Volkswagen’s GTI may be the quintessential hot hatch, and with good reason.
Now in its seventh generation, it is just as versatile and fun to drive as it was in the mid-1970s, when it was introduced as the Rabbit GTI. Its fuel-injected 1.6L four-cylinder engine made only 110 hp but travelling from zero to 100 km/h in nine seconds was an impressive feat for the day. Remember, the new-at-the-time Chevrolet Corvette unveiled the following year only made 205 hp, yet it weighed nearly twice as much.
The GTI has consistently been refined and improved over the years but has always retained that formula of offering a practical, premium-feeling hatchback with a high quotient of driving enjoyment at a (relatively) attainable price point. With an overhauled entry on the way, we take a final look at the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
As was the case with the original GTI, it’s less about sheer power than it is about agility and driving dynamics. Weighing only 1,461 kg (3,221 lb), the GTI’s 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque make for an engaging driving experience. Maximum torque is available from 1,500 rpm and turbo lag is minimal. It will sprint from zero to 100 km/h in six seconds and do a standing quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds – although it’s much more fun to drive on a curvy country road than merely in a straight line. The newly announced 2022 model year GTI ups the ante to 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, meanwhile.
Driving Feel: 9.5/10
Driving enjoyment is truly where the GTI shines, particularly when paired with the deliciously smooth six-speed manual transmission. Finding gears is easy with minimal effort required. The clutch is light and predictable, so it isn’t a chore to drive even in heavy traffic. Its engine can be quiet, smooth, and serene, or as lively and playful as you want it to be. The GTI is quick and nimble, allowing you to easily navigate tight city streets or parking garages with ease, but is also smoother and quieter on the highway than some of its sporty hatchback contemporaries.
Fuel Economy: 8.5/10
Fuel economy will vary greatly depending on whether you’re easy on the throttle and shifting at low rpm, or putting your foot to the firewall and keeping the turbo spooled up. The GTI’s turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine is rated at 10.1 L/100 km in the city and 7.9 on the highway, for a combined rating of 9.1. Over the course of a spirited week of driving that included a combination of exploring country roads, stop-and-go city traffic, and highway cruising, there was still plenty of fuel left in the 50-L tank as I managed 10.8 L/100km. The dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission is rated at 9.7 L/100 km in the city and 7.3 on the highway, for a combined 8.6.
When compared to the entry-level Golf or being cross-shopped with other compact hatchbacks, the GTI may initially strike some consumers as being a bit pricey; but upon closer inspection it’s easy to see – and feel – where that money goes. From the weight of the doors to the build materials, sophisticated engine, and infotainment system, you get a tangible feeling of value for the money. The GTI also holds its value well, so it’s less likely to depreciate as much as direct competitors. The GTI can be run on regular-grade gasoline, but the stated horsepower numbers reflect the use of premium fuel. Five colours are available, all at no additional cost.
Changes to the Golf GTI’s exterior over the last few years have been subtle. Styling may be rather conservative compared to some competitors (even when outfitted in my tester’s Cornflower Blue paint), but that’s a compliment. Driving a Hyundai Veloster N or Honda Civic Type R makes me feel like an adult trying to fit in at a high school party. Owning a GTI says, “I’m a grownup who has taste, but I still like to have some fun.”
The interior is clean and simple. My tester featured leather seating, shift boot, and steering wheel with red contrast stitching. Personally, I’d opt for the classic plaid seating which has been a mainstay of the GTI’s persona since 1976.
The GTI is a versatile, nimble little vehicle that can accommodate five adults, or 702 L of cargo capacity with the seats folded down. The rear hatch has a wide opening and seats fold down flat to easily accommodate skis, bikes, or your latest haul at the antique market. It’s smooth and quiet on the highway, yet agile and easy to navigate tight city streets or parking garages. You can even take it to your local racetrack and have a blast turning some laps.
User Friendliness: 8/10
The chunky contrast-stitched sport steering wheel features controls for the cruise control and infotainment. The premium audio system and HVAC controls feature tactile knobs that are easy to use, even with winter gloves on.
Nearing the end of its lifecycle, the 2021 model year has begun to show its age in some areas. Most vehicles at this price point would have wireless charging capability, for example. The rear hatch opens by pushing in the VW logo which reveals a handle. Not an issue for most of the year, but when it is covered in snow and road grime come wintertime it can become frozen. It will also make a mess of your mitts. It’s a small gripe of an otherwise very enjoyable driving experience.
Our Autobahn edition tester featured welcome amenities such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, and GPS navigation, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, a USB-C port, cargo cover, and panoramic sunroof. It included 18-inch alloy wheels, black mirror housings, rear spoiler, and a front lip spoiler on the outside, as well as a selection of upgrades on the inside, including leather seating, door inserts, steering wheel, and shift knob, stainless steel pedals, and chrome accents.
It’s easy to find a comfortable driving position in the GTI. The interior is simple and well crafted. All functions are easily laid out right where you’d expect them to be. The GTI’s ride and handling are sporty but also quiet and compliant on poor road surfaces. Some road noise becomes evident at elevated highway speeds, but it’s not overly invasive. More of a priority is put on occupants in the front seats. Rear seating is large enough to accommodate three adult passengers, but likely not for long trips. The upright seating is not heated or ventilated and there’s little attention paid to long-distance comfort or entertainment since there aren’t any climate controls or charging ports.
The GTI comes standard with electronic stability control, front and rear side airbags, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beam control, a rear-view camera, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, and pedestrian detection.
Nearing the end of its lifecycle as the eighth generation gets sets to hit dealers, the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI is beginning to show its age a little bit. There’s still plenty to love about it, though, right down to the playful performance.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I4|
|Peak Horsepower||228 hp @ 5,000–6,200 rpm|
|Peak Torque||258 lb-ft @ 1,500–4,400 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||10.1 / 7.9 / 9.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||492 / 702 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI|
|Price as Tested||$37,845|