I found myself surrounded by plaid recently, and no, I wasn’t attending a Scottish or Irish wedding. It was inside the 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI. It’s a genre-defining hot hatch with an enthusiast cult following and after a week sitting in its iconic Tartan print confines I can see why. The GTI manages to be a practical yet fun, sporty daily driver that makes even running simple errands more exciting. I found myself asking where else I needed to go next, because surely there had to be somewhere.
The 7th-generation 2018 Golf GTI receives some technology and power upgrades as part of a mid-generation refresh while the VW team works on the 8th-generation model due to head into production in 2019. Our Golf GTI base S trim slots below the SE and Autobahn grades. The GTI goes up against the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic SI, Subaru WRX and the soon to launch 2019 Hyundai Veloster N.
The GTI isn’t the most powerful of the above litter. But the lineup does get a power boost for 2018 with a 2.0-L turbo 4-cylinder that delivers 220-horsepower art 4,700 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 rpm (with premium fuel.) If you want more power, the 2018 Golf R offers 292-horses. My test model is equipped with a standard smooth-shifting 6-speed manual, but you can spring for a dual-clutch automatic for $1,100. The GTI delivers an adrenaline rush especially in sport mode. (You also get eco, normal and custom.) And its handling is fantastic. The front-wheel drive GTI accelerates fast and takes corners like a dream with its crisp sport suspension and XDS torque-vectoring front differential. If you’d like a gear head’s take on the Golf’s impressive capabilities check out Terry Box’s review of the midrange 2018 Golf GTI SE here.
The GTI is a conventional hatchback that doesn’t beg for attention like say the Honda Civic SI or Subaru WRX STI (unless you go for the Tornado Red.) My test model eschews a more understated, sophisticated presence in Dark Iron Blue Metallic riding on 18-inch alloy wheels. It looks sharp with red accents and brake calipers. It’s been updated with new bumpers and a new chrome grille along with LED taillights, LED Daytime Running Lights. But the S trim is sadly stuck in the past with halogen headlights while the SE and Autobahn grades come with LEDs and Adaptive Front Lighting.
No complaints about the GTI’s interior which, while not luxurious, delivers an excellent design, fit and finish, right down to the iconic Tartan print upholstery that harkens back to the 70s when the Golf launched. The heated front sport seats offer plenty of side bolstering for snug but comfortable support to hold you in when you take those corners. They’re power adjustable in the back with manual lumbar support.
The GTI’s tachometer is no frills and easy to read. But I found the digital driver info display too small and outdated given what else is out there these days. However, you can easily scroll through the data from the leather-wrapped flat-bottomed sport steering wheel.
The center stack consists of a 6.5-inch infotainment touchscreen and the usual buttons or knobs for volume control, menu selections, single-zone AC and other functions. Below you find the leather gear shift knob and handbrake lever along with the drive mode controller. The S offers gives you a sunglass holder, but no sunroof. One thing I sorely missed was keyless ignition. It’s not standard on the S trim.
The Golf GTI is roomy in terms of head- and leg-room and didn’t feel cramped despite its compact status. It offers a 60/40-split folding rear seat. Thanks to being a hatchback it offers a good amount of trunk space. I found the center console storage area to be fairly tiny, but VW makes up for it with a spacious glove box. $235 all-season mats and a heavy duty trunk liner along with a $85 roadside assistance kit were options on my S model.
For 2018, the GTI S trim is equipped with 6.5-inch touchscreen with a rear view camera, which is on the small side compared to the new 8-inch on the SE and Autobahn grades. But it does offer proximity gesture control that uses sensors and makes menu functions appear when your fingers approach the screen.
There’s also no navigation until you get to the Autobahn grade. Standard connectivity includes Bluetooth, VW Car-Net App-Connect, two 12 volts and a USB port. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard. An 8-speaker audio system is okay. Step up to the top of the line Autobahn trim for a premium system. If you’re interested in VW’s new digital cockpit, you’ll have to consider the Golf R.
Thumbs down for the lack of driver assist technology on the base level 2018 GTI – and that goes for even Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB). You have to spring for a pricier trim, either the SE or Autobahn, to get features that include AEB with pedestrian monitoring, Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Traffic Alert along with available Lane Assist, and High Beams. For $26,000 and some change the base model really deserves more standard driver assist features or at the very least their availability. All VW’s come with an automatic post-collision braking system designed to prevent a second accident on top of a first one. It can turn off the fuel pump, unlock the doors, and activate the hazard lights.
Note: The S trim adds standard Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Monitoring, Blind Spot Monitor, and Rear Traffic Alert for model year 2019.
Fuel Economy and What You’ll Pay
Fuel economy is good with a combined 28 mpg. The S trim starts from just over $26,000 and the top level Autobahn trim starts from $35,070. If it were me, I’d go for the midrange SE 6-speed manual trim that starts from roughly $30K. You get more driver assistance features and the Golf R’s upgraded performance brakes, plus LED headlights and a larger 8-inch touchscreen.
There is no question the VW Golf GTI deserves its cult following. But I’d like to see more technology, an updated driver display and more safety on the base S trim which hopefully arrives with the next-generation 2020 model.