The Volkswagen Golf GTI debuted at the Frankfurt Motor show 43 years ago.
The Golf itself had been available in Europe for a year already, and VW planned for the vehicle to succeed the Beetle as an inexpensive car for the masses. The GTI version paved the way for the hot hatch category of performance hatchbacks and arguably leads the way to this day.
The 2017 GTI is beyond fun to drive, surprisingly roomy and practical and looks modern with a touch of unexpected elegance.
Sadly, the coupe no longer exists, and the four-door GTI is the only body style available. Sedans, and especially coupes, have become a tough sell for manufacturers in the world of crossovers and SUVs.
"Sales remain strong for the Golf and the GTI overall, but demand, unfortunately, for the coupe has fallen each model year," said Tyler Barker, sales manager at Ken Garff Volkswagen in Orem, Utah.
The current car is more angular in every way than the prior generation car. Even the headlights and tail lamps are more square and sharp than their predecessors.
The front bumper is clearly defined with a ledge below the headlights, which fall back across the hood, even further than the bumper. The ledge veers back dramatically from the lower front air intake, and black horizontal moldings within the cavity below the ledge create a sense of movement, even when the car is standing still.
The angular mirrors and two defined horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the doors further define the shape of the car.
The spoiler above the rear hatch, the bold VM emblem and dual chrome exhaust ports stand out in the rear. The ledges on either side of the rear bumper take styling cues from the front of the car.
The 18-inch alloy, five-spoke, fan blade-shaped wheels offer a sense of motion — a common theme for the GTI.
Interestingly enough, the sticker still refers to the GTI as a Golf model, but the Golf emblem can't be found anywhere on the vehicle.
VW interiors have traditionally been elegantly simple and often seem more expensive than they actually are. The GTI is no exception.
The steering wheel, shift knob, brake lever and seats are all trimmed in leather with red accent stitching.
The 6.5-inch touchscreen sits above the dual-zone climate control system. The analog instrument cluster sports a simple layout. There are physical buttons for the heated seats, which I always appreciate.
The GTI is equipped with a manual transmission, and the three pedals are trimmed in aluminum alloy. The faux carbon fiber trim pieces are attractive but overly shiny. They cause a glare and are fingerprint magnets.
The car is roomier than it looks and has more headroom and rear seat legroom than expected. The cargo area is large and practical, particularly when the seats are folded flat.
The GTI is well-appointed and comfortable, and the interior feels like it belongs in a more expensive car. Like most German cars, the GTI has a few cup holders and more storage compartments.
The GTI's infotainment system layout is simple to use with both shortcut buttons and a touchscreen. The voice controls work well and were accessible via the steering wheel and dash.
The Fender Premium sound system is great and easy to navigate on the touchscreen and steering wheel. The VW's app connect system for smartphone integration is fairly standard.
The GTI has adaptive cruise control, VW Front Assist (including parking and emergency braking assistance) and blind spot monitors. The Bi-Xenon headlights are also fairly standard.
While competitors have come and gone, particularly in the U.S., the GTI has always been about performance first. While the GTI isn't the quickest hot hatch, it's certainly one of the best to handle.
The car I drove was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and several driving modes.
There is a mode selector button next to the gear shift knob in the traditional position, but, unfortunately, each mode must be selected via the infotainment system and touchscreen.The tradeoff is that the GTI offers an individual setting for driving mode that allows the driver to create a custom setting using steering, suspension and engine inputs.
In normal mode, the GTI seems much like any other Golf model with little engine and exhaust noise and compliant suspension and steering. In sport mode, the GTI comes alive both audibly and in terms of acceleration and handling.
Unlike many new cars today, the manual-equipped GTI is actually quicker than the dual clutch-equipped automatic. One of the primary reasons manual transmissions have been disappearing is that modern automatics can actually spin through the gears faster now than any person can shift manually.
The GTI manual feels softer and is spaced wider than I anticipated. It shifts smoothly and quickly, however.
Steering response is excellent, but the brakes are the GTI's one flaw. They are softer than expected and don't inspire the same confidence the steering and suspension do.
The sport suspension is the true gem here. The handling is excellent, and the GTI was at its best on a long canyon drive. The car is short and low to the ground, and the car easily makes the transition, even in sport mode, from canyon screamer to freeway commuter. Nothing about the GTI is too harsh for daily driving.
The two-liter turbo, four-cylinder engine produces 220 horsepower and an impressive 258 pound-feet of torque. For a front-wheel-drive car, the GTI handles well off the line and there's almost no torque steer. The turbo lag is minimal, and engine and exhaust notes are pleasing as the GTI accelerates in sport mode.
The car can accelerate to 60 mph in less than six seconds — a very respectable speed, but nearly a second slower than a Subaru WRX, which brings almost 50 more horses to the game.
The GTI is still a class leader in terms of handling, interior appointments and practicality. The GTI is a good value and very fun to drive.
Vehicle Type: five-door, five-passenger hatchback
Engine: two-liter 16-valve DOHC. Intercooled and direct injection
Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: six-speed manual with overdrive
Performance: zero-to-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, standing quarter mile 14.7 seconds at 95 mph
Fuel Economy: EPA estimated 24 miles per gallon in the city/34 miles per gallon on the highway
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; 5 years/50,000 miles powertrain
Price as tested: $35,335