I needed a family car, but one that I could enjoy. A hot hatch seemed like the right answer. After some time with my new 2022 VW GTI, I can confirm it was.
After a long and drawn-out nightmare of a car buying process, which started with buying a sight-unseen Porsche Cayenne GTS across the country that ended up becoming the bane of my financial existence, I decided to get over my desire to own a beater and buy a respectable car to haul my kids and dog.
Though I didn’t lose money on the Porsche, I lost a ton of time, so I wasn’t in the mood for an extended search. A few hours later, I’d found my car — and without a markup, no less. That weekend, I drove home a new 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE with a DSG and leather upholstery package.
I am now a hatchback owner, for better or worse, but I’m confident this car will meet my family’s needs without too much hassle. The idea with a hatchback — hot or otherwise — is that it will offer a car-like driving experience with reasonable handling and fuel economy, while also swallowing up much larger chunks of cargo and gear than looks possible.
The hot hatchback, a name that the GTI pioneered, takes things a little further for people like me, who need the utility of a hatchback but who want at least a few thrills to go with the experience.
The Golf and its performance variants are the quintessential hatchbacks. It’s the one most people in the US think of when the word is uttered. And though it’s far from ubiquitous, the VW is one of this nation’s longest-running hatchbacks. Volkswagen thinned the Golf line in the US for 2022, leaving only the high-performance GTI and Golf R on sale.
Golf R Out of Reach
When I set out, my goal was simple: Lease a blue 2022 Golf R with a six-speed manual transmission. I was unprepared for what I found, even after having written about vehicle shortages and markups seemingly endlessly over the last couple of years.
The closest Golf R was 5 hours away from me, which I’d have happily driven, but the advertised price was not what I found when I contacted the dealer. The $46,000 Golf R had a $10,000 markup, and a nearly $60,000 Volkswagen Golf isn’t on the list of things I’m OK with.
I settled for a Golf GTI SE with the optional leather package, which I found for MSRP. Since my commute is short and I spend plenty of time testing other cars, I opted for a lease with a 10,000-mile annual limit.
The GTI is a car I have plenty of experience with, having tested two previous models and having spent plenty of time in standard golf models.
Family Car Shopping
I won’t tell you that an SUV isn’t more convenient in many situations, or that you can turn in your minivan for a GTI to haul your family of six. There are limits, and for a small car like the Golf, they’re not that hard to find with a family.
Sure, it seats five, but four people are a lot more comfortable. It’s also about as practical as a compact SUV with the rear seats folded down, but how many people with kids can afford to do that on a regular basis?
I’m not trying to sell you on the idea of the Golf, or any compact car For that matter, as a viable SUV replacement in all situations, but I will try to convince you that a car like the GTI will more than get the job done if you give it the chance.
2022 VW GTI Review
The GTI’s powertrain is what most attracted me to the car — and is what makes the compromises that come with owning a hatchback more palatable for me. The turbocharged 2.0 L produces 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
With a curb weight of just over 3,000 pounds and not a lot of unnecessary sheet metal to carry around, the car feels quick. Just as quick, in fact, as its on-paper specs suggest. The roundabout 6-second 0-60 mph time doesn’t do the car justice. There is enough noise and drama to give the GTI a more violent feel than expected.
Power is sent to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
I was in search of a Golf R with a manual transmission, but the severe supply chain shortage and lack of available cars for sale meant that I ended up in a GTI with the seven-speed DSG. Driving engagement and feel are the primary reasons to choose the manual because it provides no practical benefits to the car’s performance. The DSG delivers faster shifts and quicker acceleration, but the manual gearbox provides a better feel and more driver engagement.
The car gets a limited-slip differential and brake-based torque that make it an absolute riot to drive in most situations.
My midrange SE-trimmed car does not have the adaptive suspension that the top Autobahn trim brings, but ride quality is manageable and remains comfortable over a variety of rough road surfaces.
People & Gear Hauler
Space is decent for what this car is. Front headroom measures 38.5 inches and legroom at 41.2 inches. Rear headroom lands at 38.1 inches and legroom at 35 inches. That’s around what you get in the new Corolla sedan and way more backseat space than the Corolla hatch. Whether the car will meet your needs is hard to say, but for us, it works well in most situations.
My daily “commute,” if you can call it that, involves taking my 5- and 9-year-old daughters to school and dropping off our puppy at training 3 days a week. Both kids now weigh enough to ride in booster seats instead of rear-facing seats, which frees up considerable car room in the back seat.
Still, the puppy has to ride in his booster seat up front because it’s too wide to squeeze in between the boosters. To be fair, this is a problem in our much larger 2021 Volvo XC90 As well, so I don’t blame the GTI.
With this arrangement, however, there’s no room for the second adult in our family to ride, so the VW is limited to use during times when only one of us comes along.
The cargo space is surprisingly deep, but not tall enough to carry large items such as tall suitcases. Pets can ride in the back, as long as they’re able to lie down and avoid the low ceiling. You’ll also need to remove the included cargo cover to carry taller items that extend above the rear seat height.
Tech & Safety
I drove the new GTI early on and had mixed emotions about its tech. The standard displays are gorgeous and offer great visibility, but VW’s infotainment interface can be laggy and not all that intuitive at times. When starting the car, it can take quite some time for the climate menu and other settings to become available, and the system shows a frustrating “function unavailable” message when it’s overwhelmed.
After using it for a few months, the GTI’s slow tech interface still bugs me. There’s no reason that any person should have to wait to change climate settings or adjust the stereo volume after the car has been started.
Finally, it’s hard to accept touch controls in place of the physical audio and vehicle controls we’ve had for decades. Reinventing a volume knob is great, but when the new design is remarkably worse than the original, it’s time to reevaluate.
Right Choice for Me, But …
So, all of that said, would I make the purchase again? The answer is yes, though I really wish I’d held out for a Golf R at MSRP. The GTI is great and does all the things I need it to, but nearly 60 extra horsepower and all-wheel drive would make this car a real beast.
We haven’t hit the period of time where my kids are asking to have friends over and attend various activities, so I’m not worried that I need extra space just yet. Again, we have an XC90 for that, for now.
This experience has shown me that smaller cars are not only usable as family transports, but that their engaging driving experience and handling may actually make them preferable to a larger vehicle like a crossover or SUV.