First Impressions: 2018 Volkswagen GTI

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI proves a sports car can be practical, too.

2018 Volkswagen GTI

Finally, a sports car the whole family can agree on (and fit into).

By Nick Kurczewski, Contributor, | July 2018

What is this vehicle?

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI proves compromise is still possible, at least when it comes to finding a car that’s functional and fun-to-drive on a daily basis. Beneath the GTI’s stoic four-door body, and tucked somewhere behind its handy hatchback, is a feisty side that loves to play whenever you punch the gas pedal. Granted, this isn’t a Hemi-powered, chest-thumping kind of sports machine. If a Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger are the heavyweight boxing bruisers of the affordable performance world, think of the VW GTI as more of a world-class fencer or slalom skier.

For starters, the VW’s 220-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine gets you going, quickly. But if smoky burnouts and look-at-me driving shenanigans are what you’re after, the GTI could leave you feeling suddenly very…sensible.

For the 2018 model year, the GTI is only available in four-door format, as the coupe model sadly got the heave-ho from the lineup. A six-speed manual is the standard transmission, though many buyers will probably spend extra for the available six-speed automatic (which is how our test car was equipped). While we’re proponents of manuals, the automatic does an excellent job of smoothly delivering power to the front wheels.

Inside the cabin, the materials feel a cut above the compact car norm. There is plenty of room inside for four full-size adults, and the wide-opening hatchback reveals more than 22 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats.

Who is this vehicle for?

The Volkswagen GTI is a great compact car for singles who want something that’s enjoyable to drive, turns a few heads, but doesn’t shout out that it’s a sports car. These attributes hold true for young families, too. Having a couple of kids doesn’t automatically mean everyone wants to jump aboard a minivan or SUV. The GTI delivers plenty of room for people and cargo, while still providing a peppy powertrain and refined driving dynamics that feel like they’ve been honed by driving enthusiasts (i.e. German engineers with easy access to the Autobahn).

We can imagine a couple in a car dealership, debating between a small and sensible SUV, or something wilder and sportier. Between these car buying extremes hides the GTI. While the sport-utility craze shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, car buyers might be surprised at the practicality that can be found in a car with a hatch. And despite the perception that hatchbacks are somehow synonymous with being cheap and spartan, the VW GTI borders more closely with the levels of fit-and-finish you’d find in a luxury car.

Of course, there is a premium to be paid here, and the GTI carries a heftier base price than similarly sporty rivals from mainstream brands like Ford, Honda, and Subaru.

Why is this vehicle important to you, the buyer?

The standard Volkswagen Golf is a fine alternative to cars like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Subaru Impreza. With a starting price of roughly $21,000, the Golf is affordable, delivers nimble handling and, even with the base 170-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, a good degree of performance that won’t make you feel like you’re driving a budget-friendly hatchback.

Stepping up to the GTI only increases the driving enjoyment, thanks to the more powerful 220-hp turbo four-cylinder engine under the hood. Though it’s worth noting that the starting price jumps upward, to more than $26,000. That’s a pretty big outlay for many shoppers, at least in the frugal compact car segment, where a low MSRP and high fuel economy figures are considered givens.

In the latter regard, the GTI is only mediocre, with an EPA-estimated 24 mpg in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway (when equipped with the six-speed automatic).

Still, if your budget doesn’t stretch to a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but you want a car that looks and feels a class above the competition, the GTI can be viewed as bargain entry into the world of German sport and luxury cars.

Interesting facts about this vehicle!

