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The Volkswagen GTI is arguably the most important hot hatchback on the market. The first generation of the souped-up Golf inspired an entire new segment of quick, practical cars at affordable prices. Decades later, it has to fight harder than ever to win buyers.
Despite being the perennial sales leader in its class, it's taking a large share of an increasingly small market. As crossovers take the lead in practicality, VW has to bet that some consumers will prioritize fun and driving excitement. We hope they do, as the GTI is a phenomenal car with a lot of personality at a reasonable price.
The $32,380 VW expects for a GTI SE optioned like our tester isn't a small sum. But considering what you're getting, it's hard to deny that this hatch represents something of a bargain.
While still sliding in at a few grand below the average new car sold last year, the GTI offers room for four adults, a quality interior, an attractive design, an 8-inch infotainment system, a slick six-speed manual and 228 horsepower from the four-cylinder engine. All of that is backed by the automaker's new comprehensive six-year warranty, a play to get Americans to trust the product of a company not always heralded for reliability.
Quality, too, is a definite strong suit. The VW does a passable impersonation of a luxury car with sturdy interior materials and a rigid chassis. The cabin is whisper-quiet with little indication that you're driving a performance-oriented car.
Throw it into some turns on a test drive and you'll be quickly reminded of its intended purpose. The GTI is composed and agile, with the front end darting into corners on command. Steering is communicative, though not as transparent as the best drivers cars. And despite the turbocharger, VW's 2.0-liter engine delivers its payload without the hesitation of more primitive forced induction motors.
Make no mistake, this isn't a neck-breaking performer. But 228 horsepower is more than enough to make it feel lively and get the adrenaline pumping when the time is right. When you're done, slot the shifter into sixth gear on the highway and relax. The peppy VW is just as happy to be a chill long hauler.
To provide such a well-rounded experience at this price point, VW had to cut some costs. Look closely in the cabin of the GTI and you'll certainly see the evidence of this, as there are weird omissions. The display in the gauge cluster, for instance, is the same mono-color unit that's graced VW cabins since the dawn of time itself. Automatic climate control is strangely absent. The dash design, in general, is largely unchanged from the design of the last generation GTI.
In fact, while the interior is high quality and completely functional, it's not exactly exciting. Almost everything in the cabin is a shade of black and probably made of plastic. That's not something to be ashamed of at this price point, but we've seen more adventurous interior designs that don't cost more.
Finally, we can't ignore that the GTI doesn't ride as smoothly as your standard-issue family car. It isn't uncomfortable, but the firm ride can lead to harsh experiences on pothole-infested city streets. Not a dealbreaker, but something to consider if you spend a lot of time on bumpy roads in low-speed environments.
At $32,380, our tester was a good deal. A base model — at only $27,595 — is a serious steal. We recommend sticking with the manual transmission option to maximize fun, but a dual-clutch automatic transmission is available for an extra $1,100.
We'd also suggest you spend $450 on the driver assistance package, which will pay for itself if it prevents one collision over the life of the car. With destination charge, that brings our total to $28,940.
For under $30,000, it's hard to fault a car that drives this well, looks this handsome, feels this high quality and comes with bumper-to-bumper coverage for six years or 72,000 miles. The GTI was already a class leader, but the industry's best comprehensive warranty helps push it over the top for us.
It might not have the most exciting cabin or the softest ride, but the GTI offers so much fun and practicality that it's impossible to ignore. We highly recommend it for anyone who wants a fun car but needs something that works for everyday life.
Driving Experience: 4.5
Price as tested: $32,380