2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI First Drive - Nothing to Anger the Faithful

Adam Tonge
by Adam Tonge
2018 volkswagen golf gti first drive nothing to anger the faithful

The formula for the Volkswagen Golf GTI is simple; take a good car, add horsepower, add styling flourishes, and make something special. For the past 35 years in the United States, the GTI has done this more often than not.

Sure, there may have been some misses in there, but for over a decade now, it has been all hits. The 2018 GTI continues this trend. Even though it’s just a refresh of the seventh-generation GTI we first saw in 2015, the coming model year’s changes make the vehicle better in almost every way. The GTI is currently the best new car available in these United States of America that can be purchased for an MSRP of under $30,000.

That may be a bold statement, but it isn’t without merit.

The GTI simply does everything well. It’s like that pair of Allen Edmonds that goes with everything, looks good, is made well, can be used every day, and never goes out of style. Competitors don’t have the history, aren’t made as well, and have styling that won’t age as gracefully. There are things some models can do better than the GTI but, overall, none are as great.

Walking up to the 2018 GTI, you’ll instantly recognize its pedigree. With new LED fog and brake lights, the night signature is changed, but the shape remains the same. LED headlights with adaptive front beams adorn higher trims. A bright red horizontal strip visually connects the headlights to a revised grille and bumper. Those reworked fascias carry a strong character line that travels along the side and all the way back to the taillight clusters.

In addition to the red highlight on the grille, the 2018 Golf GTI boasts several other visual differences from its conventional Golf brethren. The lower front fascia incorporates standard LED fog lights housed within a series of horizontal strakes on either side of a unique mesh-pattern grille. Red-painted brake calipers peek behind bespoke GTI wheels and subtle side skirts help to give the GTI a sportier appearance. Around back, bright exhaust tips sit on either side of a unique rear diffuser, while a roof spoiler further differentiates the car.

The GTI is still powered by Volkswagen’s turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine. The EA888 engine family, which debuted in 2008, has been steadily refined over the last decade. In all versions of the 2018 GTI, the engine produces 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It is complemented by a standard six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed DSG automatic that requires a $1,100 markup on any trim.

This engine is strong, and power is available early and often. It has a smoothness many other four-cylinders simply do not possess. Paired with the manual transmission, it feels like a seamless extension of the driver’s right hand. Despite the six-speed manual’s tall gearing, torque is always readily available — a driver can almost reach freeway speeds in second gear. Switching between second and third gear on the twisty roads of rural Michigan proved a downright enjoyable task.

Navigating those roads is made more enjoyable by the GTI’s firm chassis, which can easily be labelled “word class.” Riding 0.6 inches lower than the standard Golf, the GTI’s steering is precise, the suspension firm yet comfortable, and body roll is minimal. Somehow the GTI manages to take to spirited driving with aplomb while remaining a comfortable vehicle with a compliant ride. The GTI’s suspension definitely punches above its price range.

The interior of the GTI continues to be one of the model’s strong points — spacious and practical, while retaining a touch of Euro elegance. Our tester, which carried an MSRP of $31,165 (plus an $850 destination charge) came equipped with Volkswagen’s 8-inch touchscreen, leather, keyless access with push-button start, and a sunroof. Unlike some competitors, the seats are well bolstered but comfortable, and the seat track is long enough to provide legroom for almost every driver (I’m looking at you, Ford Focus ST).

Still, while our tester topped $31,000, it doesn’t have to be that way. Since Volkswagen offers the same horsepower and both transmissions in all GTI trims, you won’t feel like you’re missing anything by going slightly downmarket. As far as I’m concerned, Clark plaid cloth seats are mandatory for a GTI. They look great and are heated. The combination of plaid seats and sunroof also makes a triumphant return in 2018, and comes standard on the $30,470 2018 GTI SE. The base GTI drops the sunroof, LED headlights, blind-spot monitoring, and replaces the 8-inch infotainment screen with a 6.5-inch version. At an MSRP of $26,415, it is truly a performance bargain.

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI continues Volkswagens tradition of offering a performance car with working-class roots for a reasonable price. This new model takes the seventh-generation model’s formula for success, refines it, and makes it better. So is there a downside?

The only possible drawbacks with the GTI is the price and Volkswagen’s enduring quality concerns. Both the Honda Civic Si and Ford Focus ST are cheaper than the GTI. The Subaru WRX is a little more expensive, but it comes with all-wheel drive. All are competitive vehicles, but the GTI feels more premium and refined. It is the best daily driver of the bunch.

As for quality issues, the platform the GTI rides on, MQB, has been in production for five years. Hopefully, that’s enough time to get any issues worked out. Most reliability surveys have shown recent GTIs to have average reliability. Luckily for 2018 buyers, all GTIs are now backed by Volkswagen’s People First Warranty, offering comprehensive coverage for six years or 72,000 miles (whichever comes first). Anyone on the fence about a GTI has six years, or 72,000 miles, to decide if it’s a quality product.

The GTI continues to be a fantastic car simply because it does all things well. It possesses a distinctly premium feel while remaining practical and fun to drive. There is no catch. For the price, there is also no equal.

[Images: ©2017 Adam Tonge/The Truth About Cars]

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3 of 108 comments
  • TheBrandler TheBrandler on Nov 29, 2017

    Until you buy one and get the electrical gremlins the dealer insists doesn't exist. The transmission issues that crop up passed 60k miles...I mean sure it's great till it breaks, just like every other german car I won't ever own. Then it's nothing but a cash fire.

  • Hi there Hi there on Dec 15, 2017

    Well, I guess German cars have bad reputation for reliability because we do not really have Italian ones around. Yes we do, but numbers are so small. I have never owned a GTI although I almost did (I got Sportwagen instead for bigger trunk), but I have owned and still do own a 1999 Passat, manual transmission. If it is anything to say about reliability, the car is a magic. It just runs and it is as quiet as on the first day. Change oil, brakes, and whatever common sense dictates. Maybe I just got lucky, but I picked my friend who swears on Consumer Reports and would not buy anything but Japanese (meaning....Made in Japan) from his Toyota dealership in my Passat enough times for me to decide never to buy a Toyota. My 2016 Sportwagen is similar, but slightly less smooth story. 26000 miles with no functional problem, but sunroof leaked (do not expect the dealer to figure it out, although it is just clogged drains). I am mentioning it for those who insist on having a sunroof on GTI. In fact, I would considering buying R just because it does not have a sunroof. Adam, any chance that you were told about the new stereo system in 2018 GTI? I know about the interface and all that, but I wonder if, along with those cosmetic changes to the system, they accidentally changed the sound and made it different. I may be inviting the wrath of the Internet with this, but 2017 GTI, and all other VWs for that matter, sound system is somewhat counteruseful (I just invented this word, sorry). Fender, whatever, will make your symphony orchestra sound like a garage band. In fact, it is awful. By the way, nicely-written review. Warranty, or not.

    • Adam Tonge Adam Tonge on Dec 20, 2017

      As far as I could tell it was the same audio system. I drove a 2016 GTI a few weeks before and didn't notice any differences in audio quality. Thanks for reading.

  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.