Tuesday, July 23, 2024
Reviews2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI Review: The Pacemaker

2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI Review: The Pacemaker

Still the hot hatch benchmark.

  • The 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI starts at $32,090 in the United States and at $34,395 in Canada, freight and delivery charges included.

  • Fun to drive, hatchback versatility, still reasonably priced.

  • Fussy climate controls, stiff ride with 19-inch wheels, some automatic gearbox harshness.

Players in the affordable sports car segment, the latter in which we could toss in performance-infused variants of mainstream cars such as the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI, are becoming a rare occurrence in new-car dealerships. And yet, perhaps more than ever, our need for entertainment and excitement in our lives is still strong.

Any reasonably priced sports car or sporty car inevitably ends up being compared to the GTI, and it’s been this way for decades. With good reason, as VW arguably created the hot hatch craze more than 40 years ago, combining performance and handling everyday usability. In other words, the Golf GTI is a no-compromise choice for driving enthusiasts on a fairly relative budget.

2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Alas, the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI now longer stands tall in the brand’s North American compact-car lineup, as the regular Golf hatchback is no longer with us, and the Volkswagen Golf R has been the range-topper for several years now. Nevertheless, the GTI and its Volkswagen Jetta GLI stablemate are still locked in a battle with a few foes, such as the Honda Civic Si, the Acura Integra, the Subaru WRX, the Hyundai Elantra N Line, the turbocharged Mazda3, the MINI Cooper S 4-Door/5-Door as well as Canadian-market Kia Forte5 GT. And sports cars like the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86.

Once again, the GTI is equipped with a turbocharged 2.0L inline-four, matched to six-speed manual and dual-clutch seven-speed automatic gearboxes. Output is now pegged at 241 horsepower as well as 273 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,600 rpm. The German brand has been playing around with boosted engines for what seems like forever, this latest one serving up buckets of forward thrust thanks to that meaty torque curve. The automated transmission bangs off quick upshifts under hard acceleration, although under normal driving, it can produce the occasional jerkiness as well.

The GTI’s combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 28 mpg or 8.5 L/100 km with the automatic transmission is quite good, given the performance envelope. We managed 25.5 mpg or 9.2 L/100 km during our March test, while the car was still wearing its winter tires. Not bad, and the engine can run on regular gasoline as well.

What’s also impressive about the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI is that it can carve up a twisty road and yet still offer decent ride quality around town and on the highway. Well, the Autobahn (U.S.) and Performance (Canada) trim levels 19-inch wheels wrapped in the thin-sidewall 235/35YR19 rubber do stiffen up the ride. The GTI’s U.S.-market Autobahn and Performance trims also feature a bigger rear stabilizer bar, adaptive dampers and an uprated chassis for slightly sharper handling. Is this worth the extra coin over the base and mid-level trims? Not from a purely dynamic standpoint. The low-priced 40th Anniversary edition offers many of these drivetrain goodies, but with a shorter list of comfort and convenience items.

2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Actually, call us cheap or thrifty, but we’d be perfectly happy with the base-trim GTI, adorning the signature plaid seat upholstery, 17-inch wheels, blind-spot monitoring, eight-inch infotainment system touchscreen, heated front seats and steering wheel, single-zone climate control as well as wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Granted, the 10.25-inch touchscreen, intelligent key, Harman/Kardon stereo, ventilated front seats and power sunroof are all nice-to-have features, if we can swing the higher payments for the SE/Autobahn (U.S.) or Autobahn/Performance (Canada) variants.

One thing we don’t like as much in the new-generation Golf GTI is the lack of physical climate control buttons on the centre stack. Almost everything has been relegated to an on-screen interface, making every adjustment a multi-step, distracting operation. The temperature can be adjusted using a slim touch-sensitive surface just below the infotainment screen, as is the volume controls instead of a proper knob. It took as a while to figure out that those defrost buttons are located to the left of the steering wheel, just below the light settings. Why? On the other hand, we like the configurable, fully digital driver instrument panel, there’s plenty of storage space on the centre console, and the base trim with its eight-inch screen does get a real volume knob.

2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI

As expected, interior space is fine for a compact hatchback, though rear-seat legroom is a smidge tight. The cargo area is vast, with an almost-flat load floor when the rear seatbacks are folded down. On paper, the GTI’s max 34.5 cubic-foot or 977-litre cargo area is way smaller than those in the Civic Hatchback and Forte5, but these manufacturers might be using different interior measurement standards.

Pricing for the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI starts at $32,090 in the United States and at $34,395 in Canada, freight and delivery charges included. That’s still a reasonable sum for a fun-loving, well-equipped compact car in a world where everything has gotten so darn expensive. That said, it’s in the same ballpark as the Integra, the WRX and the turbo Mazda3, while some less-powerful rivals such as the Forte5 and Elantra N Line are more affordable, as are the much less-practical BRZ and GR86.

Business is quiet rather right now at VW in North America as the company is transitioning over to an all-electric portfolio over the next few years—as promised. In the meantime, the Golf GTI and Golf R remain the brand’s internal-combustion pacemakers, ensuring that driving pleasure is still cherished through the company’s shift to EVs.

Arguably still the hot hatch queen, the GTI does a lot of things right and few things wrong. The performance and handling are still present and accounted for, the interior finish is still appreciable and the car hasn’t lost a smudge of versatility. It’s a better daily driver than the WRX, sharper than the Integra, and more practical than MINI as well as the BRZ and GR86. On the other hand, it might be a little too modern for its own good, and we’re talking about the lack of dashboard buttons in particular. Supply chain issues hampered the launch of the latest-gen model, but things are seemingly getting back on track.


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