We often get asked, what vehicle do you recommend for an enthusiast who also needs real-world practicality? While we would love to recommend something like the BMW M235i Gran Coupe we tested, we get it – it’s not inexpensive. Ditto for the Mini Countryman JCW.
But for those who especially like European driving manners, there’s always been an easy answer – VW’s delightful GTI. And with a new model around the corner, we thought we’d take a last look at the 7th gen hot hatch to see if it still holds up as a great all-rounder. ( A new 2022 model is around the corner).
Still Hot, Still Hatch
If you can’t tell this is a 2020 GTI, we wouldn’t blame you. The GTI has changed very little over the years. Not a bad choice – the design remains handsome, practical and sensible. It’s no Honda Civic Type R with big spoilers and flairs – the GTI remains conservative, a hard-working member of society. A revised grille and front fascia are new, but the changes are subtle.
That’s probably fine with a lot of buyers, when it comes to going out and hooning around, not attracting attention is a good thing.
Which is not to say the GTI isn’t handsome. It’s beautifully put-together, the paint quality is excellent, and a full complement of LED lights, tasteful red badging and sporty 18-inch alloy wheels remind you that this is money well spent. Finished in Dark Iron Blue Metallic, our tester looked elegant and upscale.
Still Spacious, Still Sporty
Inside, the GTI impresses with a well-thought out interior that’s handsome and logical. The front sport seats are excellent, with loads of support even for taller drivers. In our Autobahn-trim tester that means you get the added niceness of leather surfaces and 12-way power adjustability. We like the upscale cowhides, but the traditional cloth VW “Clark” plaid seat design is stylish – you won’t feel left out. Stepping up to Autobahn trim will also get you dual-zone auto climate control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
Rear seat room is good for adults, and the cargo space is especially impressive with the rear seats folded down. Back to the driver’s seat and you peer through a flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel at handsome large analog gauges. We’ve already seen the full-digital dashboard that’s on other models like the VW Jetta and will be coming for the all-new 2022 GTI model. We’ll reserve judgement, but we like real gauges….
For those who like the digital age, there’s a very useful driver assist display, and an excellent 8-inch info-tainment display. On our Autobahn, Navigation is standard, but we used our WAZE app on the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto friendly system, and it worked great. The Autobahn’s Fender Audio system also rocks out the towns – important for a car that demands an exciting soundtrack! Dual-zone auto climate control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror make every drive nicer as well.
You might need to have been around to remember that 1990’s VW ad campaign, but the term “Fahrvergnügen” German for joy of driving, still rings true. (Actually, the original ’84 GTI commercials had a German version of Ronnie & the Daytonas “Little GTO” called “Kleine GTI”….ahh memories.)
No matter which is your jam, the GTI has always been a fun to drive hot hatch, but we’d say the 2020 is the best yet. Under the hood is VW’s familiar 2.0-liter, turbo four cylinder, that the company continues to tweak for more power. Producing 228 horsepower, and a258 lb. ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm, it’s a buttery-smooth powerhouse, with a nice rumble at idle, and a healthy pull to the redline that’s addicting.
Our tester featured a 6-speed manual that we loved as well. It’s interesting, because VW’s optional DSG automatic is probably the best of its kind, super quick, intuitive and fun. But if it suits your needs, the manual is even more engaging. The shifting is slick, light and direct, the clutch is easy to modulate, and it’s such an inviting powertrain, the extra connection the stick brings is worth savoring.
Helping put power down is VW’s VAQ limited-slip differential that really helps you put the power down and makes torque steer non-existent. It begs to driven.
And drive you will. The chassis is just as accomplished as the engine. It’s proof that the Europeans still know how to make a car ride superbly and handle with incredible precision. You might wonder why the GTI is so much more than say, a Honda Civic Si. And if you can’t tell the difference, go for the Honda – it’s a great car and value. But for those who can tell the difference, the VW is on the next level.
The steering is true and feelsome, and with our Autobahn’s DCC adaptive damping system, is excellent. In Comfort Mode, it’s supple and luxurious, Normal is a nice blend, and Sport tightens things up for aggressive driving. You even have an Individual setting to let you tailor steering and throttle.
We loved the dual nature of our tester. The daily commute was quiet and super comfortable, and when we wanted to drive with our hair on fire, the GTI was up for it, proving to be exceptionally quick and capable, fun and invigorating, and totally involving. You don’t just enjoy your favorite roads; you go hunting for new ones. Fantastic.
What Price Perfection?
Hey, VW is still a value brand, and they won’t steer you wrong. You can get all the Euro-goodness you desire starting at just $28,595 for the GTI S, and that includes Drive Mode Selection, VAQ limited slip, and Blind Spot Monitor and Front Assist.
Step up to the SE model at $32,195 and you get niceties like Adaptive Front LED headlights, Panoramic sunroof and Leather. This probably the best value in the lineup..blending luxury and reasonable pricing.
Our top of the line Autobahn starts at $36,495, a significant jump, but features including Adaptive Cruise Control, DCC adaptive Chassis Control and the 8” touchscreen navigation system and pumping Fender Audio system, make it a tempting proposition. With no other options, and $920 for delivery, we rang the bell at $37,415.
Competitors would include the Honda Civic Si, at an especially nice $25,200, We like the European dynamics of the GTI, but the Civ is three grand below the GTI S, and it’s equipped like the SE model. For the price of our Autobahn, you could also go for the Civic Type R at $37,495 – also a great performance value, but it’s more a serious performance proposition. The GTI would make a much more comfortable daily. And we like the ‘dub’s conservative looks.
A final fascinating competitor would be the sibling VW Jetta GLI. VW finally made it a true 4-door sedan version of the GTI, with common running gear, and equally sweet drive. The interior materials aren’t up to par with the GTI, but you’re also paying substantially less – a GLI Autobahn will run you just $31,160.
The GTI remains our favorite hot hatch, and one of favorite vehicles overall. European road manners, thrilling performance, everyday comfort and practicality, even good value.
The 2020 VW GTI is everything a driver could want!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.