Strengths and weaknesses:
Golf GTI on par with performance compact players
"GTI has existed for almost as long as the Golf itself, and for nearly 30 years in North America."
Have you ever heard the mash-up of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”? They’re both great songs on their own, but something’s lost when they’re combined. I feel the same way about the 2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The GTI has existed for almost as long as the Golf itself, and for nearly 30 years in North America. It is, for all intents and purposes, a jazzed-up version of the proven Golf hatchback, with numerous performance and visual upgrades to tilt it toward the “performance” side of things.
Yet despite having few true competitors in the “hot hatch” segment for 2012, the GTI feels somewhat underwhelming compared to other performance-minded five-doors.
The GTI actually comes in a choice of three- or five-door models, and the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine under the hood can be mated to either a six-speed manual or optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DSG).
My tester for the week is a bright red five-door equipped with the DSG. Unlike the vast majority of “car guys”, I don’t need a manual transmission to have fun with a vehicle. I have absolutely nothing against a dual-clutch setup, and heck, the DSG can shift faster than most drivers with a manual and it’s noticeably more fuel efficient.
It’s really difficult to complain about the wonderful DSG providing extraordinarily responsive shifts, while letting the driver take complete control if he or she so desires. That said, as I position myself behind the wheel of a performance vehicle like the GTI, I do admittedly find myself longing to shift gears myself (with the aid of a third pedal), and I’d also prefer a three-door bodystyle - rear seat passenger convenience be damned.
The turbocharged engine in the GTI makes for quick acceleration, once the front tires have finished chirping, which they do often. Although there is some slight lag from a standstill (often found in vehicles with turbochargers), that’s a good thing here, as it seems to keep torque steer in check.
While the GTI has decent power for such a light vehicle, it falls well below two other performance-minded hatchbacks, the Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru WRX. It would be interesting to see what the GTI could do when fitted with VW’s 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine, which offers less horsepower, but more torque.
The GTI handles well enough for the most part, as the vehicle sits low to the ground and hugs the road, but the suspension does fall too far on the soft side of things. That’s great for comfort, but I’m more than willing to forgive a harsher ride in a vehicle focused on performance.
Steering, meanwhile, never feels particularly direct, which catches me off guard. Brakes are also slightly disappointing, as they don’t feel “grabby” enough for my liking.
One thing I don’t have to worry about is sliding around in the front seats, as my tester is equipped with optional sport buckets. They offer the typical sturdiness of a European seat, along with big bolsters that are tricky to get past, but hold you tight once you’re situated.
The rear seats are great too, and there’s lots of room back there for a couple adults. In terms of comfort, this vehicle offers plenty, whether it’s a quick jaunt to show off to your friends, or an hours-long road trip.
In terms of cargo space, the GTI offers less than the Mazdaspeed3 but more than the WRX with the rear seats in position. Once folded, VW’s offering leaps ahead of Mazda’s, although the seats don’t quite fold flat.
The interior is tarted up with eye-catching red stitching, a shifter that looks like an oversized golf ball, brushed aluminum trim, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel that feels wonderful in my hands. It all looks great, though I wish Volkswagen would do something about the quirky, unresponsive touch screen infotainment centre.
There’s no doubt the GTI stands out from its non-performance hatchback brethren, but it seems the changes are more pronounced on the aesthetic side of things.