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The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI is the small car you want

Braaaapp! Pop! Braaaap! I know where all the tunnels in my town are. And as I ripped through one in the Jaguar F-TYPE with my best friend riding shotgun, we were laughing hysterically. Cars like that F-TYPE make it so easy – just mash the gas and you’re above legal speeds all too quickly. But aside from that party trick, all of these mega machines feel very normal. The M5 could be a 530i as 30 mph. So maybe what we need is a slower car to drive fast. Maybe what we need is a Volkswagen Golf GTI.

vw-golf-gti
2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Quick Take
Get one:

Go-cart reflexes. Turbo goes woosh while shifter goes snick-snick. Son-of-A4 interior. Hatch versatility.

Don’t get one:

They are getting close to taking the economy out of economy car. Hope you like black everywhere. Need to keep the turbo on full boil or it won’t go vroom. Tiny infotainment screen.

Soul Score: 7

The GTI never overthinks things. It’s simply an engaging car to drive, even at sub-sonic speeds.

The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI overview

VW GTI

The GTI should need no introduction. It’s been around longer than many of the people who drive them. It’s a survivor. Observe the cars that have tried to take its lunch money. Ford Focus: dead. Mitsubishi Evo: dead. STi? Recently dead. BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe? Might as well be dead. No matter what comes at the GTI, at whatever price point, it seems to outlast it.

There have now been eight generations of this little hot hatch, and the one we’ll talk about today is the Mark 7. Launched in 2013, the Mk 7 had a good run until being replaced in 2022. If I asked you what you’d like in a small performance car, you might give me a list like responsive turbo engine, excellent shifter and clutch, nimble handling and maybe room for the family. Congratulations, you have now described this car. But how hot is this hatch?

Performance Score: 7. Powered by smiles

Do you like coffee? I do. In fact, I’m pretty sure I need it at this point. It’s the first thing I consume each morning. I just sit there, savor it, and then once it’s finished, the day can begin. That’s what driving the Volkswagen Golf GTI is like. You sit in the well-bolstered driver’s seat, find the nearest back road, and just savor the moment. It’s over before you know it.

Engine

In my G80 M3, you can fall off boost and notice it. Kind of. The car just isn’t getting there as fast as you like, but if you shift to a lower gear, you might get to that corner faster than you’ve anticipated. Maybe you’re not the best driver, but the M3 sure does its best to make up for the difference.

With the GTI, finding a rhythm becomes important. This 2.0 liter, direct-injected engine has “just” 228 horsepower, but it’s the perfect amount for this GTI. Plant the throttle, and you’ll feel some pull through the lower rev range until the turbo comes to full boil. Then, hang on tight.

Keeping the turbo engaged is important, and the stick comes in handy. Take a turn, downshift to third (or second), bring the revs up, and you’ll have all the power you need to carry your speed through to the next turn.

The sound coming through dual tail pipes is throaty and satisfying – no where near as buzzy as that B48 in the 2 Series. Speaking of buzzy, the GTI isn’t – just a smooth pull to red line with each stab of the gas. It’s as satisfying as that first coffee sip.

VW GTI
The 2.0 liter in the GTI is no slouch.

Transmission

Sit inside, and the first thing you’ll probably notice is a golf ball perched on top of the six-speed manual shifter. It’s important you notice it too, because then you can begin to understand that this is not a car that takes itself too seriously. Is this really German?

Of course it is, and you can feel some of that German precision with each shift. Why can’t all manuals feel this good? Clutch take up is perfect – not too high off the floor, not to low. There are two kinds of enjoyable sticks. Something in a Blackwing in like pushing a 10-pound dumbbell through the gates; almost like you need two hands on it. Bang through the gears like Vin Diesel driving to rescue his family.

In the Volkswagen Golf GTI, we have the other kind of stick. So light, so precise, you can almost use a single finger to row through the gears. Delicious.

VW GTI
A golf ball on the Golf. Fun.

Chassis and Steering

Fun fact: the previous generation Honda Civic Type-R (a GTI competitor) actually had larger wheels in the front to help balance that car’s unruly torque steer habits. The GTI doesn’t put down enough power to give you any tugs at the wheel, and it’s better for it. A well-balanced chassis will aid you in carrying as much speed as possible through the corner, ensuring you pay attention when driving to extract maximum performance.

But you don’t need a lot of power. At 3,100 lbs, this is the lightest car I’ve ever tested. In fact, it might be the lightest car I’ve ever driven. The result is a tossable VW that responds instantly to your commands.

The ride is overall comfortable, if perhaps a bit crunchy on some pitted surfaces. Missing is the refinement a luxury car might have, but I didn’t really miss it. And the steering is light, direct, and offers plenty of feedback. Getting in this car is like a palette cleanser for handling characteristics.

VW GTI
The steering is precise, offering actual, real feedback.

Brakes

This GTI was equipped with the upgraded Performance Pack, which gives it most of the braking equipment from the Golf R. The change is visible with red calipers poking through the black wheels. Nothing too fancy – cross-drilled, slotted discs or multi-piston calipers are not here, but the system is shared with many other VW products, so parts are plentiful and cheap.

