Pros: Spirited turbocharged engine; refined ride; nimble handling; upscale interior; adult-friendly back seat; good fuel economy for this class

Cons: Not a hard-core performance car like some rivals

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI is a hot hatch for people who consider hot hatches a bit over the top. The original GTI was arguably the original hot hatch in the early 1980s, so Volkswagen knows this category well. But in the decades since, brash accessories like hood vents and rear wings have become all the rage. Apparently a lot of hot-hatch drivers feel the need to flaunt their cars' amped-up capabilities. However, some folks still prefer to be discreet, and they're usually the ones who end up driving GTIs.

The GTI has the great advantage of beginning life as a Volkswagen Golf, which is already a cut above most compacts thanks to its sophisticated driving dynamics and premium cabin. The GTI treatment includes bigger wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, VW's excellent turbocharged 2.0T engine and standard plaid upholstery that harks back to the original GTI. To the casual observer, the GTI just looks like a well-dressed Golf. If you want people to understand the difference, you'll have to tell them the GTI story.

The GTI can be faulted only for its middling acceleration and handling relative to other hot hatches. If you want to keep up with big-turbo bruisers like the Mazdaspeed3 and the Subaru WRX on a racetrack, the GTI won't cut it. Perhaps you're thinking, "Who takes their car to the racetrack, anyway?" If so, get yourself to the nearest Volkswagen dealer; the well-rounded 2012 Volkswagen GTI is almost certainly the hot hatch for you.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI hatchback comes with two or four doors and in base trim or with a few option packages.

The base GTI features 18-inch alloy wheels, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories (including auto up/down power windows), a trip computer, plaid cloth upholstery, sport front seats with height and lumbar adjustments for both driver and passenger, Bluetooth connectivity and an eight-speaker audio system with satellite radio, iPod integration and an auxiliary input.

The GTI with Convenience and Sunroof adds, yes, a sunroof, plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a touchscreen audio interface with a six-CD changer, SD card compatibility and satellite radio.

The GTI with Sunroof and Navigation adds, you guessed it, an SD-based navigation system with a five-inch display. This package also includes xenon headlights with LED accents.

Finally, the Autobahn package tacks on different 18-inch alloy wheels, black leather upholstery, keyless entry with push-button ignition and a 300-watt Dynaudio sound system.

The GTI's interior is largely familiar from the regular Golf, but there are some notable differences, starting with the front sport seats, which provide far better lateral support in corners. Both seats also feature manual height and lumbar adjustments, an unusual perk. The standard plaid upholstery is a distinctive GTI touch that emphasizes this car's sophistication compared with other hot hatches.

As in the Golf, the firm seat cushions provide great long-distance comfort, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel helps drivers of all sizes find an agreeable position. The GTI also shares the Golf's attractive analog gauges and top-quality materials. For what it's worth, the GTI outdoes the Jetta-based GLI sedan in this respect. The GLI has a soft-touch dashboard but keeps the basic Jetta's cheap door panels.

Rear passengers will be amazed by how well they fit in the pint-size GTI. Although legroom is technically limited, the high rear bench provides good thigh support while minimizing the amount of space required. A six-foot passenger can sit behind a six-foot driver without much difficulty. Thanks to the car's breadbox-shaped cabin, headroom is virtually as generous in back as it is in front. Europeans consider the Golf/GTI a bona fide family vehicle, and we don't blame them.

Cargo capacity measures just 15.2 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks, but that figure shoots up to an impressive 46.0 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded.

Technology

Although the base Golf lacks some basic technology features, the GTI comes standard with all the technology most drivers care about. You get standard iPod and Bluetooth connectivity along with satellite radio and even an auxiliary audio input. Pricier GTIs offer an intuitive touch screen audio system that includes an SD card slot, although a USB port is unavailable. There's also an optional navigation system, but being SD based, it doesn't feature hard drive music storage, and it drives the price up to nearly $28,000. It's too bad that keyless entry and ignition and the satisfying Dynaudio sound system are limited to the even more expensive Autobahn model; we'd like to be able to add those features to the base GTI.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive GTI is powered by VW's 2.0T engine, a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. The transmission options are a six-speed manual and a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual, with the latter featuring shift paddles. Go ahead and obsess over acceleration times if you want-to give you an idea, 0 to 60 mph takes about seven seconds-but know that they're just one piece of the puzzle. It's true that you can get a lot more speed for your money, but the 2.0T's flexibility and refinement across the rev range make it a pleasure to control. It even sounds great thanks to a special intake design that pipes fruity engine noises into the cabin. Both transmissions are gems-the stick shift for its extreme user-friendliness and the dual-clutch automatic for its ultra-quick yet smooth and precise gear changes.

Fuel economy is quite good for this kind of car. The GTI gets an EPA-rated 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway with the manual and 24/33 mpg with the automatic.

Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen GTI comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, and full-length side curtain).

The GTI hasn't been crash tested, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the four-door regular Golf its highest rating of Good in every crash test category.

Driving Impressions

The GTI is a pretty small car, but it only drives like one when you're carving your way through tight corners. Otherwise, you get a sense of substance and composure from behind the wheel that's basically unrivaled in this class. The GTI loves high-speed cruising, and its subdued noise levels and exceptionally supple ride make it a perfect pick for long trips. No other hot hatch is nearly this civilized. Indeed, we see the GTI as a strong rival to the mechanically similar Audi A3 and even to entry-level sport sedans like the BMW 328i and the Mercedes-Benz C250.

Other Cars to Consider

Mazdaspeed3 - The Mazda definitely has more boy-racer genes than the GTI, but it also has 263 horsepower under the hood, and its handling is sharper than the VW's.

Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart SportBack - The Ralliart is only available with a dual-clutch automatic, but if that's what you're looking for, this powerful all-wheel-drive Mitsu is worth a try.

Subaru WRX - The WRX still uses the old Impreza as its foundation, so the 2012 Impreza's numerous refinements aren't included, but you still get excellent power and all-wheel-drive traction.

AutoTrader Recommends

We hear the siren song of the Dynaudio system, but we couldn't bring ourselves to pay $30,000 for a GTI. Much of the car's appeal lies in its affordable starting price, and even the base model gets the cool 18-inch wheels. So our choice would be the entry-level GTI with the manual transmission, although we'd make ours the four-door to ease rear access. At less than $25,000, this configuration is an outright bargain.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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