Right-sized little city car is a favourite among driving enthusiasts
Pros Crisp responses, confident handling, urban-friendly
Cons Less than stellar fuel consumption, dual-clutch transmission could be snappier
Value for money Fair
What would I change? Better DCT, less restrictive traction control
How I would spec it? I’d go for the three-door GTI with a six-speed manual for only $29,495
One of the most frustrating questions I’m asked on a regular basis is, “What is your favourite car?” Well, how long is a piece of string?
If you’d asked me a couple of months ago, while I was in the middle of the Mojave Desert, I probably would’ve suggested the Ram Power Wagon or one of Land Rover’s legendary 4x4s to scale the heights of North America’s Great Divide. But what if my day was filled with mountain switchbacks or some fast laps at the race track? Mazda’s mighty little MX-5 is probably the best bang for your sports-car buck on the market. Obviously, that delightful little two-seater wouldn’t make the list if I had to haul my horse somewhere. Yet all of the above would make truly abysmal daily drivers. My choice would be the Honda Fit; having impressed me so much, I bought one for myself.
Like trying to name your favourite food, narrowing down your choices to a single vehicle is a nearly impossible proposition. Sometimes it’s a case of the right tool for the right job. There are a lot of utilitarian vehicles that assume a variety of roles, but really don’t excel at any one of them. Rare is the car that can do double-duty as a practical daily driver, while at the same time fulfilling the enthusiast’s passion for engagement. Volkswagen’s Golf GTI is one such car.
Since it first launched in 1975, the GTI – now in its seventh generation – has come to represent the quintessential hot hatch. There aren’t a lot of changes for 2017, since the GTI received some comprehensive updates in 2015. Rumour has it the eighth-generation GTI, slated to arrive in about three years, will be the most powerful production model to date.
Like the regular Golf, the GTI is a handsome little car whose understated design ages very well without looking dated. There are very subtle cues differentiating the GTI from its mainstream sibling; enthusiasts will note the tell-tale red trim on the honeycomb grille, larger machined wheels and bumpers unique to the GTI.
As far as cabins go, the GTI’s is a corker. The Autobahn trim features delightful tartan cloth on the deeply bolstered sport seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel wrapped in red-stitched leather with matching red highlights, and ambient lighting throughout. It’s a clean and well-executed environment with a premium German feel, from the neat and tidy soft-touch surfaces to the simple yet substantial switchgear. Ample passenger and cargo room have made the Golf a popular choice with Canadians, who bought nearly 20,000 of them last year. There’s plenty of leg and headroom for four adults, and cargo volume in either the three- or five-door models expand to 1,492 litres from 646 when the seats are folded down. That’s better than the Mini Countryman’s 450-to-1,390L jump and slightly better than the Ford Focus ST’s 672-to-1267 litres.
There’s a decent amount of standard content, including Bluetooth, heated seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Driver Assistance Package ($1,460) adds adaptive cruise control, lane assist, blind spot detection, emergency braking, park assist and rear traffic alert.
For practical daily driver needs, the GTi ticks all the right boxes. Fuel economy – at 9.6L/100 kilometres in the city and 7.2 on the highway – is less stellar than an ordinary compact, but it’s well worth the enjoyment the GTi delivers. This little hot hatch’s reputation is well-earned.
While 210 horsepower from the 2.0-litre turbo-four doesn’t sound like much, especially when compared to the Focus ST’s 252, there’s 258 lb ft of torque available from 1,600 to 4200 rpm. The abundance of torque in such a small car makes it delightfully responsive. If that’s not sufficient, there’s the hardcore Golf R, an all-wheel-drive version with adaptive suspension and a locking differential, plus 292 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. But it lacks the creature comforts that make the GTI’s Autobahn the ideal blend of practicality and fun.
The GTI takes an ordinary on-ramp and transforms it into a chuckle-inducing pleasure. You don’t have to thrash this car beyond the redline to reach its true potential; the enjoyment comes from its unflappable composure and responsiveness. It doesn’t have the adaptive damping feature of the Golf R, but the steel sports suspension is extremely well balanced and keeps the car flat through hard cornering. It’s a little harsh over broken payment, but that’s probably amplified by the low-profile tires.
While I was very much looking forward to swapping cogs with the GTI’s excellent six-speed gearbox, this tester came equipped with the optional $1,400 dual-clutch automatic transmission. German-engineered DSGs are known for their crisp gear shifts, but unfortunately this one seemed a little less snappy than expected. Choosing Sport mode for quicker throttle response and using the paddle shifters was a lot more rewarding. On the other hand, the fat and grippy flat-bottomed wheel was so endearing, I found myself idly wondering if it would fit my project car. Not only is it the perfect tactile interface between car and driver, it’s connected to sharp and lively steering that delivers plenty of feedback.
It’s easy to understand how the GTI has become the favourite choice among hot-hatch enthusiasts, but with sports car performance, crossover-like cargo space, and premium sedan comfort, it has the versatility to make it one of my own favourite all-around choices.