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2012 Volkswagen GTI ReviewThe Good
Volkswagen introduces a new Golf GTI Convenience and Sunroof trim for 2012, which groups together some of the GTI's most popular optional features, and makes minor updates to the GTI Autobahn and GTI Sunroof and Navigation trims as well.The Bad
The 2012 GTI continues to tread water as it awaits a next-generation refresh, and its performance doesn't quite match the best in the class, which includes competitors from Subaru and Mazda.
The CarGurus View
Wedged between the base Golf hatchbacks and the new top-of-the-line, high-performance Golf R, the Golf GTI offers the best of both worlds. It's more powerful and better equipped than its lower-end brethren, and lighter and less expensive than the hunkier Golf R. For many owners, the 2012 Volkswagen GTI finds the perfect balance between the two camps, offering sporty performance and a well-equipped cabin as well as good fuel economy and a relatively affordable price tag. With all these elements working in its favor, it's no wonder the GTI continues to thrill owners.
At a Glance
Nearing the end of its sixth generation, the 2012 Golf GTI continues a hot-hatch tradition that dates back to 1974, when it first made its appearance in U.S. showrooms. Based on the VW Golf/Rabbit front-wheel-drive hatchback, the performance-oriented GTI comes equipped with a turbocharged powerplant and a number of exterior and interior upgrades, which distinguish it from the base Golf. Although it changes little for 2012, and might seem a little dated when compared to some competitive vehicles, the GTI continues to do what it does best, delivering a winning combination of sporty performance, agile handling, upscale features and overall functionality.
As it awaits its upcoming seventh generation, the GTI receives only a few minor updates for 2012. Like all other Golfs, it gets a new Convenience and Sunroof trim, which joins the existing entry-level GTI 2.0T, mid-level GTI 2.0T with Sunroof and Navigation and top-of-the-line GTI 2.0T Autobahn trims. VW adds new LED daytime running lights to the Sunroof and Navigation trim for 2012, and the GTI Autobahn trim also gets the new LED daytime running lights, as well as new 10-spoke, 18-inch Serron alloy wheels. Other than that, the 2012 GTI remains unchanged. All trim levels are available in 2-door and 4-door hatchback body styles. In addition, VW offers all trims with a low-emissions PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) version of the turborcharged powerplant for sale in in states with California emissions standards.
Outside, the GTI retains the boxy profile and clean, minimalist exterior styling displayed by all current Golfs, which includes pronounced wheel arches, a slightly tapered roofline and a single straight side crease extending from the front wheels to the taillights. Beyond that, the GTI receives a number of exterior features designed to distinguish it from other Golfs, including an aggressive front end with black honeycomb lower air intakes, halogen foglights and a black honeycomb grille with a GTI badge and twin red horizontal stripes linking the tear-shaped headlights. Side skirts, horizontal taillights with smoked red brake lenses, a blacked-out rear diffuser, a body-color "duckbill" spoiler and chrome-tipped dual exhausts are among the GTI's other exterior features.
During its decades-long run, the GTI has racked up numerous international awards and accolades. Automobile Magazine named the 2012 GTI one of its All Stars for the sixth year in a row, and Car and Driver Magazine included the 2012 GTI on its 10 Best list. The 2012 GTI was also named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS. Other awards for the base Golf include World Car of the Year in 2009 and European Car of the Year in 1975, '84, '98 and '04. Attesting to its appeal, nearly 2 million GTIs have sold since the car's introduction. Competitors include the Mazda MAZDASPEED3, the Subaru WRX, the MINI Cooper S and the Ford Focus ST.
For power, the 2012 2.0T Golf GTI continues to come equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI 4-cylinder engine with direct injection and an intercooler. The engine delivers a potent 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, torque delivered in a flat line from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm. Reviewers report minimal lag from the turbocharger, which gooses power when needed during acceleration or passing situations.
VW pairs the turbocharged engine with either a 6-speed manual transmission, which comes as standard equipment, or an optional DSG 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The DSG transmission also includes a Launch Control feature, which allows the engine to build revs while the vehicle is stopped to ensure quick off-the-line performance. When equipped with the manual shifter, the engine posts good fuel economy numbers of 21/31 mpg, which improve to 24/33 with the automatic. VW notes that despite the better fuel economy numbers with the automatic transmission, a majority of buyers prefer the manual shifter for a sportier driving experience.
In terms of performance, the GTI cuts a straight-ahead, right-through-the-middle swath between the standard Golf hatchbacks and the new 2012 Golf R at the top of the line, which boasts a beefy 256-hp turbocharged engine. The Golf R also includes all-wheel drive as a standard feature, which adds nearly 300 pounds to its weight. Although the Golf R certainly provides a sporty ride, the GTI feels lighter on its feet and more maneuverable, according to some testers, although the Golf R, with its AWD system, holds the road a little better in tight corners. Both hold plenty of power in reserve for passing and accelerating situations. Reviewers also give high marks to the GTI's optional DSG automatic transmission, although they say the manual shifter provides a better connection between the driver, the car and the road.
