2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI review: The best daily driver gets better

2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI review: The best daily driver gets better

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The Volkswagen Golf GTI is one of the most well-rounded sporty cars you can buy today. As fun as it is functional, the GTI is the kind of hot hatchback you can wring out on the weekend but happily drive on the daily. For my money, I can’t think of a new car under $30,000 I’d rather buy.

That’s truer now than it’s ever been, thanks to the introduction of this new-for-2019 GTI Rabbit Edition, which slides in just under the $30K mark: $29,790, including $895 for destination. More than just a nod to the Golf’s heritage, the Rabbit Edition bundles what I believe to be the GTI’s best attributes into one affordable package. There’s a lot to like about every Golf GTI model, but none of them speak to me quite like the Rabbit.

New for 2019

Before I get into the specifics of this Rabbit Edition, let me tell you about a few meaningful updates that apply to all 2019 GTI models. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine now makes 228 horsepower — 8 more than before — though torque remains unchanged at 258 pound-feet. A six-speed manual is still the standard transmission, but new for 2019 is a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic, which replaces the six-speed DCT from last year’s GTI. Not only does the new gearbox offer smoother, quicker shifts, it means automatic-equipped GTIs now have stop/start fuel-saving tech, as well as launch control.

Every GTI comes fitted with Volkswagen’s mechanical front limited-slip differential, as well as the larger brakes found on the Golf R. Driver assistance technologies like autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are now standard on every GTI trim except the base S, which offers these as part of a Driver Assistance Package.

The Rabbit Edition is set apart with attractive, black-painted, 18-inch wheels, a black rear spoiler, LED headlights, black mirror caps, keyless entry, pushbutton start and the aforementioned driving aids. Rabbit models come in four colors, including Deep Black Pearl or the Pure White you see here, though I much prefer Cornflower Blue or the non-metallic Urano Grey of the car I tested in California.

These black, 18-inch wheels are unique to the GTI Rabbit Edition.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Wascally wabbit

On busy city streets and winding roads alike, the Golf GTI is a peach. Lots of low-end torque means you can accelerate from a stop quickly and smoothly, and there’s enough midrange oomph to help you zip through traffic without needing to downshift. Associate editor Andrew Krok tells me the new dual-clutch transmission is sweet as pie, but I can’t imagine buying a GTI without the six-speed manual transmission. Clutch pedal travel is a bit long, but gear engagement is solid, and the shifter itself is lovely to use, with short throws between each gear and a golf ball-like pattern that feels great in my hand.

Higher-end SE and Autobahn trims can be had with VW’s dynamic chassis control, but the base GTI is so nicely tuned I can’t imagine actually needing this adaptive damping tech. Even with low-profile 225/40-series tires, the GTI’s ride quality is compliant enough to deal with Los Angeles’ lousy streets, but firm enough to keep the hatchback flat and agile while traversing smooth, canyon roads. Perfectly weighted, accurate steering makes the GTI easy to maneuver while parallel parking, but offers great feedback and response during spirited drives.

The Golf GTI isn’t the quickest car in its class, but I can’t think of another sporty hatchback that’s as all-around good to drive. Hyundai’s new Elantra GT N-Line poses the most obvious threat, but its steering feel and manual gearbox aren’t quite on par with the GTI’s. The more powerful, all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX is the better choice for fast drives on great roads, but it’s a bit too harsh to live with day to day. The GTI, meanwhile, strikes a perfect balance.

The GTI won’t kill you at the fuel pump, either; it’s one of the more fuel-efficient performance cars in this class. The EPA estimates you’ll see 24 miles per gallon city, 32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined with the six-speed manual transmission. Opt for the dual-clutch automatic and those numbers change to 25, 31 and 27, respectively. In my testing, I’ve found it totally easy to meet or even exceed those highway and combined ratings.

The GTI’s interior is starting to look a little outdated. But hey, plaid seats!

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Plaid seats and lots of space

The seventh-generation Golf has been on sale in the US since late 2014, and if there’s one place where it’s starting to show its age, it’s inside. Don’t get me wrong, the overall build quality and fit-and-finish are still great — better than most other compact hatches, in fact — but the overall design is starting to look a bit drab. The uninspired center stack is covered in fingerprint-ready piano black trim, and the rest of the dash and door panels are all the same shade of German raincloud gray.

On the other hand, I applaud Volkswagen for continuing to offer the GTI with its iconic “Clark” plaid seats. These comfortable, cloth chairs are super-supportive, and the front thrones are heated, too. More expensive GTI models come with leather seats, which are fine. But come on: Don’t be that guy who buys a GTI without plaid seats.

Rear-seat accommodations are slightly more generous here than they are in other small hatchbacks, and the plaid fabric carries over to the bench’s outboard positions. Behind the back seats, you’ll find 22.8 cubic feet of space — plenty for a pair of carry-on suitcases and accompanying backpacks. Fold the bench flat, however, and the GTI’s cargo hold expands to 52.7 cubic feet, which is more space than you get in the hatchback versions of the Honda Civic, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. Only the Elantra GT N-Line is more capacious, with 55.1 cubic-feet of junk-in-your-trunk space.

Thank goodness for Apple CarPlay.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Base trims get basic tech

The GTI’s infotainment technology is a bit of a mixed bag. Sure, Volkswagen’s MIB II multimedia system has a robust set of features, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. But on the S and Rabbit models, you’re stuck with a small, 6.5-inch display. Stepping up to the GTI SE gets you a higher-resolution, 8-inch touchscreen, and if you opt for the range-topping Autobahn, you get embedded navigation.

The base system works well enough, but does feel somewhat rudimentary compared to the more-modern infotainment interfaces offered elsewhere in the compact class. All GTIs have a small, low-res display in the gauge cluster, too — if you’re hoping to get Volkswagen’s excellent Digital Cockpit, you’ll have to buy a Jetta instead. Oh, and have fun cramming your hand into the storage space just ahead of the shifter to plug a cord into the GTI’s single, hard-to-reach USB Type-A outlet.

Earlier, I mentioned the few driver-assistance features that come standard on the Rabbit, but it’s worth noting that several other advanced systems are only limited to the top-end Autobahn. Adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, park distance control, park steering assist and automatic high-beams can only be had on the most expensive, $36,890 GTI.

The Rabbit Edition is the perfect GTI.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

The one to get

I can live without a lot of these features, and I think most of you can, too. In that case, the Rabbit Edition seems like the best buy of the 2019 GTI range, especially considering its sub-$30K price. Would I like a better infotainment experience? Sure. Would I rather have plaid seats? Hell, yes.

Rabbit Edition or not, the seventh-generation GTI is still an absolute delight. Volkswagen’s time-tested hot hatch is as appealing now as it’s ever been, and this Rabbit Edition is an even more charming example. If I had to go out and buy a brand-new car tomorrow, I’d be hard pressed to pick something else.

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