Updated: Apr 1, 2022
2022 is here and with it, the end of the Volkswagen Golf as a triple threat---sensible commuter, hot hatch and even hotter hatch.
With Volkswagen's decision to leave the base Golf, the TSI, out of the North American product mix for 2022 and the foreseeable future, the eighth-generation of Golf will be represented on these shores by the hot GTI and the fire-breathing, $40,000-plus Type R. We're not complaining (we've done that already in last summer's review of the last Golf TSI). Up to this point, any Golf is good Golf and the GTI is historically a great Golf. If you have to start somewhere on the Golf ladder, conventional wisdom says starting with a GTI is kind of like hitting the jackpot the first time out.
Thirty-nine years ago, a co-worker of mine was dating a very rich man who also knew, liked and had good taste in cars. Dude could have bought anything on four wheels. He bought one of the first GTIs (then known as the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI).
At a time when BMW 3-series were managing 11-second 0-60 runs and the SAAB 900 Turbo was considered blistering fast at 10 seconds flat, the GTI did it in 10.6, for a fraction of the price (initial MSRP was $7995). And it handled like it was on rails. The GTI was a revelation in 1983.
Today's GTI costs a bit more, even adjusted for inflation, but its 2.0-liter turbocharged, 241-horsepower four-cylinder gets to 60 from a standing start in 5.1 seconds with a dual-clutch automatic (there's also a manual available) and delivers on an EPA fuel economy estimate of 25 miles per gallon city, 34 highway. And at the wheel, especially on winding roads, it puts the same kind of grin on your face that the first one did all those decades ago.
It is one of the very few affordable sports cars that can also carry a lot of stuff and five people or an absolute ton of stuff and two people. About that back-seat shot? The front passenger seat is all the way back. I'm six feet tall and the driver's seat is set for me. So, front seats set reasonably, the folks in back are fine. NBA players could drive GTIs and be comfortable.
The plaid seat inserts are a GTI trademark---going all the way back to the first one.
It's up front where the driving gets done that the GTI becomes a letdown compared to previous generations. A lot of the plastics feel noticeably cheaper than last year's---even last year's $24,000 Golf TSI. Screens have taken over from gauges and knobs and dials. Regular readers know I'm not a technophobe...but the tech needs to work.
The digital gauges are bright and readable, but there's a bunch of glare from all that piano black trim.
It's in what used to be the center stack, where a year ago physical knobs for audio and HVAC controls existed, that the problem becomes acute. Those are capacitive touch switches along the rim in front of the screen.
See the blue line and the red line? That's to raise or lower the temperature on the climate control. But you don't touch them. You touch the bar above them. And they don't light up. At night, you're just guessing. Worse still, that's not the only place to touch for climate control. If you want to turn on or turn off the automatic fan setting, that's the snowflake labelled "CLIMA" on that five-function panel in between the vents. Audio? No clue. I just thanked God that Apple CarPlay connected on the first try. You're seeing that on the screen instead of the standard VW interface because, while I usually unplug it for photography, I paired it wirelessly in the GTI, and I use my iPhone to take the pictures, so the moment I got in the car, bang---CarPlay's there. They're using this stuff in the electric VW ID.4, too. And maybe I've been too easy on it in that vehicle, but I expect, even if I don't love, show-off tech that doesn't work as well as it should in an EV that's trying to be "futuristic." And the ID.4 is not a car that demands focus the way a GTI does. Even if I'm not hammering a Sierra backroad, I want to savor the GTI, really connect with it. Dialing down the climate control by two degrees shouldn't require a break in my concentration. Dealing with the center stack controls while driving the GTI is like being at the movies and having the person in the row in front of you start texting in your line of vision. There are some automotive journalists---some very good automotive journalists---who say the interface ruins the new GTI for them. I'm not sure I can argue with them convincingly. If you're going to limit the Golf in North America to two drivers' cars, then both those cars need to be serious about their drivers and their needs. And that's a shame because, when you're just driving it, the new GTI is a ball. I can probably deal with anything for a week with a press vehicle. But if I'm living with it for four years' worth of payments or even two years worth of a lease?
I wish I could talk myself into that. Not at all sure I can.
2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE: $35,095
Kings Red Metallic exterior: $395
Black wheel package (18" alloy): $395
Destination charge: $995
As tested: $36,880