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2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI - Germany's Premier Hot Hatch Finally Reaches Maturity

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What are you looking for in a sporty hatchback? The ability to win drag races from stoplight to stoplight? Handling that can make short work of the back roads on the way home from the office? Look-at-me styling that will shame the neighbour’s more sedate daily driver? A practical body style that doesn’t get in the way of weekend fun?

There are as many different answers to these questions as there are drivers, and there exists no shortage of automakers eager to convince you that their particular compact performance car is the best possible option for satisfying your latent hooligan desires. There is one brand out there, however, that attempts to be all things to all people, incorporating many of the best elements of the hot hatch equation into a single model: the 2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI. While the Golf GTI has long been one of the class leaders when it comes to fun compact cars, its design philosophy is bound to introduce compromises. No one is questioning the iconic car’s strengths – the real issue is, how many drivers are willing to accept what must now finally be labelled as its ‘weaknesses’ alongside of them.

Elegant Sheet Metal, Top-Notch Interior
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI, which can be had in both three-door and five-door configurations, is perhaps the most casually understated vehicle in its class. The Golf GTI’s rounded good looks don’t scream ‘speed demon,’ but features like the active HID headlights, 18-inch rims, and LED daytime running lights found in our fully-loaded five-door tester indicate to the casual observer that this hatchback is far more than a run-of-the-mill grocery getter.

This impression continues from behind the wheel, where the vehicle’s heated leather seats, touchscreen entertainment and navigation interface, and impressively-trimmed passenger compartment impress upon drivers that they are not about to hit the ignition button on a small car that’s simply had a big engine shoehorned under the hood. Instead the GTI comes across as the full expression of a passionate driving concept, one where no aspect of the ownership experience has been taken for granted.

Buttoned Down German Ride
The Teutonic design philosophy guiding the Volkswagen Golf GTI experience isn’t just aesthetic, but also visceral. The hatchback shrinks around the driver and allows them to point and shoot the plucky compact without having to worry about upsetting its comfortable, yet performance-tuned suspension system. The GTI’s front wheels might be responsible for pulling the car forward, but handling is remarkably neutral and steering is communicative to a degree not often found in an affordable compact car.

Our test vehicle was outfitted with VW’s DSG automated manual transmission, which makes use of dual clutches to deliver split-second shifts by way of paddles mounted on the steering wheel. It’s also possible to leave the transmission in automatic mode and brave bumper-to-bumper traffic without wearing out one’s clutch foot. The DSG system works exceptionally well when driving in a spirited manner, but we were occasionally frustrated by a lack of response from the automatic setting at more sedate speeds. This issue was particularly glaring given the Golf GTI’s position as a sporty model.

Falling Behind In The Horsepower Race
The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine provided with the GTI makes use of a turbocharger to produce 200 horsepower and 207 lb-t of torque. There was once a time when these numbers would have placed the Volkswagen at the apex of compact performance, but the advent of competitors from Ford, Subaru, and Mazda that produce significantly more power at a similar price finds the Golf GTI on the outside looking in when it comes to acceleration. The VW takes just a tick under seven seconds to hit 100 km/h from a standing start, but a broad torque band and complete lack of turbo lag give the GTI’s 2.0-litre mill a very pleasing character in almost all driving situations regardless of its lack of track-day dominance.

Indeed, when evaluating the performance of the Volkswagen Golf GTI it is necessary to move beyond the spec sheet and take into account the complete package. There are quicker compact hatchbacks, but there are not many which can match the level of refinement and confidence inspired by the GTI’s calm and collected personality when being pushed near its limits.

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
Even the most unruly wild child eventually comes of age, and for the 2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI it would appear that maturity has arrived with its current generation. Quantifying intangibles is a difficult task, but for those drivers who are willing to take a hit in the horsepower department in order to embrace an automobile which is equally at home tearing through twisty rural roads as it is comfortably commuting to work in the morning, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is an excellent option.

With maturity comes a willingness to compromise, and the Golf GTI represents a more adult-oriented take on the hot hatch segment than any other contender. Are you willing to forgo certain creature comforts in exchange for the ability to smoke any other compact car in the quarter mile? Or would you rather get behind the wheel of a more complete automobile that makes allowances for the realities of the daily grind while still providing enough fun to cut loose on the way home from work? The Volkswagen Golf GTI never used to ask buyers to make this choice, but in 2012 the playing field is different, and so is the German car’s place in the pantheon of performance options.

Evaluation

Test model 2012 Volkswagen Golf
Trim level GTI 5 Door (Auto.)
Price range $19,975 - $39,675
Price as tested $36,085
Warranty (basic) 4 years / 80,000 km
Warranty (powertrain) 5 years / 100,000 km
Fuel economy (city/highway/observed) 8.7 / 6.3 / N/A l/100km
Options N/A
Competitive models Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Kia Forte, Mazda Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki SX4, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix
Strong points
  • Excellent interior fit and finish
  • High end feel from an affordable car
  • Broad turbocharged power band
  • Tight, communicative feel from behind the wheel
  • Understated attractive styling
  • DSG transmission ultra-quick gear changes
Weak points
  • Not as fast as similarly-priced competitors
  • DSG transmission occasionally unresponsive when left in Drive
  • Small sunroof best left off the order sheet

Editor's rating

Fuel consumption 4.0/5 The Volkswagen Golf GTI isn't a miser, but nor is it thirsty at the pump.
Value for price 4.0/5 It's not cheap to outfit the GTI with all the bells and whistles.
Styling 4.5/5 The GTI is the ultimate expression of the Golf design.
Comfort 4.5/5 The GTI is smoother to drive, and offers a well-executed interior, compared to many of its rivals.
Performance 3.5/5 The Golf GTI is quick, but not fast. Handling and composure stand out above pure acceleration.
Overall 4.0/5 No longer the king of the hot hatch hill, the Golf GTI still has a lot to offer buyers seeking a well-rounded compact performance car.
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