Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
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Shooting stars sometime fade away, and recently the Golf GTI hasn’t been getting a whole lotta love from the press, all because there’s a new kid in town: the Golf R. And thanks to its tricked-out mechanical set, the kid went straight to the top of the charts. But school’s not out for the GTI. The world is full of has-beens that live off their 15 minutes of fame, but don’t get fooled again: the GTI is still very much a rock star worthy of more airtime. And let’s give it some right here, right now.

Case settled: the GTI doesn’t impress the girls.

Grace under pressure

The Golf’s basic body shape doesn’t shout out loud, and if parked on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, that girl in the flat-bed Ford may not even slow down to take a second look at you. Even the lady neighbour asked: “Wasn’t your Golf black?” (I own a Mark VII TDI). Case settled: the GTI doesn’t impress the girls.

While many rock stars don outrageous threads for the red carpet parade, the Golf is the accountant trying to find its way through the crowd. But some accountants have taste. Yes, a two-box suit is a two-box suit, but look closer and you’ll find the tailors at Wolfsburg are pretty good at creases, fold lines and minute details. Xenon headlights are crisp, modern yet don’t look like something that belongs to a starship headed to the skies. The pivoting VW logo in the back hides an always-clean rear-view camera. The panoramic sunroof’s edges blend into the weld lines. Rear-view mirrors feature inset turn signals that don’t bling out like a top-40 act.

More subtle than a Bowie to Ziggy transformation, Golf becomes GTI by filling its wheel wells with sturdy-looking 18-inch wheels, adding more sculpted bumper caps and that famous red-lined grille. A guy my age can show up in a GTI and not raise an eyebrow. Showing up with some of the competition would be akin to borrowing clothes from Bret Michaels. Bryan Ferry’s wardrobe suits me fine, thank you.

Dressing room

The roadies at VW sure know how to set up a show. By day, the first thing that will catch your eye is the traditional tartan upholstery. This is really a place where leathering up has one missing the point entirely (hides are indeed optional). That cloth is no cashmere, especially the unadorned black pieces in the door panels, but if you are experienced, you’ll know that GTIs have been rockin’ the tartan since their debut in 1976.

The VW sport bucket seats are quite a supporting act themselves. Ideally shaped, they hold your body in the right places, provided said body hasn’t been exclusively fed in truck stops. Back in the mosh pit, the roomy rear bench offers tartan inserts that jut out on seat cushions that extend under your American thighs. Above your heads, the vast panoramic roof will have you star-struck, and since it opens up outdoors, it doesn’t encroach into max headroom.

Out back, the trunk is tricked like an arena stage. Under the floor you’ll find a subwoofer inset into the spare tire’s wheel. Keep the floor at the lower level to load your tall amps, or place it up a notch to align level with the folded 60/40 rear seats for long guitar cases.

The GTI Autobahn rocks VW’s famous Fender stereo as a standard feature. It evens comes with an aux jack so you can plug your Fender into your Fender (no, really). Don’t be in a rush to swap your CDs though, as the player is located in the glove box (I don’t recommend swapping discs on the go – that would be living on the edge). Kids these days prefer thumb drives anyway, but you’ll need a groupie’s delicate little hands to reach the USB slot deeply embedded in the covered cubby behind the shifter.

Should you be tempted to use that USB jack for your phone (all VWs come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard), better buy another cable and leave it there. Bark at the moon all you want, in the end you’ll need pliers.

At night, it’s all about the thin red line. Open a front door in the dark, and the stage lights up. Red strips adorn the length of the doors, hidden in the horizontal trim pieces by day. It’s the same at your feet, where an assorted red strip appears in the door sill. From up above, ghostly white LED lights illuminate the IP, making the chrome bits shine like a diamond mine. First impressions never lie: this is going to be a good show. Grab a seat, attach your seatbelt, and be ready to take care of business.

Hit the stage

Everybody wants to rule the world, but how much power does one really need? VW has supplied various states of tune for its 2.0L turbo four lately, and today the band of horses numbers at 210 precisely. If you’re to believe all the interweb rumours about GTI, well, it seems those horses are actually… at the wheels, so VW may in fact be understating its potency. No damage control needed here.

Out of the box you’ll find three pedals and six cogs to row on your own. This tester had the optional six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated manual. Unlike many lesser efforts, VW’s robot box is never dazed and confused. Shifts are crisp, and the transmission will never let you down in cross-town traffic. Three driving modes are on offer: Normal, Sport and Custom. Sport is a guitar solo on your knees at the edge of the stage – it puts the spotlight on pure performance. Normal sits in the back like Bill Wyman, but it’s doing its job, keeping the rhythm. The Custom settings let you tighten every string to your liking.

