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2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Test Drive Review
The original hot hatch takes another run through the twists and turns of modern life.
Now in its last year of production before a major makeover, the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI five-door hatchback embodies the benefits (and drawbacks) of the hot hatch formula. The quick, nimble, and stylish compact delivers impressive performance—but what does it sacrifice?
Look and Feel
The original GTI came to the United States as a 1983 model, then named the “Volkswagen Rabbit GTI.” It was an immediate hit and defined the hot hatch genre for generations. A hot hatch is a compact hatchback, either three-door or five-door, based on an ordinary economy model, but with enhanced performance features. Some got souped-up engines; some got stiffer springs and sporty suspension bits; some got body kits and special wheels. All followed the formula established by Volkswagen with the GTI, either from the factory or with help from the aftermarket. The Volkswagen Golf GTI has been through seven generations of production. The latest generation will end with the 2021 model, to be replaced by a new 2022 GTI, the beginning of the eighth generation.
The GTI shares most of the basics with a regular Golf, but brings just enough subtle enhancements and tweaks to elevate it to the performance category. Small red GTI badges on the front and rear are the first clue that you’re looking at a special car. A red horizontal strip connects the headlights across the grille, and painted brake calipers—red, of course—peek out through the standard 18-inch alloy wheels. Standard LED foglamps flank a mesh grille in the lower front fascia. The side mirrors are gloss black, and a small gloss black lip spoiler finishes off the rear of the hatch. The GTI is lowered by 0.6 inches versus the regular Golf further emphasized with subtle side skirts, giving the hot hatch that all-important stance. Stainless-steel exhaust tips finish off the look.
Inside, once again, the starting point is the already-good Golf, enhanced with a sporty appearance. Red ambient lighting and illuminated door sills bring the GTI theme inside. A black headliner and trim inserts lend contrast. The instrument cluster is special to the GTI, and there’s a race-inspired flat-bottomed steering wheel wrapped in leather sewn with red stitching. The foot pedals have a shiny, aluminum-look surface, and there’s a great dead pedal for the driver’s left foot. Heated front sport seats are standard—Clark plaid cloth in S, leather in SE and Autobahn trim levels.
Overall, the GTI has a quality feel inside and out. All paintwork is first-rate; all interior materials and surfaces are high-quality and well-installed.
The hot hatch is all about performance, which is an essential component of the GTI’s personality. It’s also the source of one of the GTI’s major challenges.
While the GTI gets a potent little engine and a slick-shifting gearbox with front-wheel drive (FWD), the real attraction for enthusiasts is the hot hatch’s great handling. The GTI has four-wheel independent suspension (struts in front/multilink rear with anti-roll bars at both ends). Our test vehicle—a top-of-the-line Autobahn model—came with standard DCC adaptive damping, too. Variable-ratio steering delivers crisp turn-in and great feel, and the Golf R front brakes can haul the car down from speed in a hurry.
All that is wonderful when you’re on the right road (or track), and flogging the GTI for all it’s worth. The flipside of this performance-oriented handling setup is a rough ride on ordinary roads, and even a punishing ride on rough roads like the ones revealed after a spring thaw. When you’re carving corners, you want to feel every grain in the pavement; when you’re taking the spouse home after a nice dinner, you don’t want to experience every expansion crack like a jolt to the spine. Choosing Comfort as a drive mode in the Autobahn model softens the suspension a little, but not much. S and SE models have only the factory suspension settings to survive.
The GTI’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine (228 horsepower/258 pound-feet of torque) is a free-revving, zingy powerplant with a lusty exhaust note. Our test model came with a DSG seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission—an $800 option. While the dual-clutch gearbox is great and comes with paddle shifters for manual control, we still wished for the standard six-speed manual transmission, which seems more in the spirit of the hot hatch. Rowing through the gears gives an increased sense of engagement with the car, and VW does an excellent job with foot clutches and hand shifting.
Unlike some turbo cars, the GTI only requires regular unleaded fuel, and it will get fuel economy of 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (MT) or 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (DCT), according to the EPA. VW admits, however, that matching its stated horsepower and torque figures requires filling the tank with premium unleaded, which is more expensive.
Form and Function
Through the generations, form and function have always been strengths for the Golf and for the GTI by extension. The hatchback form is primary here, as the compact GTI is incredibly useful for carrying passengers and cargo (at the same time) while maintaining a small footprint. With a 103.6-inch wheelbase and 60.6-inch (front)/59.7-inch (rear) track, the GTI is 168.0 inches long, 70.8 inches wide, and 57.8 inches tall. The GTI has a very short rear overhang, a modest front overhang, and a generously raked windshield that transitions smoothly into its flat roof.
You can fit up to 17.4 cubic feet of luggage behind the rear seats. Fold the second row of seats flat, and you’ve opened up 24.8 cubic feet of cargo space. Even taller than average drivers will be comfortable in the front row, while the second row is adequate for two average-sized adults or three juveniles. The GTI is probably not the carpool car of your dreams, but that’s par for the compact car course.
