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2012 Volkswagen GTI Road Test and Review

The Original Sports Compact

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
September 14, 2012
7 min. Reading Time

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI is somewhat of an elder statesmen in the compact performance crowd, and like many long-serving politicians it has come to represent an almost unassailable collection of qualities, legends, and lore surrounding its capabilities and position in the hot hatch food chain.  Over the course of the past few years, a greater number of car companies have elected to build their own take on the affordable, fun-to-drive compact car concept, which means that the Volkswagen GTI has seen its mandate threatened by a wide range of would-be challengers.

Resting on one’s laurels only works in a world where competition is scarce.  The Volkswagen GTI’s package is certainly compelling, but on paper it’s starting to seem a bit quaint when stacked up against the gaudier specs posted by some of its new rivals.  Can the GTI’s intangibles carry the day, or is its time at the top of the performance hatchback segment nearly finished?

2012 Volkswagen GTI: Competition

As hinted at above, there are no lack of competitors for the attentions of would-be 2012 Volkswagen GTI buyers.  What’s more, many of these automobiles are riding on newer platforms that integrate a higher standard of technology, both under the hood and in the cabin.  Notable turbocharged rivals include the soon-to-be-released Ford Focus ST and the compelling Mazda MAZDASPEED3, each of which feature significantly more horsepower than the GTI while remaining in the same pricing ball park.  The Subaru Impreza WRX brings all-wheel drive into the equation, while the MINI Cooper S introduces styling that some might say trumps even the graceful lines of the VW.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Pricing and Trim Levels

The two-door edition of the 2012 Volkswagen GTI starts out with a MSRP of $23,995.  Grafting an extra pair of doors to the hatchback means adding $1,000 to the bottom line.  The GTI doesn’t come in trim levels so much as options packages, with buyers able to install combinations such as a premium sound system and sunroof, or a sunroof and a navigation system.  Each of these packages also bring with them a few additional touches such as different wheels or interior trim updates, and the two-door and four-door models are not necessarily similar in terms of content even when ordered with the same package.  A top-tier Autobahn edition of the GTI installs every available option and tops out at $30,595 for the four-door.

Our test vehicle was a Canadian-market four-door Volkswagen Golf GTI, which comes in a single, extensively equipped trim level.  Including the full load of options outfitted to the automobile we drove for a week, the pricing would match the MSRP of the GTI Autobahn.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Exterior

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI is a handsome hatchback that prefers to draw attention to itself via its strong details rather than through the inclusion of a flashy body kit or presence of a large rear spoiler.  Detail is in fact the name of the game for the 2012 edition of the GTI, which gains LED running lights up front and not a whole lot else to differentiate it from last year’s model.  This is perfectly acceptable, given that it would be difficult to improve on the youthful yet refined styling that defines the VW GTI as the most mature of the current crop of hot hatches.  In fact, perhaps the only bit of ‘wow’ factor engineered into the GTI’s exterior appearance is the behavior of its bi-xenon HID headlights when the ignition is fired, as they demonstrate their ability to adapt to the road ahead and turn with the steering wheel by doing a quick up-and-down dance on startup.

Swept and rounded headlights, attractive 18-inch rims, an implementation of Volkwagen’s corporate grille that doesn’t dominate that vehicle’s front end as much as on some of the brand’s other models, and an simple-to-open hatch are strong points for this very clean-looking compact car.  It’s even possible to ignore the fact that one is driving a practical, four-door hatchback, as the pair of door handles on each side of the vehicle can be easily glossed over when casting an eye along its uncomplicated sides.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Interior

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI’s passenger compartment is a continuation of the understatement expressed by its exterior styling.  The dashboard is uncomplicated by gauge pods or faux-carbon fiber inserts, instead presenting a smooth surface swathed in soft-touch materials that are similar to those used on the door panels and arm rests.  The GTI’s well-bolstered sport seats were upholstered in leather, and as on the steering wheel, red cross-stitching further refined their presentation.  It also didn’t hurt that the thread color matched that of our test vehicle’s brilliant red paint job.  The speedometer and tachometer were easy to read at a glance, and the upgraded touchscreen stereo and navigation interface were also logically laid out – with the exception of the splitting of Bluetooth phone management features between the main LCD and the small driver display that we have noted in other VW reviews.

Interior space was good for its class, as those riding in the rear of the Volkswagen GTI will find head and legroom more than acceptable.  Storage space was also adequate for hauling luggage, groceries, or enormous bags of kitty litter, as required, and additional cargo volume was available with the back row folded forward.

There’s no question that the Volkswagen GTI features a well-executed interior, which is one of its strongest points when compared against less carefully turned out rivals.  That being said, we did have a few issues with a few of the vehicle’s features.  Aside from a minor gripe with the car’s chintzy ‘golf ball’ shifter (a piece of trim whose cheapness stands in stark relief against the rest of the cabin’s style), the biggest problem had to do with the previously-mentioned navigation and entertainment system.  The stereo required at least 20 to 30 seconds to come online each time the vehicle was started, which meant no tunes and staring at an initialization screen for the first part of every drive.  Even more puzzling was the similar delay when switching between satellite or terrestrial radio and the GTI’s auxiliary input.  In a world where even complicated navigation systems can activate in the blink of an eye, this level of hesitation from a simple sound system is puzzling.

