Review: Defining “hot hatch” in a 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Most enthusiasts have used the Volkswagen Golf in its performance variants as the benchmark for the “hot hatch” category. The 2019 Golf GTI is the metric by which all others will likely be compared, which puts it in a tough spot. Luckily, the Golf GTI Autobahn we drove lived up to expectations.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI takes a basic VW Golf, already a well-rounded compact hatchback, and adds more under-hood muscle and a better suspension. This formula has served VW well and continues for 2019, but with a little more horsepower, a new transmission, and some added bling.
The major changes found with this 2019 model year are in the engine, transmission, and drivetrain. The Golf GTI’s 2.0-liter turbocharged engine receives eight more horsepower, making 258 in all (192 kW) thanks to a little tuning. It additionally gets a new transmission option, upgrading the six-speed automatic to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. More importantly, it now also has a mechanical limited-slip differential as standard equipment.
The Golf GTI has a reputation for being a well-handling street car. It corners nicely at speed and feels confident on twisty roads. The upgrades added this year bring more of that. The HP addition doesn’t do much in terms of perceptible change for the driver, but the upgraded transmission and addition of limited-slip mean more confidence in the turns. Adding on the adaptive suspension dampers found in the SE Experience package and the Autobahn (as we drove it) model takes it up a notch.
For most everyone, the 2019 Golf GTI is a solid handling, fun little car. Enthusiasts are likely to swap out the standard all-season radials for something more sticky in order to carve out all of the performance the little hatch can give. That could limit usefulness in some climates, but for true enthusiasts, semi-annual tire swaps for better summer performance is the norm.
It does take a little time to get used to the odd turbo lag the Golf GTI has, though. Power delivery begins to peak at only 1,500 rpm, but there’s a half-second pause before the turbos actually kick in – enough that it’s perceptibly hesitant. The trick is to learn to keep the engine at or near 1,200-1,300 rotations and kick in the turbo more quickly on acceleration. Most drivers should be able to squeeze out sub-7-second 0-60 mph (96.5 km/h) sprints once this is mastered.
That quick acceleration is augmented by strong cornering capability. The defining point of a hot hatch, outside of over-norm power delivery, is in the agility of a small-wheelbase compact. Steering inputs for the GTI are varied according to drive mode and dynamics. The faster the vehicle is going, the heavier the steering feel. This isn’t unusual in sporty vehicles, and it gives a strong feeling of control to the driver. The 2019 Golf GTI has a natural feel about its dynamics that also boost confidence in the curves.
There are limits to those points, however. Namely at speed. At higher speeds, the understeer and body roll common to smaller front-wheel drive vehicles comes to the fore in the Golf GTI. The limited-slip differential helps with this, but can only do so much, so the GTI is naturally speed-limited in the turns due to its overall design. Outside of the race track, most drivers are not likely to push those limits much. But performance junkies will need to learn the car’s limitations before pushing it too hard.
The highest selling point, to us, for the 2019 VW Golf GTI is in its daily usefulness as a driver that happens to have performance options outside of that. As an everyday, the Golf is a great hatchback with lots of versatility and a usable nature. Ergonomics are good and comfort is generally well-done. There are some caveats, trade-offs made for the performance capabilities, and some may not like the austerity of Volkswagen interiors. For those looking at a hot hatch, however, those tradeoffs are probably not big concessions.
The sport-centric nature of the new GTI means that it’s not as smooth or road-absorbing as are more conventional cars ... including the standard VW Golf. Inside, the Golf has a typically Volkswagen simplicity to its design. Function makes form in a VW interior, and the Golf GTI is definitely on that trend. Seating is comfortable and controls layout is intuitive, but the distinct lack of design offsets – even in the top-shelf Autobahn trim – may not appeal to many.
Infotainment in the Golf GTI is improved over the previous generation, adding a larger screen and better responsiveness. Standard features include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but there’s only one USB port and it’s required in order to use them. Anyone else with a charging need is out of luck. The Fender audio system, we’ll point out, is an excellent addition (available in most trims, standard in the Autobahn). Those wondering will find the CD player and SD card reader in the glove box.
In all, the 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI is a fun little hatchback that builds on the legacy of the GTI brand. Since the 1980s, the Golf GTI has defined hot hatch as a category and the 2019 model keeps that going.
Product Page: 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI