There is a reason why the GTI nameplate is very important not just for Volkswagen, but for the whole automobile industry since it first came out in 1975. It not just pioneered the genre of performance-oriented fun compact vehicles, but more importantly, it has been carrying the same formula for several decades. Since its inception, there has been no better choice for enthusiasts that need one car to do-it-all with a reasonable price tag, and the balance of daily drivability, fun & performance is what makes the GTI a cult icon for car nerds, and also appealing to all types of audience.
The timeless and unpretentious design language is the one common feature that makes the GTI special in every generation, and the same trend continues here with the new GTI. The most difficult part is to find the right blend of conservative changes with modern lines, and the redesigned GTI hit the nail with it. It is still instantly recognizable as a Golf GTI from all angles, it is sporty and aesthetically pleasing to look at, and subtle enough to blend into the crowds.
The new generation has almost the same length, width and wheelbase, but there are fewer round-shaped objects and sharper body lines all around the vehicle. You will find full LED lighting in the front along with the daytime running light bar and red accents running across the front fascia, so it definitely has more distinctive looks than the previous generation. You will also find the multi-module LED fog lights integrated into the honeycomb grille in the front bumper, which is specific to the GTI.
Unlike the other hot hatches in this segment that look more like a liftback, the GTI still carries the traditional hatchback silhouette and only comes with the 4-door option. Our tester is the 40th Anniversary edition, which comes with unique 19″ wheels along with summer performance tires. It also offers two exclusive colours, Urano Gray and Tornado Red. All the Anniversary Edition models come with black roofs and black mirror caps, as well as decals on the door sills underlining the honeycomb design elements and “40” decals to celebrate four decades of fun.
Just like the front end, the rear design is also subtle and sedate but sporty with the details such as dual exhaust tips located on both sides. You will not find boy-racer features like a huge wing, or fake vents like some other entries, and that’s the main reason why GTI is a better fit for wider demographics. The trunk latch and rearview camera are hidden behind the VW logo, just like the previous generation GTIs.
Although Volkswagen still kept traditional GTI design features in the interior, there are massive changes in positive and negative ways, depending on what type of person you are. The pros are, you still get the traditional GTI “tartan” seat inserts with great side bolstering and extremely comfortable even for larger adults. New to this generation, the GTI comes with integrated headrests and “GTI” stitching, offering sportier looks. It also comes with an adjustable armrest, which allows you to find the perfect driving position. The 40th Anniversary trim comes with manual height and position adjustment with power recline for both front seats.
You will not be able to find any physical buttons in the dashboard, as VW aimed for simplicity and cleanliness and moved many features to the infotainment screen. It is a monochromatic interior with some amount of red accents and glossy black plastic pieces in the center console area. The build quality and the material choices are really good for the price range, and that’s where you find the GTI feels slightly more premium than the other entries in this segment.
The user interface of the new GTI is completely different than the outgoing model. The 10-inch center display has the latest VW infotainment system with a decent rear-view camera resolution and 360 parking sensors. If you are coming from an older VW, you will have no issues adapting to the new platform. It takes more time to access to the fundamental features like HVAC controls and touch sliders might not be everyone’s cup of tea, you just need to give yourself more time to get used to it than traditional buttons and physical controls. The biggest gripe that I had was the non-illuminated touch slider controls especially if you are driving frequently at night.
On the other hand, the GTI sets the bar when it comes to digital instrument clusters. The 10.25-inch fully digital screen is the most customizable option in this segment with several different layouts and options. You can still make it look like traditional GTI gauges, but having different options based on your driving style is a huge plus. The digital instrument cluster can only be controlled through the haptic controls located on the steering wheel. It’s also worth noting that the adaptive cruise control is updated with the new generation, now it can also keep the car centered in the lane, and it keeps itself active even when you shift gears.
