m 67 and if I do not purchase a MK8 GTI in the next year or so will get an HPA cat back exhaust (Google it) A chip to get maybe another 40 horsepower and get rid of the awful “Clutch Delay Valve” If one can drive a standard transmission they don’t need this crutch…..
I think the AWD does liven up the rear in corners; however there are some deals to be had on 17 GTIs at the end of the year that might make up for the incoming 2018’s huge warranty. At least in the US, the price differential tilts in favor of the GTI.
Great and appreciated review. I recently bought a Tesla and although I love it, I miss driving a smaller, practical, comfortable sports car…I think the Golf R and GTI work! My only concern is that I will be using this car mostly on country roads where often time they are dirt and not paved. In the winter it can be pretty snowy…would these things affect the R (which is what I am leaning toward)? I am planning on using snow tires in the winter but I am concerned about frequent blow outs during the warmer months due to pot holes , dirt road, etc. Should it be a concern?
I agree the GTi is a better choice over all, styling, price….but when dealing with Canadian winters I chose the Golf R for its AWD capabilities. This winter all the FWD cars with good winters on, still got stuck in my mountainous neighbourhood. Even a GTI and my previous GLi Edition 30. I’m 52, only owned VW’s and driving the R has been the best winter driving experience ever. I wish I could have both.
I paid just under 21k (USD) for my 6 speed 2017 GTI in late November of 17. I upgraded the restrictive air intake to the carbon fiber APR. I would recommend.
Bought a 2017 GTI Base “stripper”, no options. With dieselgate inspired discount, paid just over $20,000 brand new. Fantastic fun and practical as hell. Always enjoy impressing passengers who expect a cramped, slow tin can. My 2014 911 certainly has a higher level of performance, but not 4 times better.
Golf r all the way as n enthusiast