When you do find yourself in a parking lot or congested cityscape, the GTI’s dimensions will be a virtue, and its sharp steering with electric power assist will be your best friend. The GTI’s tight turning circle of 35.8 feet (curb-to-curb) make parking and other tight maneuvers a breeze, and the hatchback’s great outward visibility, along with a standard rearview camera, work with you to help squeeze into tight spots without incident.
In the cabin, simple yet clever storage options abound. Of particular notice are the big front door pockets, which will hold a big water bottle each, and still have room for a tablet computer. The center console cupholders are a good size and grippy. The mechanical handbrake feels like a bit of a throwback in these days of electronic models and interferes with the driver’s reach to the cupholders a little. We imagine the next-generation GTI will do away with this anomaly.
It’s almost as interesting to notice which technology VW chose to leave off the GTI as which tech is included.
First and foremost, VW has maintained a standard analog gauge cluster for the driver, even though they have a trick, fully-electronic VW Digital Cockpit in their parts bin (see the Volkswagen Arteon). While the Digital Cockpit is a marvel, the analog gauges are more than adequate, especially with the configurable driver information screen filling the gap between the speedometer and tachometer.
As mentioned above, the GTI also uses a mechanical hand brake, as opposed to an electric one, which VW definitely holds in its arsenal. Some drivers may prefer the old-school e-brake, so this is not a big issue.
The VW MIB touchscreen infotainment system is standard in all GTI trim levels. S models use the MIB2 system with a 6.5-inch screen, while SE and Autobahn models get the more advanced MIB3 system with an 8-inch screen and navigation. All MIB touchscreens use tablet-like gesture controls, like pinch-zooming and swiping, and have a capacitive-touch sensor, so you don’t have to put pressure on the screen to make inputs. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink are standard for smartphone integration. Bluetooth hands-free and streaming audio are standard, and two USB ports are included (illuminated in SE and Autobahn). SE models come with a three-month trial to SiriusXM with 360L, a satellite subscription service that allows access to more than 10,000 hours of on-demand content.
Volkswagen Car-Net is available for GTI, offering Remote Access, Safe & Secure, and Hotspot portals and an updated mobile app. The paid subscription feature offers the option of either a Verizon or T-Mobile data plan, easily added to the customer’s existing smartphone data service. Car-Net also enables Amazon Alexa skills, linking Alexa to Car-Net accounts. Alexa can even send directions to MIB3-equipped GTI models (SE and Autobahn trims). The Car-Net app has a deep feature set and will be very attractive to techy buyers.
Some additional smart technology that comes standard on the GTI is LED daytime running lights, fog lights, and taillights (LED headlights with adaptive front lighting and fog lights with dynamic cornering lights are standard on the SE and Autobahn; Halogen headlights are standard on S models). Keyless access with pushbutton start, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated front washer nozzles, and heated exterior mirrors are also standard.
The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI received a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has the GTI top “Good” scores in all crash-test categories except small overlap front; passenger side, where it received an “Acceptable” score, and headlights. The LED headlights were rated “Acceptable," while the base Halogen headlights received a "Poor" rating.
The GTI gets a good array of standard passive and active safety systems, including forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, dual front and side airbags, front and rear curtain airbags, three-point seatbelts with tensioner height adjust, tire-pressure monitoring system, rearview camera, automatic post-collision braking system, and intelligent crash-response system. The Autobahn trim level adds more driver-assistance systems, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, park distance control, park assist, and high-beam control.
Vehicle compatibility is a big concern these days, as a compact vehicle like the GTI will be at a disadvantage in a collision with a full-size SUV or pickup truck. There’s little that Volkswagen can do beyond equipping the GTI with airbags, passive restraints, controlled collapse systems, and other energy-absorbing strategies. Consider the GTI’s sharp handling to be more than just a performance feature, though—it may be nimble enough to avoid a collision in the first place if the driver is alert and skilled.
The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI starts at $28,695 for the base S trim level; $32,665 for SE; and $36,945 for Autobahn. Add $800 to upgrade from the six-speed manual to the seven-speed DSG. The only real options available are dealer-installed, like wheels, roof-racks, and cosmetic enhancements.
This pricing represents a $5,500 premium for the base GTI over the base Golf, which comes with a 1.4-liter turbo engine, and less content overall.
There are a few other hot hatches, or at least warm hatches, to look at from other manufacturers. The Mazda3 2.5 Turbo starts at $31,050, and comes with standard all-wheel drive (AWD). The Hyundai Veloster N starts at $32,250, and packs a punch with 275 hp. The Honda Civic Type R starts at $27,895 (if you can find one).
The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI meets all of its expectations, and for some buyers, it will be the exact hatchback they’re looking for. It delivers a nostalgic experience with thoroughly modern technology and performance. The harsh ride will be a badge of honor for enthusiasts who value handling over comfort. With the eighth-generation GTI due soon, any new 2021 GTI models on dealer lots may be on the verge of being discounted, so might qualify as a deal.
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