2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI First Drive – Nothing to Anger the Faithful

2018 Volkswagen GTI

The formula for the Volkswagen Golf GTI is simple; take a good car, add horsepower, add styling flourishes, and make something special. For the past 35 years in the United States, the GTI has done this more often than not.

Sure, there may have been some misses in there, but for over a decade now, it has been all hits. The 2018 GTI continues this trend. Even though it’s just a refresh of the seventh-generation GTI we first saw in 2015, the coming model year’s changes make the vehicle better in almost every way. The GTI is currently the best new car available in these United States of America that can be purchased for an MSRP of under $30,000.

That may be a bold statement, but it isn’t without merit.

The GTI simply does everything well. It’s like that pair of Allen Edmonds that goes with everything, looks good, is made well, can be used every day, and never goes out of style. Competitors don’t have the history, aren’t made as well, and have styling that won’t age as gracefully. There are things some models can do better than the GTI but, overall, none are as great.

2018 Volkswagen GTI

Walking up to the 2018 GTI, you’ll instantly recognize its pedigree. With new LED fog and brake lights, the night signature is changed, but the shape remains the same. LED headlights with adaptive front beams adorn higher trims. A bright red horizontal strip visually connects the headlights to a revised grille and bumper. Those reworked fascias carry a strong character line that travels along the side and all the way back to the taillight clusters.

In addition to the red highlight on the grille, the 2018 Golf GTI boasts several other visual differences from its conventional Golf brethren. The lower front fascia incorporates standard LED fog lights housed within a series of horizontal strakes on either side of a unique mesh-pattern grille. Red-painted brake calipers peek behind bespoke GTI wheels and subtle side skirts help to give the GTI a sportier appearance. Around back, bright exhaust tips sit on either side of a unique rear diffuser, while a roof spoiler further differentiates the car.

The GTI is still powered by Volkswagen’s turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine. The EA888 engine family, which debuted in 2008, has been steadily refined over the last decade. In all versions of the 2018 GTI, the engine produces 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It is complemented by a standard six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed DSG automatic that requires a $1,100 markup on any trim.

2018 Volkswagen GTI

This engine is strong, and power is available early and often. It has a smoothness many other four-cylinders simply do not possess. Paired with the manual transmission, it feels like a seamless extension of the driver’s right hand. Despite the six-speed manual’s tall gearing, torque is always readily available  — a driver can almost reach freeway speeds in second gear. Switching between second and third gear on the twisty roads of rural Michigan proved a downright enjoyable task.

Navigating those roads is made more enjoyable by the GTI’s firm chassis, which can easily be labelled “word class.” Riding 0.6 inches lower than the standard Golf, the GTI’s steering is precise, the suspension firm yet comfortable, and body roll is minimal. Somehow the GTI manages to take to spirited driving with aplomb while remaining a comfortable vehicle with a compliant ride. The GTI’s suspension definitely punches above its price range.

2018 Volkswagen GTI

The interior of the GTI continues to be one of the model’s strong points — spacious and practical, while retaining a touch of Euro elegance. Our tester, which carried an MSRP of $31,165 (plus an $850 destination charge) came equipped with Volkswagen’s 8-inch touchscreen, leather, keyless access with push-button start, and a sunroof. Unlike some competitors, the seats are well bolstered but comfortable, and the seat track is long enough to provide legroom for almost every driver (I’m looking at you, Ford Focus ST).

Still, while our tester topped $31,000, it doesn’t have to be that way. Since Volkswagen offers the same horsepower and both transmissions in all GTI trims, you won’t feel like you’re missing anything by going slightly downmarket. As far as I’m concerned, Clark plaid cloth seats are mandatory for a GTI. They look great and are heated. The combination of plaid seats and sunroof also makes a triumphant return in 2018, and comes standard on the $30,470 2018 GTI SE. The base GTI drops the sunroof, LED headlights, blind-spot monitoring, and replaces the 8-inch infotainment screen with a 6.5-inch version. At an MSRP of $26,415, it is truly a performance bargain.

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI continues Volkswagens tradition of offering a performance car with working-class roots for a reasonable price. This new model takes the seventh-generation model’s formula for success, refines it, and makes it better. So is there a downside?

The only possible drawbacks with the GTI is the price and Volkswagen’s enduring quality concerns. Both the Honda Civic Si and Ford Focus ST are cheaper than the GTI. The Subaru WRX is a little more expensive, but it comes with all-wheel drive. All are competitive vehicles, but the GTI feels more premium and refined. It is the best daily driver of the bunch.

2018 Volkswagen GTI

As for quality issues, the platform the GTI rides on, MQB, has been in production for five years. Hopefully, that’s enough time to get any issues worked out. Most reliability surveys have shown recent GTIs to have average reliability. Luckily for 2018 buyers, all GTIs are now backed by Volkswagen’s People First Warranty, offering comprehensive coverage for six years or 72,000 miles (whichever comes first). Anyone on the fence about a GTI has six years, or 72,000 miles, to decide if it’s a quality product.

The GTI continues to be a fantastic car simply because it does all things well. It possesses a distinctly premium feel while remaining practical and fun to drive. There is no catch. For the price, there is also no equal.

[Images: ©2017 Adam Tonge/The Truth About Cars]