We were also disappointed with the body flex displayed by the GTI when traversing from an incline to a flat plane.  Even at slow speeds, it was possible to hear the car creak and stretch – as well as the windows move in their tracks - as the chassis moved from steep hill to level road.  Our suspicion was that this surprising characteristic had to do with our Volkswagen’s optional moonroof, which might reduce rigidity to the point where we noticed the sounds of an old hardwood floor intruding into our cockpit zen.  If this is the case, then we recommend skipping the open roof entirely, as its small size doesn’t justify its cost or potential impact on performance.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Powertrain and Fuel Economy

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI features a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that generates a healthy 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque.  Buyers can choose between either a six-speed manual transmission, or a six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual that VW calls ‘DSG.’  Fuel mileage for the latter gearbox – which was what sampled during our week with the Volkswagen GTI – is rated at 24-mpg in stop and go driving and 33-mpg on the highway.  We were able to stay within these boundaries and post very similar efficiency numbers, despite driving the car hard.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Driving Impressions

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI does an excellent job of making the driver feel that they are piloting a much more upscale car.  The GTI’s steering feels perfectly weighted, there is no turbo lag or torque steer to speak of from this front-wheel drive car when the throttle is pinned to the floor, and the hatchback’s suspension obediently absorbs broken pavement without upsetting the vehicle’s angle of attack.  The overall result of the VW GTI’s harmony of features is the sensation of being ensconced in a leather-lined, turbocharged glove that can be confidently pointed in almost any direction without worrying about pushing the car past its comfort zone.  This also happens to make it an excellent commuter for anyone who wants to be able to park at work in the morning without having had their kidneys rattled to pieces on the drive in.

The DSG automated manual transmission in particular is perfectly matched to the powerband and characteristics of the 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine found under the hood of the Volkswagen GTI.  The transmission’s ability to consistently snap off incredibly fast gear changes, even while blipping the throttle during downshifts, was delightful when using the vehicle’s steering wheel mounted shift paddles.  The option to grab a gear at any time with a simple finger twitch was very helpful when preparing for a particularly challenging corner, and it also made slowing down for a stoplight more fun than it really should be.

When left in either Drive or Sport mode, however, we have a bit of a bone to pick with the DSG transmission’s programming.  While cruising along city streets at a constant speed the gearbox was not quick to respond to requests from the right foot for immediate acceleration unless they were communicated with a swift quick instead of a more reasonable tip-in.  This sensation of laziness was also sometimes encountered off the line, when a pedal stomp seemed to confuse the DSG unit into a half-second of paralysis before forward motion was initiated.  While this type of behavior is excusable on some of the more sedate VW models that make use of the DSG transmission, on a performance –oriented vehicle like the GTI it’s a definite disappointment.

The lack of torque steer discussed in the first paragraph of this section also speaks to another area of concern for Volkswagen’s sporty compact car: an alarming power gap between the current GTI and its increasingly more hairy-chested competitors.  Like the Honda Civic Si, the GTI’s power plant hails from a time when 200 ponies in a small platform was a hot ticket.  These days, turbocharged four-cylinder engines from Ford, Mazda, and Subaru are putting out at least 50 more horses than what is offered with the VW hatchback, and from an acceleration perspective this difference cannot be ignored.  The GTI is quick, but not fast, and in a segment where speed is king this is a liability that Volkswagen will need to address with the upcoming next generation edition of the car.  The hatch’s brakes were also not quite as impressive as they should have been, leading drivers to question on more than one occasion as to whether a complete halt would be achieved in the distance that had been allotted by the traffic around them.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI comes with electronic stability control, a ‘Cross Differential System’ (which is VW’s terms for its electronic limited-slip front differential technology), electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes.  Forward dual-stage airbags, seat-mounted side impact airbags for front passengers, and dual curtain airbags that deploy along both sides of the passenger compartment in the event of a severe accident are also included with the hatchback.


2012 Volkswagen GTI: Final Thoughts

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI is a vehicle that is facing a moment of existential self-reflection: what does it really want to be?  Is it destined to evolve into more of a compact GT car rather than a true small sporty ride, or is its current lack of competitive fire from a numbers perspective simply the result of neglect brought on by the hubris of assuming that the GTI formula will be enough to continue to attract customers regardless of its actual real world credentials?

What manages to pull the Volkswagen GTI through its disappointing quarter mile and 0-60-mph times is the engineering expertise that has gone into disguising the fact that the 3,000 lb German is no longer the king of the compact performance hill.  Specifically, the vehicle’s tight suspension system is not just a solid performer at speed, but it also does an excellent job of coddling occupants when simply commuting to and from work.  Combined with its generous creature comforts and elegant interior, the GTI is the dual-purpose hatch that can legitimately claim to be a practical daily driver with a bit of a wild streak.  For many drivers, this balance and refinement is what draws them to the model.  For others, the lack of a ‘speed-first’ philosophy is what sends them to seek out woollier competitors like the MAZDASPEED3.

What We Like About The 2012 Volkswagen GTI

  • Elegant and purposeful exterior styling
  • Perhaps the best interior in its class in terms of quality and ergonomics
  • DSG transmission’s fast shifts, versatile manual/automatic operation
  • Well-planted and comfortable ride, at any speed
  • No turbo lag whatsoever from the four-cylinder engine

We Aren't So Hot On

  • Middling performance when compared against similarly-price rivals
  • Chassis flex
  • Sub-par braking
  • DSG transmission’s occasional waffling in automatic mode
  • Extremely long sound / navigation system boot times

Volkswagen provided the vehicle for the road test.

Photos by Benjamin Hunting.



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