Review update: The 2020 Volkswagen GTI's swan song hits all the right notes

April 10, 2020

One of the top five cars I drove last year was almost as old as I am. 

I found it in an oceanside parking lot, next to a row of ancient Volkswagens. It fired up with a fitful sputter and found first with less confidence than an American League pitcher at-bat. Once the car was alive, I never wanted the drive to end. 

The 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI is the archetype for budget bliss behind the wheel and to be clear, an automotive legend. I love that car and foolishly dared to lick a New York subway turnstile to buy one for less than $10,000. To just drive one again, I wouldn’t lick a turnstile (not now) but would consider similar stupid acts with less saliva involved. 

To be fair, the 2020 VW GTI is on the Rabbit GTI’s family tree but related like Thomas Jefferson is to Jefferson Airplane—really, name only. I didn’t expect the same life-affirming drive but hoped for a smile or more.

With an overhauled GTI on the way next year, I gave one last drive to the 2020 GTI. The 2020 Golf earned a 6.7 TCC Rating, based largely on the GTI. We noted the hatchback’s eager performance, good features and warranty, and usability.  

Here’s what I found in the GTI without licking anything in it. At least as far as I’m willing to admit.

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hit: Original plaid performance

For everything that’s changed about the GTI, one thing has carried on in nearly 40 years—a chunky, free-revving inline-4. The 2020 GTI gets a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that churns out 228 horsepower at 4,700 rpm but wringing it out beyond that is far more satisfying. Once the tach needle swings past high noon, the GTI’s turbo comes on full song until 6,000 rpm. The 2020 GTI is a joy to drive and it’s more engaging than anything else VW sells. Although the Golf R was a better performer, the GTI has been more approachable and lift-off oversteer is terrifyingly underrated and also great. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Miss: Affordable fun cars

The 2020 Golf GTI 2.0T Autobahn I drove had no options added and cost $37,415, including mandatory destination charges. Inflation-adjusted, that would be $14,402 in 1983 money. The Rabbit GTI’s original price was almost half that: $7,990. I did not become a journalist because I was good at numbers but even I can see that’s tough math.  

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hit: Holy shift

The GTI’s 6-speed shifter is short, positive, and engaging. Its toebox and pedal position beg to heel-toe around everything and its clutch is perfect. The golf ball shifter is classic, and those are just the notes that I made after the first 15 miles behind the wheel. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hit: No digital instruments

VW’s 12.3-inch digital display is crisp and informative and, aside from a few readouts placed in odd locations, proof of better living through technology. I believe that, and you should too. However, the GTI skips that (for now) and it’s better. The dials and gauges in the GTI look like they’d belong on a Swiss watch. The movement is precise and the needles are just too good to let go. VW has downmarket gauges fitted in some cars that look like they exist to entice buyers to step up to a digital cluster. The GTI’s cluster is sharp, and I hope it continues. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Miss: Cut that suspension with a little water, will ya?

Fitted with adaptive dampers, the GTI toggles between firm and firmer suspension settings. While it’s mostly livable in either setting, the GTI’s stiffer ride could be tiresome in cities without generous roadworks budgets and/or inclement weather, which *checks notes* is every major U.S. city. 

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hit: Reach out and touch a screen

VW’s touchscreen is a breeze and the GTI’s version is exceptionally good. (Not all VW cars get the same treatment.) The 8.0-inch screen is sharp and quick, and toggles between audio controls and performance controls seamlessly. The GTI’s Fender audio system is an exceptional partner to the touchscreen and near-aural bliss. It’s a close second to the GTI’s turbos huffing in Sport mode, to be honest.

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2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0T Autobahn

Base price: $37,415, including destination

Price as tested: $37,415

Drivetrain: 228-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4, 6-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 24/32/27 mpg

The hits: Great powertrain, positive manual transmission, good infotainment

The misses: Pricey, a little stiff, almost gone

2021
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