2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI S Manual: Good Pricing, Good value?

When I started to review this car, I was ready to ditch it for its indistinct personality, middling performance results, and a price that’s hard to justify. But when I discovered this basemodel 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI S cost almost $9,000 less than the Autobahn trim we tested with nearly the same performance, that shifted the goal posts.

Is A 40-Year Old Too Grown Up?

First, about that personality. The eighth-generation Golf GTI is built on the widely praised MQB modular platform that also underpins the Audi A3/S3 and other vehicles. The rigid and refined platform suits sporty luxury cars, but for a hot hatchback? There’s a bit of a disconnect.

The base car’s suspension is sometimes busy on certain surfaces but luckily nothing we’d declare unacceptable. The tire/road noise is noticeably greater on the all-season tires but not as poor as others in the segment. But what ended up happening here is the well-mannered GTI doesn’t live up to its own self-defined hot hatch roots. Not like, say, the Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Veloster N, and Toyota GR Corolla, hooligans that regularly come sprinkled with adjectives like enthusiastic, playful, and chuckable. The GTI feels (and looks) like the grown-up in the room. And that might be your preference, which is fine. But it’s also worth mentioning all the cars listed above outperform the Mk8 GTI, including the top-tier Autobahn trim, in every measured test by quite a wide margin.

If these drive notes about the base car spook you, know the Autobahn GTI comes equipped with summer tires and standard multi-mode adaptive dampers. The fancy dampers allow the Autobahn to ride better on the highway and firm up for performance driving. The summer tires drive quieter and offer more grip than all-seasons. These features, however, are not available on the base S trim.

The Difference Between All-Season And Summer Tires

We disable stability and traction controls for testing in order to probe the limits of the car, not the electronic aids. In terms of the resulting acceleration differences, the S with all-season tires was less effective to launch without spinning the front wheels compared to the Autobahn on summers. As a result, the 0-60-mph time suffered—6.4 seconds to the Autobahn’s 6.1 time—and this delta carried through the quarter mile where they both crossed the finish line at just under 100 mph. Still, a 0.2- to 0.3-second measured difference is hardly a difference one could feel.

Predictably, circling the 200-foot skidpad in both directions, the Autobahn offered better grip with an average of 0.92 g in lateral acceleration compared to the GTI S’ 0.86 g. Again, you might not feel this, but you can most certainly hear a difference with the all-seasons screeching for mercy. On our figure-eight course (two 200-foot skid pads separated by 500 feet on center), the S managed to come within a half second of the Autobahn with a 26.0-second lap versus 25.5, which is impressive. Yet, we discovered the GTI S was far more prone to spin the unweighted, inside wheel coming off a corner, snubbing momentum. Part of this is due to the softer suspension, and part to Volkswagen’s ineffective XDS “limited-slip” differential (applying a brake to the spinning tire) being an extension of the (disabled) ESC and traction control. Certainly, this is exacerbated by the all-seasons’ lack of tire grip. Swapping a set of summer tires for the all-seasons would certainly help with these deficiencies.

Not The Most Powerful 2.0L Turbo, But A Really Good One

The GTI is powered by the ever-evolving EA888 engine family. The 2.0-liter inline-four features a thin-walled, cast-iron block, an aluminum 16-valve head with dual overhead cams, variable valve timing, two balance shafts, direct fuel injection, lightweight and low-friction internals, and an intercooled 26.1-psi turbocharger. It’s an absolute gem—the best component of this GTI, to be honest. Maximum torque arrives at 1,600 rpm, giving the car an excellent low- and midrange pull. Our best acceleration resulted from short-shifting from first to second gear rather than taking it all the way to the 6,750-rpm limiter. Upshifting at redline spins the front tires with more than just a “chirp.” Also, sixth gear is tall, and engine torque is such that the car can easily loaf along at 60 mph while spinning at 2,100 rpm. We saw better than the EPA’s estimated 33 highway mpg on a long stint, even on stretches with 70-mph posted limits.

A quick aside here: With adaptive cruise control lane keeping assist engaged on an arrow-straight highway (that didn’t require “steering”), the system warned me to take control of the steering wheel, despite the fact that my hands were on the steering wheel and we were going straight. After perhaps two more warnings, the car briefly brake-checked itself hard enough to toss me into the seatbelt. That was a first, and I had to swerve within the lane for the system to know my hands were on the wheel. Egad.

One Of 30 Left

The Golf GTI’s six-speed manual (one of only 30 new cars left with one) has well-defined, narrowly spaced gates and reasonably short throws. The long-travel clutch pedal, however, engages about halfway through its stroke, confounding some drivers with a guessing game. Thank goodness for its auto-hold brakes on a hill. Also, the brake and throttle pedals are not placed ideally for heel-toe downshifting. They’re not on the same plane under moderate to hard braking, and they are also a bit too distant from one another to simply roll your right foot to blip the throttle. Overall, the manual transmission is still an enjoyable driving partner, but the available seven-speed twin-clutch automated manual ($800) does provide a crude launch control, quicker shifts, and thus quicker acceleration.

Keep Your $8,540

Our testing shows the base-trim S nearly matches its more costly Autobahn version. Sure, with the base trim, you won’t get keyless access, adaptive dampers, summer tires, a leather 12-way power-adjustable ventilated driver’s seat, Harman Kardon audio, a 10.0-inch touchscreen with navigation and SiriusXM and voice control, steering-assisted parking, auto high-beams, or street sign recognition, among other things.

What you do get with a base Golf GTI S is the same inspiring engine, a decent manual transmission with a golf ball dimpled shifter, terrific manually adjustable nostalgic plaid cloth sport seats (heated), an 8.35-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, the same number of USB-C ports, the same configurable digital instrument panel, and wireless charging. That’s the difference between the $31,625 and $40,165 base prices.

The biggest bonus, though? The base model comes with actual, physical knobs for its infotainment system, not those despised capacitive controls. That’d make the whole package worth it to many, we’re sure.

In this case, opt for the base, keep the change, and buy a set of summer tires.
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI S Specifications
BASE PRICE $31,625
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
ENGINE 2.0L Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4
POWER (SAE NET) 241 hp @ 5,000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 273 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,110 lb (61/39%)
WHEELBASE 103.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 168.8 x 70.4 x 57.6 in
0-60 MPH 6.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.8 sec @ 99.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 113 ft

Source: motortrend