  • The Volkswagen GTI was introduced in the 1970s and came to define what’s often been referred to as the “hot hatch” segment. In Europe especially, where roads can be narrower and fuel prices much higher, there is a larger market for reasonably-sized cars with a serious performance twist.
  • Driving purists will like that the GTI can be had with a manual transmission. We’ve driven the six-speed manual and it’s a great gearbox, one that’s easy to use and doesn’t wear you down in heavy traffic. Choosing the optional six-speed automatic will cost you about $1,000 extra. So, if you want a GTI and have always yearned to shift for yourself, there is a sizable cash incentive to do so!
  • The GTI isn’t the hottest performance version in the Golf lineup. The Golf R is powered by a 292-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder and comes with all-wheel drive. This mega-Golf has true sports car performance, not to mention a sports car price-tag. The base price for the Golf R hovers right around $40,000, or nearly double what you’d pay for an entry-level Golf.
  • If you love plaid, you’ll adore this car’s interior. Fans of 1970s style will enjoy the plaid cloth interior that’s available on the GTI. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly stands out in a sea of me-too designs. The shift-knob modeled like a golf ball is another cute and clever design touch.
  • VW upgraded the GTI’s exterior styling a bit for the 2018 model year. The cabin also received a modest makeover, with an improved infotainment system that now supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
  • Volkswagen also bumped the GTI warranty, from 3-years/36,000 miles to 5-years/72,000 mile bumper-to-bumper coverage. That’s a savvy move, considering the bad press VW has suffered following the diesel emissions scandal.
  • Inside, the GTI has a flat-bottom steering wheel, to add an extra dose of sportiness to the cabin. In upmarket trim levels of the GTI, true performance hardware includes a limited-slip differential and adaptive dampers.
  • The GTI isn’t simply enjoyable to drive and handy for hauling things, it’s also very safe. The 2018 VW GTI earned a five-star rating, the highest possible score, in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Similarly strong scores were also registered in crash tests conducted on the GTI by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

What Impressed Us / Top Likes:

1 – We don’t want to sound obsessed, but it’s the smooth and linear performance of the GTI that really sets this car apart! Granted, there are strong rivals to this VW, including cars like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Si, and Ford Focus ST. But it’s the Volkswagen that feels the most grown-up among them, both in terms of how it drives and the finish found in the cabin. The turbocharged engine isn’t neck-snapping fast, but the response is strong and even the sound of the exhaust has attitude (without being obnoxious).

2 – The front seats are extremely supportive and, as we’ve already stated, the plaid design adds a great touch of whimsy to the cabin. All in all, the GTI interior is functional and spacious. The rear seat has plenty of legroom for adults but, as is the case with many compact cars (or small SUVs, for that matter), three across could be a squeeze. In terms of balancing ride comfort and a roomy cabin, the GTI does a fantastic job of keeping the driver entertained, without sacrificing the needs of others along for the ride.

3 – Finally, VW has given the GTI an overdue upgrade for its infotainment system. Having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is becoming essential equipment for many car shoppers so, considering how the GTI caters to a youthful clientele, it was time the car offered more available tech. Also standard on the GTI is a rear-view camera, which is great for city-dwellers dealing with the joys of parallel-parking on a daily basis.

Items to Make Better (Least Favorite Things):

1 – The higher than normal entry price (at least in the compact car segment) could make the GTI a tough sell for bargain hunters. Of course, you get what you pay for with this VW. Yet, for a car shopper only looking for a low price, it could take lots of convincing when it comes to making a case for the GTI.

2 – Adding options also makes the price of the GTI leap higher. The top-level Autobahn trim level comes loaded with features, but it carries a base price of more than $35,000. In our opinion, keeping the GTI simpler (and cheaper) is the better bet.

3 – Fuel economy is simply okay in the GTI, though not great. We’d gladly trade a few MPGs for the driving behavior you find in this sprightly VW, but not all car buyers might be so accomodating when it comes time to refuel.

Segment and Competitors:

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI is a unique choice among the compact car segment but, depending on how many options you add, its range of competitors vary from entry-level economy cars, to small SUVs, affordable sports cars, and even some luxury sedans.

  • Honda Civic Si
  • Ford Focus ST
  • Audi A3
  • Subaru WRX
  • Volkswagen Jetta
  • Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class
  • Subaru BRZ
  • Volkswagen Tiguan

Yes, we’ve added a couple VWs in this list. The Jetta is all-new for this model year, but the entry-level models lack the dynamic qualities that help the GTI (and even the standard Golf) stand out from the crowd. If you want a VW, but need an SUV, the Tiguan is a solid choice in a crowded sport-utility market. Just don’t discount the passenger and cargo space on offer in the Golf/GTI.

Unique Specifications:

Did we mention those plaid cloth seats? Other than this memorable choice of seating surface, the GTI is notable for offering a few less polarizing features. The availability of a manual transmission will please driving fans, even if most people will likely choose the optional automatic. That’s fine, the performance doesn’t suffer with the automatic and it’s a good match for the 220-horsepower turbo engine and front-wheel drive powertrain. While the range-topping Autobahn trim level comes with all the bells and whistles, including a long list of safety equipment, the high price makes it a tough sell to anyone but diehard GTI fans.

Pricing and Availability:

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI is on sale right now and carries a starting price of approximately $27,000.

2018-07-30T16:29:45-04:00Jul 2018|Car Reviews|