For small cars with limited versatility, the so-called “hot hatches” attract an inordinate amount of attention because of their sporty pedigrees, mass market roots, and the fact they are seen as an authentic link to the motor industry’s historic past as defined on sun drenched back roads preferably in England or Italy.
While Ford has dropped out of the segment in pursuit of bigger profit margins elsewhere, Honda, Mazda, Volkswagen, BMW’s Mini brand, and Toyota all maintain entries, which generate the buzz around the segment in the press and even on the track or other racing circuits with their high-revving engines.
One of the most sophisticated hot hatches around today comes from Volkswagen. For a car that is seemingly a throwback to another age, the 2023 Golf GTI SE comes with a sophisticated package of connectivity and driver assistance features as well as a touch screen and digital instrumentation.
But it also has the requisite 6-speed manual transmission and dual-tipped exhaust system as well as fifth door, which seem, for now at least, seem to define the segment.
The defining visual characteristic of the Golf GTI is that it seems to sit on the ground with little ground clearance or step-in height. The low ground clearance reduces the height of the vehicle and softens the boxy characteristics inherent in five-door shape.
The boxy shape is also softened by the short hood and round roof, which drops down into the simply styled rear hatch. The design is dressed up by distinctive wheels, special GTI bumpers and a grille with a light bar and chromed dual exhausts as well as slick sheet metal. The VW insignia is also easily visible on the front of the vehicle.
The Golf’s cabin is compact with small rear seat and a bit more space for the driver and front seat passenger. The layout for the controls is driver oriented so they are within easy reach of the driver and the entertainment system, and the HVAC system operate by touch and are neatly integrated into the center stack.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel also contains controls such as the volume on the entertainment system. Volkswagen has a healthy budget for furnishing the interior with plenty of soft materials on the touch points and there are different textures to provide more visual appeal.
A sunroof brings extra light into the cabin and the night lighting is pleasant and not distracting. Visibility is good but the roof line is low, so it is not perfect. When the ignition is first touched, the Golf offers a surround view and alerts to nearby objects — such as the basketball hoop in my driveway.
The front-wheel drive 2023 Golf GTI comes with a 2.0-liter, multi-valve engine with double overhead camshafts. The engine is matched to a 6-speed manual gearbox. The tachometer also signals — actually more of a suggestion — when to depress the clutch and shift.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE a combined fuel economy rating of 27 mpg, including 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.
Safety and Technology
The Golf GTI is equipped with an advanced airbag system with multiple bags for protection of the driver and any passenger and frontal and side-impact collisions. It is also equipped with forward-collision alert, cyclist and pedestrian alerts, blind-spot monitor and warning and lane-keeping assist. There is also electronic stability control and adaptive cruise control for freeway driving.
The hatchback also comes with Bluetooth, satellite radio connection, AM-FM radio with voice control, USB ports, wireless charging and 10-inch touchscreen as well as a Harmon Kardon sound system. There is rear-view camera system, parking distance controls and ambient interior lighting with controls for assorted colors and stainless-steel pedal caps.
If you enjoy driving a stick, you will enjoy driving the Golf GTI. The shift lever and clutch are nicely positioned in the cockpit, so they are easy to use, and the shifter operated smoothly. With an engine capable of producing 241 horsepower, the lightweight Golf has plenty of power, and of course plenty of torque. The vehicle also has pleasant exhaust note if you like the noise.
I did worry about the low ground clearance, but the car has a solid suspension, while the fundamental driving dynamics are exceptionally good with plenty of steering feel and impressive braking. Overall, the car was fun to drive and moved between gears smoothly and evenly, even in city traffic.
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0 SE Specifications
|L: 168 inches/W: 70.4 inches/H: 57.6 inches/Wheelbase: 103.6 inches
|2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine; 6-speed manual transmission
|23 mpg city/32 mpg highway/27 mpg combined
|241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque
|Base price: $30,350; As tested: $36,840 including $1,095 destination charge.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Golf GTI. It is a small car for a small audience of purists who like the sense of power, speed and punch a manual transmission can offer for short sprint on hilly stretches of country roads when you can get to them.
But the combination of low ground clearance and manual transmission suggests it is not very practical very everyday use running errands or commuting particularly in any major city where the traffic can back up or where construction projects seem to appear out of nowhere like they do around my home in Southeast Michigan. Do not let anyone fool you — no one has ever found a way to make a slow crawl with a manual transmission fun.
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0 SE – Frequently Asked Questions
What does GTI SE stand for?
GTI stands for Grand Touring Injection. Volkswagen uses for its direct fuel injection system. Over 40 years ago, GTI technology was first deployed in the 1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
What is the 0 to 60 on a Golf GTI 2023?
As noted, up top, this 3,200-pound hatchback launched from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, and it completed the quarter mile in 14.8 seconds at 99.1 mph.
What makes a GTI fast?
The biggest power increase will come from upgrading the downpipe (exhaust pipe right after the turbo exhaust outlet). This will free up your exhaust and restrictions on the back side of the turbo allowing your turbo to spin up faster and build power quicker. You can also upgrade the cat-back exhaust.