It was a high-emotion moment, getting into the GTI for a week, like meeting a legend for the first time and with a backstage pass to boot. Right there in my hands is a jukebox hero waiting to show its mettle. My finger reaches for the console-mounted Start button. Oh man, living for the moment. The carbureted brat of the ’70s has been refined by electronics during its career, but the Mark VII GTI, even though it still has the chops, wants you to remember its youth. The engine braps to life with a sound quite different to the Golf, the little brother that got a haircut and a real job, but that brappin’ is piped from the intake through the firewall and electronically enhanced. Damn studio producers.

My predecessor had left the car in Sport mode and the trip computer on the lapping app. When a manufacturer installs a lapping app, you know you’re in for nothin’ but a good time. You can’t judge an album by its cover, but that first tune is critical. Will it be love at first sting, or a long-distance love affair? As soon as I hit the pavement, it was clear in my mind. The GTI will entice you to rock like a hurricane. There’s no way I can drive 55 in that thing. Flap the paddles of this pinball wizard on a semi-busy highway and you’ll soon have sympathy for the devil in you, and you’ll be runnin’ with him. This is one playful puppy, ready to rock the Kasbah.

Hard to admit, but mixing engineers were right: the two-pedal DSG has perfect rhythm to follow your lead. In Sport mode, lift the throttle and the robot box downshifts instantly; mash the loudness pedal, and it’ll bang upshifts in the way the classic three-pedal setup just can’t. The DSG rarely strikes a wrong chord. Confident in your star power? Take control of the full gear set by using the paddles; in Sport mode, their actions are immediate. Or leave the DSG to its own thing and be amazed at the results. It’s like Neil Peart swinging two sticks at a NASA-worthy drum kit; despite the myriad of options, he hits it right every time. Revert to Normal driving mode, and making it work barely takes a little longer.

The GTI lays it on the line steering through ramps, curves and sweepers in impressive fashion. Perhaps more fascinating is how it pivots through intersections like a cone carver on an autocross course. Propped on a grippy set of 225/40R18 Hankook Ventus S1 Noble² tires, the level of confidence inspired by the car is more than a feeling. Limits are far out in the purple sky, way beyond what one can experience in the suburbs. The GTI will turn your commute into a stairway to heaven, but mind your manners in the subdivisions.

The optional driver assistance package adds a menu page on the trip computer, with a quick-access button at the tip of the turn control stalk. The lane assist will go crazy on you, easily spooked by long, linear truck shadows. After passing a few trucks, you’ll be reaching towards those menu options, guaranteed. The system is able to take you hands-free around a curve and keep you in the middle of the road, but tubular bells will chime in to remind you to pay attention when you’re strung out from the road.

More effective was the adaptive, radar-based cruise control. Vehicle detection was sharp in broad daylight or nighttime, even in pouring rain, and customizable following distances yielded smooth progress. The DSG settles the engine at 2,250 rpm while cruising at 120 km/h, providing a very serene cabin when the sound effects are edited out. True to its German origins, and its name, the GTI is at home on the Autobahn. So the GTI is a flexible little rock star that will pull riffs around cones, or morph into a long-distance touring machine at will.

Life on the road

The rock-and-roll lifestyle has its drawbacks. It’s cool to always be on the road, but the manager has to pay the bills. Our feisty main attraction ran them up to $39,430 as tested, but adding a third pedal to your battle axe will save you $1,400. If you forego radar love, a further $1,460 will stay in the bank. The real savings come for solo acts though – the three-door GTI is still available in Canada, and starts at less than $30K, complete with pothole-friendly 17-inch wheels. Volkswagen has your back with a full warranty kit, including the industry’s best corrosion coverage, because as we all know it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.

It’s sad to see though that drinking still comes with the territory. Despite a return trip to the Nation’s Capital for a gig, the GTI did no better than 8.3 L/100km according to the manager’s calculator (on-board instruments credited 8.1 on the first tank, 7.1 on the second). I witnessed good behaviour on open roads, pure highway trips netting a pretty sober, Energuide-crushing 6.2. However, hit the downtown boulevards and it cranks the volume to ten with just a few throttle squeezes. Old habits die hard. At least, the GTI now tolerates the regular stuff, cured of its premium addictions.

Make no mistake: this isn’t an opening act, and front-row seats will cost you. But hey, what’s a few bucks here and there? Dirty deeds aren’t dirt cheap these days. This is a rare opportunity to follow your heart and become best friends with a hall of famer, a legend that others aspire to. The world may be heading towards automated electro (EDM?), but the GTI hasn’t said its famous last words. Rock on, dude.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders 4
Peak Horsepower 210 hp @ 4,300–6,200 rpm
Peak Torque 258 lb-ft @ 1,600–4,200 rpm
Fuel Economy 9.6/7.2/8.5 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 490 L / 1,520 L seats down
Model Tested 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI 5-Door Autobahn
Base Price $34,845
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,625
Price as Tested $39,430
Optional Equipment
$2,860 – DSG automatic transmission $1,400; driver assistance package (adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection with rear traffic alert and lane assist, automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam control and park assist) $1,460