Have Some Fun Behind the Wheel

  • The 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI. (Volkswagen/TNS)

Chicago Tribune
Sunday, June 10, 2018

Since 1974, the Volkswagen Golf has proved that driving can be fun, and driving fun can be affordable. The spacious hatchback has always balanced good handling with punchy powertrains in a package versatile enough to mature with owners beyond their 20s. But the technology was awful.

Until now. With the refreshed seventh-generation GTI, or Mk 7.5 for Golf nuts, Volkswagen has gone from one of the worst automakers in infotainment to one of the best.

The company that could cheat emissions testing ‘round the world was so behind the curve on in-car technology that the Golf didn’t get a USB port until 2016. Chalk it up to complacency for VW’s best-selling vehicle of all time, which won’t get a full redesign until model year 2020. The rehashed Golf comes available with all the advanced driver assistance systems, including a very effective blind spot monitor that hit the brakes before we backed over our garbage can.

All that tech comes with a price, especially on the fully loaded top Autobahn trim. At just over $35,000 — about the average of what Americans are paying for new vehicles these days — the value proposition of the GTI gets tested. But for drivers who love to drive and appreciate cutting-edge technology, the GTI Autobahn hits all the points it promises and more.

Nothing much changes on the outside except standard LED treatment and the elimination of the Sport trim. Autobahn gets new 18-inch alloy five-spoke wheels with a more fanlike design.

The fun factor starts with the six-speed manual transmission, and not just because of the golf-ball shifter knob. The rowing is smooth, the notching is predictable, and the clutch pedal is softer, kinder, more welcoming to noobs wary of stalling it. Yet there’s enough kickback on the track to inspire rally hero fantasies. It made my tween daughter beg to drive but she can’t see over the wheel, among other legal issues. But I made a promise to teach her how to drive stick on the Golf, and, no, I won’t get her the plaid seats because they’re as ugly as a good cry.

The available DSG six-speed automatic is quicker than the manual but it won’t inspire 10-year-old daughters. And it costs $1,100 more.

Output is bumped 10 horsepower to 220 horsepower on premium fuel in the turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Torque remains the same at 258 pound-feet at 1500 rpm, which hits the sweet spot for quickening the heartbeat on a lightweight car (3,031 pounds) that is not fast but eminently fun.

Stronger brakes, limited-slip front differential and adaptive dampers make the front-drive hatch more tossable. Torque steer is minimized and it’s much more composed than the Civic Si and the Mazda3, but there are front-drive limitations. In back-to-back laps with the all-wheel-drive $40,000 Golf R, the GTI was more skittish braking hard before a turn. It’s hard to go as hard with the GTI as other hot hatches.

But no hot hatch is as perfectly balanced for an everyday driver. It’s not rally rough like the Subaru WRX, and feels as large as a Honda Civic but with more intuitive instrumentation.

All Golfs get larger infotainment screens, and the Autobahn gets an 8-inch screen that you don’t need to use. Volkswagen has adapted the Virtual Cockpit from Audi and called it Digital Cockpit. It pixelates the gauge cluster so the vehicle info is not just customizable, but zoomable and changeable. It is so able. With the steering wheel control you can minimize the tach and spedo to display a bright 3D Google map, among countless other features. It’s easy to learn and eschews fiddling with the touch screen. It is the best system on the market. And so overdue.

Even at this price, the total package is worth it if you are among the impatient. Otherwise you’d have to wait more than a year for the eighth-gen Golf, and to wait until then would be missing out on a whole lotta fun right now.

At a Glance

Vehicle type: Hatchback

Base price: $26,415

As tested: $35,070 (excluding $850 destination)

Mpg: 25 city, 33 highway

Engine: 2-liter turbo four-cylinder

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Parting shot: Get to it.