2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI 40th Anniversary: Now 40 and Still Going Strong

Strong points
  • Pleasant driving dynamics
  • Versatile hatchback configuration
  • Generally comfortable
Weak points
  • Issues with the touch-sensitive controls
  • Size of the shift knob
Full report

There comes a time at around 40 when many car enthusiasts feel the urge to take a trip down memory lane by purchasing a classic from the good old days. Baby boomers had their muscle cars, but Gen X members went through a dark period where the auto industry was completely transformed by the 1973 oil crisis and early ‘80s recession. Automobiles back then were smaller, more conservative and more obsessed with fuel economy than their unbridled predecessors from the ‘60s and ‘70s.  

Flash forward to 2023, and what do you know? The Volkswagen Golf GTI is celebrating its 40th anniversary in North America. The sporty hatchback may have debuted here as the Rabbit GTI, but other than the market-specific name, it remained perfectly true to its European counterpart.

People clearly love the idea of combining the simplicity and practicality of a five-door compact with a few performance goodies designed to dial up the fun factor. The 40-year-old Golf GTI continues to exist alongside the more potent Golf R, while the base Golf is sadly no longer part of the lineup. That says a lot about the relationship between Canadians and the German hot hatch.

Photo: Vincent Aubé

40th Anniversary Edition

To mark the four decades of sales in North America (the Euro-spec model is 45), Volkswagen Canada this year launched a Golf GTI 40th Anniversary Edition limited to 500 units including 250 with the six-speed manual transmission and 250 with the excellent seven-speed DSG.

As is customary with special editions, a series of unique touches can be found throughout. GTI fans will immediately notice the “40” decals and honeycomb graphics along the door sills, the latter emulating the front grille motif. Customers have a choice of four exterior colours starting with Oryx White Pearl and Pomelo Yellow Metallic. Urano Grey is unique to the 40th Anniversary Edition as is Tornado Red.

The other telltale sign that this is a special Golf GTI is a set of 19-inch Scottsdale wheels in a gloss black finish with a red line all around the edge. These alloys are wrapped in performance summer tires. Oh, and an illuminated bar on the grille complements the signature GTI red stripe, while the roof and mirror caps are painted in black.

Photo: Vincent Aubé

Inside, it’s pretty much business as usual with Scalepaper Plaid cloth seats in both rows (with a “GTI” logo embroidered on the beautifully supportive front buckets). There’s a “40” badge replacing the “GTI” badge on the superb, flat-bottom steering wheel, plus a golf ball-inspired manual shift knob on the centre console echoing 40 years of GTI fun.

Still the Best?

As the originator of the hot hatch genre, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is forever burdened by the pressure of being the best—kind of like the BMW 3 Series for compact luxury sedans. Of course, many other companies have come up with their own pocket-sized sports car over the years, but most of them ended up quitting as they couldn’t match the success of the German icon. The only direct competitors that remain in 2023 are the Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX and Hyundai Elantra N, but none of them are available in five-door configuration.

What’s made the Golf GTI such an enduring force in the past 15 years is a remarkable blend of driver-pleasing attributes. The suspension is stiff enough to deliver great handling but not so much as to sacrifice ride quality in daily driving conditions. Steering is sharp and not heavy at all, while the shifter is fairly precise. And then there’s straight-line performance, which has never been better thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine producing 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.

Photo: Vincent Aubé

Our tester featured the six-speed manual gearbox, which is slower from 0-100 km/h. On the plus side, it does a better job of capturing the spirit of early GTIs with a light clutch that’s easy to modulate and makes heel-and-toe shifting a breeze. Purists won’t have it any other way, but the optional dual-clutch transmission is certainly nothing to scoff at. The steering wheel, meanwhile, is one of the most pleasant to grab in the entire industry, as was the case with the previous two or three generations.

The appeal of the Golf GTI also comes from being a sleeper. The dual chrome exhaust tips sure pop out in the rear, but the sound they release is not too loud yet quite enjoyable for the ears. Your neighbours won’t get tired of hearing you start the car every time you go for a ride. That being said, a ton of aftermarket retailers will sell you parts to jazz up the exhaust note of your GTI if that’s what you want. To be honest, it would be easy to spend a fortune on performance upgrades, too, but the star from Wolfsburg is more than satisfying straight out of the factory.

Photo: Vincent Aubé

Bottom Line

For sporty driving enthusiasts, the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI—whether in 40th Anniversary trim or not—is arguably one of the most interesting alternatives to the ubiquitous crossovers on the road. In addition to its dynamic nature, there’s generous cargo space to play with, rear seats up or down.

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