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2019 Volkswagen GTI Test Drive Review
Affordable performance is the name of the 2019 Volkswagen GTI’s game, and while it is more expensive than other small 5-door hatchbacks, its thrilling driving dynamics are well worth the price.
Small, fun cars hold a special place in my heart. I’ve always been a fan of little yet mighty automobiles, and not just because they put performance within easier financial reach. You simply cannot help but smile when you drive one, and smiling is good for you. So, think of the 2019 Volkswagen GTI as a contributor to a healthier lifestyle, because you’ll be smiling plenty from behind its steering wheel.
Look and Feel
One of my favorite things about the Volkswagen GTI is that it looks utterly innocuous.
A bit of an introvert, I hate drawing unnecessary attention to myself, and the GTI is all about stealth. Unless you know what you’re looking at, you’d think the GTI is just another boring 5-door hatchback. But you’d be wrong, because behind its 2-box design, honeycomb grille, red accents, and fat twin exhaust outlets beats the heart of a lion.
Volkswagen offers the GTI in S, Rabbit Edition, SE, and Autobahn trim. Prices start at $27,595 and top out at $37,095 with the optional 7-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) dual-clutch automatic, not including $895 for destination charges. New for 2019, the DSG features Tiptronic manual shifting, automatic engine stop/start, and a launch control system.
My test car had the standard 6-speed manual gearbox, complete with a dimpled golf-ball shift knob, and the new Rabbit Edition trim ($28,895). Volkswagen says the Rabbit Edition, which slips into the lineup between the S and SE trims, “pays homage to GTI heritage.” It’s a limited-production vehicle and is equipped with a gloss black finish for the 18-inch wheels, rear roof spoiler, and side mirror caps. It also comes in two unique colors: Urano Gray and Cornflower Blue.
Since I’m not a fan of gloss-black exterior trim, you can guess my assessment of the GTI Rabbit Edition’s appearance. Plus, the cute little bunny badge on the hatch is a little over the top. Generally speaking, though, I like the way the Volkswagen GTI looks. This car is conservatively styled and attentively tailored, with just a little bit of attitude layered on for effect.
Inside, Volkswagen’s straightforward approach is clearly evident in the dashboard design, the instrumentation, and the controls. The GTI exudes quality, too. The only shenanigans carried out from a GTI’s cabin arise from the driver’s directives, though the jaunty Clark Plaid cloth upholstery in the S and Rabbit Edition trims certainly adds a whimsical flavor.
Speaking of shenanigans, they're unavoidable when you’re driving a Volkswagen GTI. There is a reason the top trim is called Autobahn, and it has nothing to do with aspirational fantasy.
For 2019, Volkswagen pours fuel onto the fire by bumping the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine’s output from 220 horsepower to 228, peaking at 4,700 rpm. Torque remains the same at 258 pound-feet, arriving at just 1,500 rpm and sticking around through 4,500 rpm.
Another change for 2019, Volkswagen’s torque-sensing limited-slip differential is standard in every GTI. Known as a VAQ differential, it monitors data from wheel sensors and, based on vehicle and wheel speed, yaw rate, and lateral g-force, can transfer up to 100 percent of the engine’s torque between the front wheels to maximize traction, reduce understeer, and manage torque steer.
Take a GTI for a rousing run on a road you know well, and you’ll witness its VAQ in action the very first time you stab the brake pedal, tuck the car into a corner, and squirt out the other side. For a front-wheel-drive car with about 60 percent of its weight over the nose, handling is downright heroic. No doubt the test car’s Bridgestone Potenza RE97AS P225/40R18 tires had something to do with it, too.
Acceleration is fast, and you can reach 60 mph without grabbing third gear. Clutch action is light and effortless, throws are reasonably short, and the stick glides easily into each gear. Volkswagen tunes the engine and exhaust to provide a pleasantly grumbling soundtrack to go along with the turbocharged rush of torque.
Equipped with a lowered sport suspension, the GTI’s ride is stiff, producing plenty of bounce and chop on anything but perfect pavement. An adaptive damping suspension is optional with SE trim and standard on the GTI Autobahn. On the highway, the cabin fills with wind and road noise, but such are the prices to be paid for relatively cheap thrills.
Progressive, variable-ratio steering means the GTI faithfully responds to the smallest of driver inputs when hustling the car at speed while at the same time reducing the amount you need to turn the wheel while parking or making a U-turn. No matter how or where you’re driving this car, the steering is perfection, requiring more effort when you switch from Normal to Sport mode. Sport mode also quickens throttle response, and in versions of the car with the DSG transmission and the adaptive damping suspension, makes additional pulse-quickening changes.
When the time comes to bring the party to a halt, every GTI now comes with the same brakes you’ll find on the Golf R. Red single-piston calipers clamp 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear vented discs, and they’re quite sensitive, so use a light foot in traffic.
If you care about fuel economy, the EPA rates my Rabbit Edition test car to return 27 mpg in combined driving. I got 25.1 mpg, running the car equally in Normal and Sport driving modes. Depending on your perspective, I was either doing something right or doing something wrong.
I had a blast driving this car, so you tell me.
Form and Function
I’m a father, with two kids in elementary school. I’m a homeowner, with a list of weekend projects a mile long. I’m a driving enthusiast, living near some of the best stretches of 2-lane mountain roads in Southern California. Therefore, I seek a vehicle that can carry my family and, on occasion, some bulky cargo, all while showing me a good time during my downtime.
