Justifiable Hype: 2020 VW GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is THE hot hatch, the one to rule them all, the one all of the others have to measure up to, the King. Older Golf GTI models are sometimes spoken about with a reverence usually reserved for Sunday sermons. But some feel that the modern GTI had lost the special something that made it so widely revered. Critics say the GTI had gotten too soft, too focused on being practical and not sporty enough. Enter the 2020 GTI, the penultimate year of the Mk. 7 GTI generation. Having debuted in 2015, this generation has been widely regarded as a return to form. Here at Limited Slip Blog, my colleagues have already spent time with the 5-door GTI in 2015 and the now-defunct 3-door GTI in 2016. As for myself, without a comprehensive review all of the hype is just that, hype. Does the GTI live up to the legend? A week in the rainy, snowy, cold Northeast would set the backdrop to find out.

Familiar may very well be the best way to describe the design of the MK.7 GTI. Having been on the market since 2015, it’s basically a guarantee that you have seen a GTI that looks similar to our tester, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The GTI doesn’t show its speed and pedigree through tacky add-ons, instead preferring to fly under the radar (unless you know what it is). Volkswagen has updated the design subtly over the years, modifying the front and rear lights and fascias to keep everything looking fresh. The GTI has restrained, crisp character lines that suggest a self-assured sense of pedigree and quality. The GTI knows that its a GTI: it doesn’t need wings or scoops to mean business, and therein lies the beauty of the admittedly understated exterior. The GTI may not have the most attention-grabbing design, but it will age better than the alternative design with tall wings or superfluous vents. Our Autobahn trim GTI wore 18″ wheels that filled the wheel wells and provided crisp turn in, but feature a polarizing design (the wheels face a different direction on the drivers side than on the passenger’s side). Taken in as a whole, the design is classy, clean and unmistakably a GTI, which is important for a model that has such a strong reputation.

Volkswagen designed the interior of the GTI with the same philosophy of the exterior: crisp, classy styling that will age better than busy or trendy designs. Material quality is good, but not quite on par with real luxury cars. Regardless, there is a feeling a long-lasting quality baked into the design and controls of the GTI. Our tester had analog gauges, a hold out from the growing norm of digital displays. Be that as it may, our tester had the upgraded infotainment and sound system branded by Fender. The infotainment was very intuitive (for the most part) and quick to load. The display is crisp and clear, and it is easy to read at a glance. Sound quality from the Fender system was a hit or miss: on some songs, it was surprisingly clear and engaging. On other songs, bass distortion happened much earlier than you would want in a system with a separate subwoofer, and the brilliance of the treble was sometimes at odds with the lack of warmth in the midrange. Overall, once I got the system equalized the way I liked, it was a very decent sounding system, but not excellent and definitely leaves room for aftermarket improvement. The seats were firm but well bolstered, but a bit more cushion would be welcome on longer drives. The rear seat was acceptably roomy for 2 but would be a pinch for 3. Cargo space is decent but not excellent with the rear seats up; there is enough space for the GTI to be a practical daily driver, but do not expect to be amazed.

Volkswagen tunes the GTI’s suspension to be firm but not overly stiff. I found the ride quality to be a shade firmer than ideal. The Autobahn has standard adjustable dampers, but there wasn’t much difference in ride quality between the softest to firmest settings. The GTI is just comfortable enough to be daily driveable, but do not expect to be isolated from the road surface. Instead, expect the ride to be exceptionally well damped, with impacts producing no hint of a wallowy, loose-kneed sensation. The steering responds immediately off center, but it isn’t twitchy or hyperactive. The steering truly makes the GTI feel very nimble, and while it doesn’t provide the most feedback in the industry, it certainly isn’t the most numb, either; the GTI feels as though you are driving a REAL car with REAL steering, not a simulation of a real car. The steering is truly a highlight of the driving experience. The overall handling of the GTI is approachable, planted nimbleness. It feels as though you can toss it into a corner with verve and then quickly dart again in the opposite direction without upsetting the chassis. There is understeer at the limit, especially in cold conditions, but all you need to do is to scrub off some speed and the line tightens right back up. The throttle of the GTI is tuned decently, but could be more responsive at tip-in, and also more gradual when rolling. It may sound like nit-picking, but I found that the GTI had a bit of a light-switch throttle: it was either on or off; you could gradually roll on the power, but I found it difficult to the exact amount of response/power desired. I consistently found myself dipping into the throttle only to find a lack of response, then rolling in more a bit more only to find too much throttle. I did not find the engine or exhaust to produce a sporty sound, which was disappointing. The engine felt reasonably potent but left a bit to be desired. However, the economy was very good, and the brakes were excellent. The brake pedal felt firm and responded immediately, with a bit of an abrupt initial bite that could be annoying in stop and go traffic, but a lifesaver in fast driving. The optional 7spd DSG gearbox serves up quick upshifts or downshifts, and even offers a launch control mode. While not ultimately as engaging as a manual, it is a worthy alternative and notably provides quicker acceleration than the manual. Taken as a whole, the GTI is a confidence inspiring, nimble hatch that is JUST comfortable enough to be a practical daily driver.

Hype can oftentimes ruin an experience. Thankfully, that is not the case for the 2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI. After a week of living with the GTI, I can comfortably confirm that it lives up to, and actually deserves, all of the hype commanded by the nameplate. What makes the GTI special isn’t the all-out performance or the everyday practicality it offers, its the blending of the two into a complete package. From performance to economy to practicality, the GTI earns high marks in all categories. While not perfect, the Mk. 7 GTI is an excellent daily driver, and the upcoming Mk. 8 GTI in 2022 will have some seriously big shoes to fill. Regardless, we can safely recommend the Mk. 7 GTI to the driving enthusiast who needs one vehicle that can do it all, and doesn’t break the bank. Long live the King!

-Ken Wilson

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn$37,295
Pure White ExteriorN/C
Titan Black Leather w/ Red Stitch Int.N/C
18″ Summer Performance TiresN/C
7-Speed DSG Automatic w/ TiptronicN/C
Destination Charges$920
As-Tested MSRP$38,215

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