When the Volkswagen GTI came to America 35 years ago, it established itself as the standard by which other hot hatches would be measured. Now in its seventh generation, it continues to be the standard, with its fine blend of sportiness and utility.

Volkswagen was never inclined to made radical changes to the GTI, and the 2018 model is no exception. However, the current edition does get several upgrades. All models now have LED running lights, fog lamps and taillights. Rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlamps and a backup camera are also standard across the board. On the down side, the GTI now comes only as a five-door hatch—three-door models have bitten the dust.

Additionally, VW has reduced the GTI model choices to three this year, S, SE and Autobahn. The Sport version has been discontinued. The S captures the basic goodness of the GTI breed without a lot frills, yet it should please many. It comes with plaid seat inserts like GTIs of yore. Plus, the front seats are heated, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.

The popular SE adds more creature comforts, like a sunroof, push-button start and a larger touchscreen. Beyond that, buyers also get advanced safety features, such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. The better-equipped Autobahn tops the lineup with more luxury (leather, navigation, Fender audio) and safety features, like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and a self-parking system.

Viewed in profile, the 2018 GTI looks a lot like its predecessors—upright stance, a wide rear pillar and stylish wheels. However, viewed head-on, the nose is more aggressive in the current generation; the hood has more slope to it, and the signature red stripe is more distinctive. Volkswagen has declined to follow the current fad of installing large open-mouth grilles on their cars.

Inside, the cabin is traditional Volkswagen—clean layout and well-finished. At the center of the dash, a large, user-friendly touchscreen controls audio, phone and navigation functions. Well-contoured sport seats hold the driver and front passenger securely in place. Slightly higher backseats have adequate, if not overly generous, head-and legroom for adults. Cargo space in the rear is a useful 17.4 cubic feet, but it would be great if VW could offer a SportWagon version with even more utility.

A turbocharged 2-0-liter engine is the heart of the GTI. Volkswagen gave it 10 more horsepower this year for a total of 220, yet it still gets 27 mpg. This is a gutsy four-banger with a lusty exhaust note. Buyers get a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. My test car, with the automatic and paddle shifters, was a delight to drive, especially in the manually selectable “Sport” mode. Gear changes were actually faster than I could have made with a stick shift.

Out on the road, the GTI’s handling nicely complements the responsiveness of the turbo engine. The steering is taut and precise, while delivering a good amount of feedback to the driver. The sport-tuned suspension holds the line around fast corners, and instils confidence in the driver. The brakes have plenty of stopping power too, and have no problem bringing you down from speed in a straight line. Yet, at the same time, the ride quality is more than acceptable. It’s firm, to be sure, but it is not jittery, and it smooths out the road bumps very well.

Pricing for the GTI starts at a reasonable $27,265 for the S with manual transmission. The better equipped SE begins at $31,320, and the loaded Autobahn comes in at $35,920. An automatic gearbox adds another $1,100.



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