By Derek Price
It’s tough to update an iconic car. Change too much, and purists will balk. Change too little, and new buyers won’t flock in.
Volkswagen does a good job balancing that tightrope with the new-for-2022 Golf GTI.
Now that the Beetle is no longer sold, the GTI is VW’s most legendary nameplate. This is a car that singlehandedly invented the “hot hatch” category decades ago by offering a boost in speed and Autobahn-friendly handling tweaks in a small, affordable, practical hatchback.
Interestingly, the car on which it’s based — the lowly but lovable Golf — is no longer sold in the United States. The GTI and its even faster sibling, the Golf R, are the only models remaining for enthusiasts to enjoy.
In a lot of ways, the all-new GTI is easily recognizable to people who know the old one.
It still has the same boxy shape it’s had since the 1970s, just massaged to look a tad smoother for contemporary eyes. The dimensions are longer, wider and lower, exactly as they should be for a sporty car, while it rides on the same 103.6-inch wheelbase as before.
It also has the same subtle red exterior accents and deliciously quirky plaid cloth seats that always seem in style on this car.
And just like the old GTIs, the new one is remarkably practical for a small car.
You can fold the back seat down to leave a perfectly flat loading floor for 34.5 cubic feet of cargo, which is more than you get in Volkswagen’s Tiguan SUV with the back seat folded down.
It’s also rated for a budget-friendly 34 mpg on the highway and comes with lots of safety features, including six airbags.
So yes, it’s a responsible car, even if it doesn’t feel like one from the driver’s seat.
That brings us to the very best thing about the GTI, both new and old: the way it drives.
This fresh 2022 version is the best handling GTI yet, feeling refined and quiet for ordinary driving but going absolutely bananas when you push it hard.
The fun starts with a powerful engine. VW updated the outgoing GTI’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder to make even more oomph. It generates 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, and it feels phenomenal in the small, light, stiff Golf chassis.
You can order your GTI with fancy adaptive damping on the Autobahn model, but I’m not sure that’s needed considering how well my cheaper SE tester handles. It’s one of the best handling small cars I’ve ever driven, with perfectly weighted steering and a suspension that seems to come alive when you fling it through corners. It feels as crisp as fresh-cut broccoli.
One thing I’m not a fan of is the new interior design. It has cheap feeling hard plastics in too many places — including a flimsy spot right in the middle of the dash — and tiny haptic-touch controls for every function. Things that should be simple and intuitive, like changing the sound system volume or adjusting the temperature, are more tedious than they should be.
Fortunately, Volkswagen redeems itself by getting something even more important right. It’s available with a manual transmission, a rarity these days even on many enthusiast cars like this one.
Pricing for the new GTI starts at $29,880 with the manual transmission or $30,680 with an automatic, the perfect choice for heretics.
The Autobahn tops the lineup at $38,330, which is high enough to make the wild Golf R’s $44,090 price seem like a no-brainer upgrade.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0T SE ($35,095). Options: Premium paint ($395). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $36,485
Wheelbase: 103.6 in.
Length: 168.8 in.
Width: 70.4 in.
Height: 57.6 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (241 hp, 273 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 25 city, 34 highway
Why buy it?
It offers a lot of new features and a more modern cabin for people who already know and love the GTI. It’s one of the best handling front-wheel-drive cars for sale today.