And they work well. The pedal is firm, with perhaps a bit of a slow initial bite, but they offer fade-free performance. You can only go as fast as you feel safe, and the Volkswagen Golf GTI is your personal automotive blankie.

I always advocate for performance that’s achievable in your daily drive on public roads. The GTI won’t cause nose bleeds, but I had as much fun driving it as I did some other fancy hardware. It’s pretty refreshing to push a car to the limit and not squeeze your butt in anticipation of the local sheriff hunting you down.

VW GTI
The brakes come from a Golf R.

Utility Score: 8. Happy Hatch

I do not know how the GTI has managed to make it this far without anyone noticing it being a wagon, but that’s what it is, especially in 5-door guise. Whatever, wagons are cool and all this thing needs is a roof box.

Inside, it’s spacious, with better packaging than the 2 Series Gran Coupe. I fit easily behind the wheel, with room in the back for two car seats. And hey, open the hatch for an SUV-like loading experience. It’s not a large trunk, but it’ll be enough to house your food shopping or luggage without folding down the seats.

VW GTI
The GTI offers plenty of room for daily use.

Economy: 7. Good-TI

The Volkwagen Golf GTI is still an economy car, so you get 26 MPG combined overall. Choosing the manual comes with the usual penalty of worse mileage, but that’s an easy decision if you enjoy driving.

However, given the car’s economy car roots, I’d still expect better. It’s not all-wheel drive, it’s light, and its small 2.0-liter four-cylinder should be more miserly. The new Mark 8 GTI does manage to pump out more power with better range, so VW is trying.

VW GTI
Eco-friendly performance.

Features and Comfort: 7: Audi aid

We have to look at cars on a curve. The GTI is no M5 inside, but you could buy, ahem, four Volkswagen Golf GTIs (with leftover for parts) for the price of one of those mighty M mounts. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

That said, the GTI is really so much better than anything else in its price class. Aside from a dated dashboard, it could be an Audi inside.

VW GTI
This gauge cluster is much preferred over the Mark 8’s digital mess.

Seats, Screens, and Sun

When companies set out to design a new car, they of course do so with a budget in mind. You hope that they appropriate the funds correctly, and VW does here. Everything you touch feels of high quality. The seats are very supportive and comfortable, holding you in just the right spots. The leather might be a bit tough (think over-cooked steak), but it’s durable, able to withstand a daily beating. Maybe the cloth seats are better here (and plaid is neat).

Look past the nicely-shaped steering wheel, and you see analog gauges. This is akin to looking at your Citizen after wearing an Apple Watch for a month: refreshing. But the low-res pixel display between the gauges looks out of place, and it’s one go the few pieces that feels left over from a base Golf.

Look up to view a decent-sized sunroof, which lets plenty of light inside an otherwise very dark cabin. But if you leave it open while driving, glare can blot out the navigation screen. And while that nav screen has Apple CarPlay, it’s a little on the small side to easily use at a glance.

VW GTI
A somewhat small screen makes it hard to see while doing driving things.

Fully baked

Though a base Volkswagen Golf GTI comes in at around $29,000, the one tested here wore some more kit and a higher price. However, aside from the brakes, nothing is required to enjoy your driving experience.

Items like manually-adjusted seats (they are heated), outside mirrors that don’t dim and a nearly average stereo might make you pine for that 2 Series, but you get plenty of cool where it matters. Black wheels, exhaust tips and a grill give the outside a son-of-Vader look. And you’re not roughing it inside; a telescoping wheel, power everything, keyless ignition and lumbar support are all here. I can’t imagine what else you’d need in a daily car to keep you comfy.

VW GTI
Wagons are cool.

The 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI will make you question the need for more

Ever go to a Metallica concert? It’s a lot of fun. Loud too. Even the ballads somehow seem to push the sound waves through your body. By the time you leave, the only thing left to hear is the ringing in your ears. It’s not easy to enjoy the little nuances and flourishes that Lars and Kirk might put into the music.

And Metallica isn’t exactly the kind of music you play in the background at a coffee shop. You’ve got to turn it up to 11, or it’s just noise. Well, now you know what it’s like behind the wheel of these super sedans. If you don’t turn up the volume, they just turn into regular cars.

The Volkswagen GTI isn’t that. It can be enjoyed at low volume, low speeds. You can form a smile from each turn of the wheel and shift of the gears. There’s precision and joy in each movement, something you can’t always discern in a car with nuclear power under the hood.

So when people ask me “what’s the perfect daily?”, I don’t direct them to the BMW dealer. Instead, consider turning up the volume on this VW.

VW GTI

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE Manual Specifications

Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel drive five-door hatchback

PRICE

Base: $29,690;
As tested: $35,500;

POWERTRAIN

2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder
228 horsepower @ 4,700 rpm
258 lb-ft of torque @ 1,500
Six-speed manual tranmission

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase: 103.6 in
Length: 168 in
Width: 70.8 in
Height: 57.8 in
Curb Weight: 3,133 lbs

EPA FUEL ECONOMY

Combined/city/highway: 26 / 23 / 30 MPG
Range (city/highway): 303 / 396 miles

Special thanks to Scotty G for donating his beautiful Volkswagen Golf GTI!

VW GTI
May we all be this happy when driving our car.

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I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions. Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

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