The Volkswagen GTI is exactly the kind of car that meets every one of these requirements. And it does so while fitting into a modest family budget.
Up front, you’ve got two height-adjustable seats with robust bolsters, wrapped in plaid cloth or available leather, and separated by a sliding and height-adjustable center armrest. These seats accommodate just about everyone, and in just about any position. I prefer to sit up high, which provides a good view out combined with a taller hip point that makes entry and exit easier.
Facing a thick-rimmed flat-bottom steering wheel, gauges that are a model of clarity, and sensibly arranged controls, I feel like I’ve pulled an exceptionally comfortable dining chair up to a smorgasbord of performance. The hood is flat and unobtrusive, leaving a huge rectangle of a windshield supported by thin pillars that maximize outward visibility.
Storage is plentiful. The glove box is cavernous, the lower door-panel bins are wide and deep, and there is a tray for your smartphone located just forward of the shifter. Yes, the center console box is small, but given all the other spots in which you can stash your stuff, you’re unlikely to care.
Backseat comfort is acceptable. Thigh support and the backrest angle are ideal, but leg space is tight, and the narrow doors make it harder to get out of the car. Tall people will appreciate the softly padded and upholstered front seatbacks.
Volkswagen says the trunk will hold 22.8 cubic feet of cargo, but that seems optimistic to me. Most likely, you’d need to remove the cargo cover, drop the cargo floor, and still pack items in the spare-tire well and in both side pockets, which are sized perfectly for hauling bottles of wine. In terms of everyday practicality, cut that cargo measurement in half.
Maximum cargo space measures 52.7 cubic feet, and if you don’t want to fold the 60/40-split backseat to accommodate long and thin items, like skis, there is a pass-through that allows the car to retain 4-passenger seating in addition to the lengthy items.
With S and Rabbit Edition trim, the GTI's infotainment system includes a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, Bluetooth hands-free calling and music streaming, and Car-Net App Connect with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Mirror Link platform support.
An upgraded infotainment system is available with SE trim, featuring a larger proximity-sensing 8-inch display, HD Radio, satellite radio, and a 6-month trial subscription to Car-Net Safety & Security services. A Fender-brand premium sound system is available for the GTI SE and is standard for the GTI Autobahn, which also includes a navigation system.
By modern standards, my Rabbit Edition test car’s infotainment system was pretty basic, but all anyone really needs is Bluetooth and a smartphone integration system. I had just a little bit of trouble pairing my iPhone XS to the system (it took two tries), and Apple CarPlay worked fine unless I wanted to run Pandora, which didn’t work at all.
Sound quality is adequate and no better. If you want great music for your drive, you’re going to need the Fender system, which has impressed me during previous GTI tests.
An adaptive LED front lighting system comes standard on all versions of the GTI, except for S trim. A semi-autonomous parking assistant system is exclusively offered with Autobahn trim, though a car this size is almost always a snap to park.
For 2019, Volkswagen now offers forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, and a blind-spot-monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert on the S trim level, as a $450 option package. That’s a bargain.
My Rabbit Edition test car included these features as standard equipment. Upgrade to the GTI SE, and the Car-Net Safety & Security plan provides automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, quick access to roadside assistance, and Family Guardian speed, curfew, and boundary alerts. The free trial period is 6 months, and after that service costs a monthly or annual fee.
Adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beam headlights, a lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist system, and an active blind-spot-monitoring system are included on the GTI Autobahn and are exclusive to this version of the car.
All GTIs get Volkswagen’s automatic post-collision braking system, though. This feature is designed to bring the car to a stop just as soon as is possible following an impact that triggers the airbags. This is important because secondary collisions—after the airbags have deployed and after the car’s structure has absorbed the force of the initial collision—could leave occupants exposed to greater injury. This is an unusual technology and is especially rare at the GTI’s price point.
Crash protection gets a 5-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which gives the GTI top marks across the board except for a 4-star rating for the front passenger in the frontal impact test.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the GTI high marks, too. However, front passenger protection receives an Acceptable rather than Good rating in the small overlap frontal impact test. Also, the IIHS has not assessed the GTI’s automatic braking or LED headlights.
Given the GTI’s performance, this car delivers genuine bang for the driving enthusiast’s buck.
Add Volkswagen’s People First warranty plan, which covers the entire car for 6 years or 72,000 miles and is fully transferrable to a new owner, as well as the 6-month trial period for Car-Net Security and Service, and there is undeniable value to be found in the 2019 Volkswagen GTI.
It isn’t as inexpensive as some competitors, though, perhaps most notably the new Hyundai Veloster N. And it certainly is true that the GTI Autobahn’s price tag essentially overlaps more powerful alternatives such as the Honda Civic Type-R and Subaru WRX STI.
Still, the GTI has been on sale in America since 1983, and for good reason. Clearly, it’s worth paying a little more for the GTI’s quality and refinement in order to derive years of subsequent satisfaction whether you’re commuting, running the kids to school, loading up after a trip to the big box store, or ripping up and down your favorite roads on the weekends.
Best of all, the Volkswagen GTI looks like it belongs on public roads, not stuffed into a Hot Wheels blister pack.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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