Ride & Handling
Sitting low and wide, the front-wheel-drive GTI continues to deliver crisp, responsive handling, thanks to it European-tuned sport suspension, which features independent MacPherson struts in the front and an independent 4-link configuration with telescopic shock absorbers in the rear. VW also adds a stiff, tubular anti-roll bar in the front, as well as an anti-roll bar in the rear, which help to reduce body lean while improving feedback through the electromechanical power steering system. The GTI also comes equipped with an XDS cross-differential system, which monitors traction in the front wheels and transfers torque to the wheel with the most traction when it detects slippage.
The GTI's steering system includes a mild self-centering function, similar to the one found on the Golf R, which helps keep the vehicle headed in the right direction when it veers off-course due to high crosswinds and uneven road surfaces. The upgraded braking system features 12.3-inch vented disc brakes in the front and 11.3-inch solid disc brakes in the rear, with unique red-painted calipers all around. All GTIs ride on 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels with all-season performance tires except for the Autobahn trim, which gets new 10-spoke, 18-inch Serron alloy wheels for 2012.
Cabin & Comfort
The Golf GTI's comfortable, refined cabin remains one of its biggest selling features. Reviewers and owners like the quality of interior materials and soft-touch surfaces, as well as sporty features like chrome and aluminum trim on the dash and doors. Unique GTI features include brushed metal-finish pedals and red stitching on the leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, center armrest, headrests and shift knob cover. Cloth upholstery with plaid inserts comes standard on all trims except the Autobahn, which receives Titan Black leather upholstery. The GTI also gets a unique instrument cluster with black analog gauges and an oversized tachometer, as well as a multifunction display.
The front sport seats are heavily bolstered to keep the driver and front passenger firmly planted during aggressive driving maneuvers. In 2-door Golfs, the front seats feature 8-way manual adjustment with 2-way manual lumbar support, while 4-door trims add power reclining seatbacks for the driver and front passenger. The rear seatbacks split 60/40 and fold to ensure optimal flexibility and functionality. With the rear seatbacks up, the Golf offers 15.2 cubic feet of storage space in the rear cargo area, which expands to 46 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down. In addition, the rear hatch lifts high, making it easy to load larger objects.
All Golf GTIs come standard with such features as air conditioning, cruise control, a lockable glovebox, a tilt/telescopic steering column and a keyless remote. VW also includes an 8-speaker audio system with a CD player, SiriusXM satellite radio, Bluetooth, an iPod port and an auxiliary input jack. As its name implies, the new Convenience and Sunroof adds a power tilt/slide sunroof, a multifunction steering wheel with audio controls and a Premium VIII audio system with a 5-inch touchscreen and 6-CD changer. The Sunroof and Navigation trim adds a navigation system, while the top-of-the-line Autobahn also includes push-button start, as well as a sunroof, leather upholstery and a number of exterior upgrades.
The 2012 Golf GTI was named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS, since it earned a top rating of Good for protecting passengers in all types of crashes. The NHTSA gave the GTI 4 out of 5 stars for protecting passengers during rollovers, but has not tested the hatchback in other types of crashes.
All GTI trims come equipped with 6 airbags, including dual front, front side and side-curtain airbags for both rows of seating. Other standard safety features include electronic stability control and antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and hydraulic brake assist. In addition, VW equips all GTIs with an Intelligent Crash Response System, which shuts off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and turns on the hazard lights in certain types of collisions.
What Owners Think
Owners find the 2012 Golf GTI a fun car to drive and say it's practical as well. The GTI's sporty performance and tight, responsive handling impresses owners, who often use words like "unbelievable," "zippy" and "amazing" to describe its acceleration off the mark and maneuverability in all types of driving situations. They also like the hatchback's build quality, refinement and reliability. Owners find the interior comfortable and well-equipped and like the exterior styling as well. Some owners say there were initially hesitant about the optional DSG transmission, especially in a sport hatchback, but quickly warmed to the shifter. Most owners realize some competitive vehicles offer better performance, but they like the GTI's overall balance and blend of features. A few owners would like to see better fuel economy numbers, though most are pleased with the mileage they're getting from their vehicles. Similarly, a few have reported minor problems with the car, but most owners are overwhelmingly positive about their GTIs.
Rob has been a contributor to CarGurus since 2007, and an automotive test-driver and writer since the early ’90s. He’s test-driven everything from BMWs and Jags to Bentleys and Saabs, with an occasional Range Rover, Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini thrown in. He also created the annual Car of the Year and Exotic Car of the Year awards for Robb Report magazine. He currently resides in Florida.