The recipe is simple: take the all-around goodness of a modern hatchback and add power and chassis upgrades. But the ability to make the go-fast parts work – and work together – without compromising that all-around goodness is another matter altogether. Volkswagen's success at blending sometimes-conflicting goals sets the GTI apart: as other manufacturers struggle to balance speed and comfort and utility, VW's hot hatch continues to be the benchmark for combining driver gratification and everyday usability.

Best Value

The GTI is available in three trim levels – S, SE, and Autobahn – and the aggressive price jumps between each are as noteworthy as the content changes. (Aside from the choice of color and transmission and the availability of leather seats on the SE, there are no significant standalone options for the GTI.)

The Autobahn is loaded with enough features to make its upscale Audi cousins take notice, but it is not a serious value consideration. The performance and quality-of-life enhancements on the SE – upgraded brakes and differential, sunroof, push-button start, automatic emergency braking – are compelling, but for cash-conscious buyers the base GTI S brings all the speed and capability at a substantial discount compared to its sisters.

With the bottom line in mind, our recommended configuration for a GTI is as follows:

  • Model: 2018 Volkswagen GTI S
  • Engine: 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Output: 220 hp / 258 lb-ft
  • Transmission:Six-speed manual
  • Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
  • MPG: 25 City/33 Hwy
  • Options: N/A
  • Base Price:$27,265 (including $850 destination charge)
  • Best Value Price:$27,265

Performance

Volkswagen GTI

The GTI is a master class in traditional Eurosport tuning. It's not a numbers car – acceleration is quick but not scary, and lateral grip is good without threatening your internal organs. Instead, the GTI's performance strengths are intangibles like response and controllability. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder delivers plenty of immediate, refined power. Handling is nimble and balanced, aided by precise and well-weighted steering. Both driveline and suspension calibrations maximize on-road effectiveness: everything is intuitive and smooth, very usable, and when you turn it up, intensely fun.

Most GTI-inclined buyers will instinctively opt for the six-speed manual gearbox (and yes, so would we) but Volkswagen's automated six-speed dual-clutch transmission is one of the best self-shifters on the market and pairs very well with the turbo engine - the finger-snap shifts keep the boost up and the power flowing smoothly.

The tradeoffs for this civilized speed are minimal. Fuel economy is pleasantly high, and ride comfort tilts firm but is never harsh. The GTI's identity as a hot hatch contains its own limitations, though; all that pragmatic usefulness means that the boxy Volkswagen is never going to be as pure a driving experience as something like a Mazda Miata or the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 twins.

Style

If you appreciate the less-is-more aesthetic of midcentury furniture or the designs of Dieter Rams and Jony Ive, the GTI's styling inside and out will be just your cup of rational expression of kinetic ability; others may find it a bit bland, as VW is content to leave ambitious stylistic statements to other carmakers.

The interior is standard modern Volkswagen - logical design, high-quality materials in restrained colors, a begrudging dash of brightwork - although the plaid seat fabric on the S and SE and the trademark golf-ball shift knob provide some welcome cheer (and is iconic in itself). Switches feel substantial, seats are comfortable and supportive, and the infotainment system is excellent in general and notably easier to use than the overcomplicated systems in some rival cars.

The exterior differences between the GTI and the standard Golf are minor to the point of often requiring a double-take: some discreet trim-color changes, slightly more pronounced vents and tailpipes, and different wheels. Those alterations are applied to a design that is handsome and civilized but lacks the dramatic appeal of a Mazda3 or the creativity of a Hyundai Veloster.

The Best and Worst Things

The GTI isn't an ill-mannered hot rod or a brittle tuner car – it's simply a Golf with a bigger and more enjoyable dynamic envelope, which by any measure is a good thing made better. There are literally no downsides to opting for a GTI over the Golf save the moderately higher upfront cost. Even the fuel economy numbers are practically the same.

Identifying the worst thing about the GTI means identifying something bad - or even just not good - about the GTI. We suppose that if the styling doesn't excite you then we understand, and having the moonroof and computer-controlled differential as standalone options would be nice.

Right For? Wrong For?

Volkswagen GTI

Do you take driving seriously, have a life that includes carrying a few kids or the results of the occasional Costco trip, and not want to spend all the money in the world? Get a GTI. It does literally everything a modern vehicle should do short of hauling a soccer team or fording a stream, does it efficiently, and does it with enough speed and verve to put a smile on even the most staid face.

Do you need to carry five people on a regular basis? The back seat is nice for two, not so much for three. Does your ego require a flamboyant chariot? This is not a car you buy to attract attention (and yes, some will see this as a benefit instead). Do you believe that driving should be a joyless grind through a world gone wrong? The GTI's strengths will be lost on you; also, we recommend therapy.

The Bottom Line

If there really is such a thing, the GTI makes a serious claim to being the best all-around car on the market. Nothing else on sale today reconciles so many strong yet disparate attributes – speed, comfort, utility, quality, safety, economy – as well as the GTI. It is a car that firmly rejects the idea that an all-rounder must be a cluster of reduced expectations. We recommend it without reservation.