2018 Volkswagen GTI S Review - The One-car Solution

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
Fast Facts

2018 Volkswagen GTI S

2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, DOHC (220 hp @ 4700 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm)
Six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
25 city / 33 highway / 28 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
27.4 (observed mileage, MPG)
Base Price: $27,265
As Tested: $27,265
Prices include $850 freight charge.

Depending on how pedantic you feel like being, one can argue that the original Volkswagen GTI was not the first hot hatch. Alec Issigonis, with the revolutionary Mini, clearly inspired Volkswagen to move to the space-saving front-engine, front-drive, two-box form factor, even though the Austin/Morris original never had a true hatchback. No matter. Whatever the lineage, there’s no arguing that keeping mechanical bits in a separate box from the fleshy bits can yield impressive room from a small car.

My personal fleet reflects my typical suburban middle-class life — a minivan, a body-on-frame midsize SUV, and a midlife crisis disguising itself as a roadster-shaped shelf in the garage, not to mention the press car gravy train making frequent stops. And while my wife and I drive separately to our respective offices, pretty much all other times we are together in a single car.

I sometimes forget that many families throughout the world really don’t have a use for multiple vehicles — they need one that does everything. Hauling people, hauling stuff — one car does it all. That’s where the two-box solution shines. And if the driver likes driving, the minimal weight and compact dimension are a natural plus. So, the 2018 Volkswagen GTI is quite clearly shaping up to be a perfect one-car solution.

Like many enthusiasts with more time than cash, I’ll often peruse manufacturer websites for the configurators, looking for the best combination of features and price. Almost invariably, I end up at some significant multiplier of the base price, as the good stuff isn’t available on the bargain basement trim. Matthew Guy, I am not.

Except for this Ace of Base GTI S. The least expensive trim in the catalog is most certainly the one I’d buy with my own money. Higher trims offer a sunroof, LED headlamps, power driver’s seat, leather seats, keyless starting, and adaptive cruise control. While nice features, I don’t need them — and in the case of the seats, I want the lovely Clark Plaid cloth. Were I forced to select the top-trim Autobahn package, I’d seek out a wrecked S trim car and swap the leather for the cloth.

Back to the utility factor of the two-box form. Beyond my usual commute, I spent the weekend with the GTI shuttling two kids between softball, soccer, and cheerleading events. All of that sporting gear, plus camp chairs and coolers, fit easily in the 22.8 cubic foot cargo area without folding the seats.

The kids had plenty of legroom behind me, and — unusually — I had enough room to slide the front seat forward from the rearmost position comfortably. I’ll admit the power recline mechanism on an otherwise-manual seat is unusual, but the adjustments were simple to make. Take away the rest of the car, and I’d buy the GTI for the seats.

Thankfully, the rest of the car is just as brilliant. The six-speed manual transmission’s shifter is just a bit rubbery — the Mazda3 has a slightly better feel when shifting quickly — but the clutch action on this Volkswagen is linear, almost buttery smooth. As most cars I drive don’t have a clutch pedal, I’ll admit the first couple drives in a new-to-me manual will reveal a lack of left-foot/right-hand coordination with a stall or two. It never happened in the GTI.

The ride in the GTI is a touch firm for seriously pockmarked roads, which isn’t helped by the standard forty-series tires on 18-inch wheels. Otherwise, highway drives are calm and quiet, with bumps registering with a muted thump and controlled body motions. The electrically-assisted power steering has none of the vagueness typical of other EPS systems, with a direct feel and quick turn-in.

Drive this Volkswagen conservatively, upshifting at low revs with deliberate pedal and shifter action, and it’s a calm, quiet experience befitting the ideal city car. The basic infotainment system, with Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, works intuitively and sounds good enough for my ears. Only when you let the tachometer swing past straight-up noon does the hot-hatch nature reveal itself, with a menacing-yet-muted feline growl coming from deep within the car.

There’s 258 lb-ft of torque available at a low 1,500 rpm, so shifting isn’t strictly necessary when passing slower cars on the interstate. However, the sound can be addictive when you do drop a gear or two and you’re a child like me.

When you do break off the highway onto one of those roads laid out by the meander of a creekbed rather than the clinical shovel of a civil engineer, third gear is your friend in the GTI. Up and down ridges, around a mottled grey sycamore, and past the old bait shop, the roadholding is confidence-inspiring.

Indeed, while the GTI is clearly descended from hot hatches of old, there’s a bit of classic sports sedan deep within the soul of this truly great car. Composure over all road conditions is a hallmark of the iconic German sports sedans of old, and this VW delivers just like those legends.

Really, I’m convinced that everyone needs a Volkswagen GTI. It has the cargo room of a compact crossover, the driving manners of a good sports sedan, and the compact dimensions of a commuter. Plus the six-year, 72k-mile warranty eases the mind. Call me a jaded journalist, but it’s likely the one car I’d buy with my own (imaginary, remember, I’m a journalist) money.

[Images: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

Chris Tonn
Chris Tonn

Some enthusiasts say they were born with gasoline in their veins. Chris Tonn, on the other hand, had rust flakes in his eyes nearly since birth. Living in salty Ohio and being hopelessly addicted to vintage British and Japanese steel will do that to you. His work has appeared in eBay Motors, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars, Reader's Digest, AutoGuide, Family Handyman, and Jalopnik. He is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he's currently looking for the safety glasses he just set down somewhere.

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  • Hreardon Hreardon on Jun 28, 2018

    Owner of a 2016 MT Autobahn, and I couldn't be happier. I replaced my 2006 A3 with a GTI after trying to convince myself that I wanted a B8 A4 or the (then) new S3. The A4 just wasn't doing it for me, and the S3 was great - but sterile. The GTI just felt right. It really is a "goldilocks" car. It's going to be hard for VW to not screw up everything great about the MK7 when its successor debuts in about 18 months. Similarly, it's going to be hard to convince me that an A3/A4/3-Series is going to be worth the premium when the time comes.

  • Bkrell Bkrell on Oct 08, 2018

    Late to this post but used this it to convince myself I wanted a GTI. I haven't had a German car since my 1982 BMW 320i. This car reminds me of that but more power. I'm gonna throw out there that the shifter feel is much better than my 2012 Civic Si that I had a few cars back (I buy often). I don't miss shifts with this manual. I did all the time in the Si. There's a little more lag down low than I was anticipating. It reminds me of my 1997 SAAB 900 in that respect. But damn, the handling. I've never had a car that felt like a go-cart as much as this one does. Yet it was just fine for a 3.5 hr each way interstate trip this past weekend.

  • Tassos Jong-iL The Peninsula of One Korea.
  • Eric No, I just share my opinions. I have no use nor time for rhetoric from any side.
  • Redapple2 Jeez. This is simple. I 75 and 696 area. 1 nobody -NOBODY wants to work in downtown Detritus. 2 close to the tech ctr. Design and Engineering HQ. 20 miles closer to Milford.3 lower taxes for the employees. Lower taxes for Evil GM Vampire.4 2 major expressways give users more options to suburbs. Faster transport.Jeez.
  • Clark The Ring (Nürburgring) is the only race track I've driven on. That was 1985 or 1986 with my '73 Fiat Spider (and my not-so-happy girlfriend). So I made the Karussell (today: Caracciola Karussell, which I believe the author meant; there is another one: Kleines Karussell).
  • AZFelix This article takes me back to racing electric slot cars with friends on tracks laid out in the basement. Periodically your car would stop due to lost connections or from flying off the track and you would have to dash over to it and set it right. In the mean time your competitor would race ahead until faced with a similar problem. It seemed like you were struggling harder to keep from losing than trying to win. Fun times.“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Mark Twain