As expected from a hot hatch, the GTI offers a decent amount of rear legroom, but the headroom is class-leading as it still keeps its traditional hatchback layout with a slightly boxier side profile, it helps with overall interior space and visibility in general. If you have a rear-facing child seat, you may need to move the front passenger seat a little bit forward, but average-sized adults can still sit even with the child seat in place. There are also nice creature comforts including seat pockets for smartphones, air vents, as well as USB ports for the rear seat passengers.
Practicality has always been the biggest selling point for the GTI, as it is a family-oriented hot hatch. The 2023 VW Golf GTI offers 19.9 cubic feet (563 L) of trunk space behind the rear seats, which can go up to 34.5 cubic feet (976 L) if you fold them down. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to find the longitudinal space like the Jetta GLI, as the GTI is much shorter, but the hatch and rear seat area will give you more usable space, especially for taller items. Volkswagen added a few neat features to make the cargo area more usable. You can lower the floor for more vertical space, and longer items can be accommodated by a pass-through located in the middle row.
One of the biggest selling points of modern sporty VWs’ is that the brand gives you the option of selecting whichever transmission you would prefer, so you can choose the GTI either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed dual-clutch (DSG) transmission. Our tester was definitely the more fun and engaging choice with the stick shift, but if you want to have a faster GTI and better fuel economy, the DSG is the way to go. On the other hand, the 6-speed manual transmission is one of the easiest to operate, the shifter feels precise with relatively longer throws.
Under the hood, you are getting the corporate 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine generating around 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, regardless of your transmission choice. The engine has been tweaked to provide a better torque curve and better performance in general. As a result, there is an increase of 13 horses and 15 pound-feet compared to the previous generation. It is one of the most refined 4-cylinder engines available despite having more horsepower and louder exhaust notes.
All GTIs will get the electronic limited-slip differential in the front, which is a must-have for any performance-oriented front-wheel drive car. The 40th Anniversary Edition comes standard with summer tires, adaptive dampers, and a thicker rear sway bar that increases the overall grip and the chassis response. You can choose different driving modes to change the ride settings or customize them individually. The 8th generation allows you to offer more adaptive damper adjustability through the individual driving mode.
Even in the firmest setting, the GTI is not punishing the driver, but the changes are definitely noticeable, especially on broken pavement. There is minimal body roll, and it corners with a sense of agility in a calm and sure-footed fashion. It is confidence inspiring until you are at the limit, and thanks to the limited-slip differential, it pulls the front end of the car into the corner with the throttle input.
The steering has a variable ratio with a nice on-center feeling, the more you turn the wheel, the tighter it gets. There is plenty of power anywhere you want, so you don’t really have to downshift in the mid-corner. The braking system is inherited from the previous generation Golf R, the single-piston caliper in the front is matched with 340mm rotors, offering great stopping power when you drive it in a spirited fashion.
Of course, you will have less grip and ultimately approach the overall limits sooner than some other FWD hot hatches like the Type-R, and the Elantra N, because GTI is meant to find the right balance of comfort and performance with no compromises as a daily driver. The firmest suspension setting in the GTI is softer than those entries in Comfort mode, which clearly is a huge indicator that they are meant for different audiences.
Despite how controversial the updated styling is, it still carries the same golden formula. The GTI is the same GTI that enthusiasts love, despite the radical changes in the interior. Even though the competition is sharper, faster and more competitive than ever, the GTI keeps its unique position as it does not pretend to be a track warrior, but is still very fun to drive on twisties or your favourite backroad. At the end of the day, hot hatches should be fun, accessible, and affordable, and the GTI has been one of the few options that can deliver all of them.
|Engine||2.0-litre, turbocharged inline-4|
|Max power||241 hp @ 6500 rpm|
|Max torque||273 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm|
|0-100 km/h||6.1 sec|
|Weight||3133 lb – 1421 kg|
|Fuel Economy (as tested)||25 MPG – 9.4L / 100km|
|Price (as tested)||$39,525 CAD|