The Volkswagen GTI is nothing short of an icon. This is the enthusiast’s version of the Golf compact hatchback, one of the best-selling cars in the world. Those special initials (signifying Grand Tourer with fuel Injection) started the whole trend of hot hatchbacks way back in the late 1970s, which certainly took Europe by storm and proved to be an eye-opener for American drivers better acquainted with soft, slow, less-than-agile domestic offerings.
Here was something that provided thrills, practicality, and comfort while still being affordable to buy and affordable to run. There are cars that are quicker and more nimble and some that offer more space and more luxury, but there’s nothing else that brings those attributes into one accessible package. The GTI incorporates front-wheel drive, seating for five (well, 4.5), and plenty of useful cargo space, especially with the rear seats folded down.
For our purposes here, we’ll concentrate on the three generations before the current (seventh) model since these will still provide reliable motoring. And there’s a good chance that most of those for sale will have useful maintenance records, so potential buyers can feel brave enough to take the plunge.
Mark 4 (1999-2006)
The Mark 4 is perhaps the least desirable in this group. Not that it’s a bad car as such: The regular Golf brought a new level of luxury to the world of compact hatchbacks. But luxury and performance don’t always go hand in hand.
Rather confusingly, there were initially two trim sublevels: GLS and GLX. The GLS version started out with 115 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine. One thing that does go with luxury is extra weight, so the senses aren’t really stirred by this meager amount of muscle. It was replaced in the 2000 model year by a turbocharged 1.8-liter producing 150 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque.
The GLX has a 2.8-liter V6 making 174 hp and 173 lb-ft. Before VW got seriously into turbocharged 4-cylinder engines (one of the first major companies to do so), its V6 engines were — and still are — highly regarded. Transmissions, in either case, are a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic that VW calls Tiptronic.
When the 2002 model came along, those GLS and GLX variants were dropped, and the car became a straightforward GTI. The 1.8T engine was boosted to 180 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque; the V6 went from using 12 valves to 24, making 200 hp and 200 lb-ft.
Although the regular Mark 4 Golf came with two or four doors, this GTI is 2-door only. Some models were built in Brazil, incidentally.
Mark 5 (2006.5-2009)
When the Mark 5 arrived, the GTI’s reputation for being a driver’s car was fully restored. Under this model’s hood is a 2.0-liter engine turbocharged to produce 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.
And a new transmission became available as an alternative to the 6-speed manual: the 6-speed DSG (direct-shift gearbox). This is an automated manual that can be set to D and forgotten about until reversing or parking is required. But drivers can also select gears themselves using the centrally mounted lever or using paddles mounted to the steering column in true race-car-driver style. It allows more involvement and really offers the best of both transmission worlds.
The system uses two clutches, an outer and an inner, with even-numbered gears linked to one and odd-numbered gears linked to the other. The upshot is that shifts are supersmooth and superfast, yet the driver only has two pedals to concentrate on: throttle and brake.
This system hasn’t been without its teething troubles. Mostly it’s the mechatronic control unit that needs replacing. Some have been fixed under warranty. Otherwise, it’s around $1,000 for the part.
These GTI models were all built in Germany and came in 2-door form, with 4-door versions starting with the 2007 model year. At the same time, the special DSG-only Fahrenheit version brought Magma Orange paint and an even sportier suspension tune.
Mark 6 (2010-2014)
Based on the same platform as the previous generation, this generation is more of a modernization than a completely new model (which the Mark 7 is). This was when Bluetooth became available, along with better iPod integration, bi-xenon headlights, and touchscreens.
Getting into the nuts and bolts, it’s a different 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine, but the output is similar to the Mark 5: 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.
Much like the Mark 5, this seems like the only car most people will ever need: quick enough (certainly for public roads), big enough for many people, as well as being comfortable and well equipped. For the 2014 model year, 2-door versions were discontinued.
Mark 7 (2015-2021)
A fully redesigned Volkswagen GTI was introduced in North America for the 2015 model year. It retains the GTI’s character of being both practical and a blast to drive. Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine producing 2010 horsepower in the earlier models. An available performance package adds an extra 10 hp. Starting in 2018, the base horsepower rating was bumped up to 220, and the car got a refreshed appearance inside and out.
For 2019, base horsepower was upgraded even further to 228. Another notable change for the 2019 model was the old six-speed automatic transmission being replaced with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard for the whole life cycle of the Mark 7 GTI.
If you want a two-door Mark 7 GTI, you’ll be limited to the 2015-2016 model years. Starting in 2017, it was four-door-only.
The Mark 7 GTI has been around long enough that you can get one for a very attractive price on the used market. Early examples can be had around the $15,000 mark, which is a ton of hot hatch bang for the buck.
Which Volkswagen GTI is Right for Me?
The Mark 7 GTI has been around long enough that you can get one for a very attractive price on the used market. Early examples can be had around the $15,000 mark, which is a ton of hot hatch bang for the buck. If you’re working with a four-digit budget, then a Mark 6 GTI for under $10,000 is also an excellent buy. No matter which generation or trim level you go with, we can guarantee that you’ll never get bored behind the wheel of a GTI. Find a Volkswagen GTI for sale