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Auto review: Payne: All hail the '24 Golf GTI, the last of the manuals

Henry Payne, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

DETROIT — My 2024 Volkswagen GTI tester is loaded with state-of-the-art wireless Android Auto, voice recognition and a head-up display so I can bark my destination (“Navigate to Home”) to Google Maps, then keep my eyes on the road using the directions projected onto the windshield (“5.7 miles then left”) while a soothing female voice prepares me with more detailed instructions (“in a quarter mile, you’ll take a left at Exit 16”).

But the part I REALLY like about the GTI is the old-fashioned stick shift in the middle of the console.

Leaving the airport, I downshifted into a cloverleaf onto I-94 — VROOM, VROOM — with old-school, double-clutch shifts from 5th to 4th to 3rd. Pedals perfectly placed for heel-and-toe. Lovely notchy shifter. WAAAUUGGHGHRG! I wound the RPM to redline at 7000 RPM as I exploded onto the interstate.

Cruising along I-94 in 6th gear in my state-of-the-art GTI, I toggled Adaptive Cruise Control on the left side of the steering wheel and set my speed to 75 mph. The digital instrument display tracked the vehicles in front of me, lane-keep maintaining my position between the painted lines. I toggled the haptic button on the steering wheel spoke to adjust speed by 1 mph faster or slower. With a longer hold, I could electronically adjust speeds in 5 mph increments. Pretty cool.

But the part I REALLY like is the VAQ limited-slip front differential.

At a stoplight, I shifted into first gear and floored the accelerator. Remarkably, the ferocious 273 pound-feet of torque (from a 2.0-liter four-banger!) doesn’t grind the tires to dust. Instead, the LSD manages the torque to the front wheels and rockets me forward, 60 mph flashing by in less than 6 seconds as I snatch second gear in the beautifully-calibrated transmission. Wheeeeee!

What does VAQ mean, you ask? Vorderachsquersperre (liteally front-axle cross lock) if you want to brush up on your Deutsch.

As the moon rose and rain began to fall, Volkswagen electronics went into automatic mode. Automatic high beams switch on, then switched off when traffic approached. On. Off. I didn’t touch a thing. Automatic windshield wipers came on — slowly at first, then speeding up as more rain fell, then turning off altogether as the rain stopped. Auto blind-spot assist as cars whizzed by. Auto temperature control. Auto wireless charging pad for my phone.

But the part I REALLY like is the big VW logo on the rear hatchback.

Circling the Golf from the rear when I got home, I simply pushed the logo and the rear hatch opened instantly. No searching above the license plate for a hidden button, no standing there waiting for a sensor to automatically open the hatch. Just a simple mechanical push. Once the hatch was agape, it provided be protection from the spitting rain while I organized my belongings.

The VW Golf GTI hot hatch continues to be one of the most endearing cars in the auto stable, as it adopts the latest electronic goodies while retaining the mechanical traits that made us fall in love with it in the first place.

But better act fast.

That wonderful notchy stick shift is going away for the 2025 model year. Sigh. While some automakers like Mazda have made the stick shift a premium item focused on enthusiasts, the GTI is likely nixing it due to onerous government emissions standards (manuals are slightly less efficient than automatics) since Europe is the Golf’s biggest market. To honor the manual’s swan song in the U.S. market, it will comes as a special trim for each GTI model — S, SE and Autobahn — called the 380 package. The 380 package also adds a unique Graphite Gray paint job, black 19-inch wheels and an adaptive suspension system.

I love the electronic upgrades of my 380 Autobahn tester, but let me suggest the seven-grand cheaper 380 SE model both to save you money and to add to your classic stick-shift experience.

The SE model may delete leather seats, but the standard plaid cloth seats are the stuff of GTI legend going back to the first-gen GTI in 1984 (yeah, I owned one). The plaid seats are as chic as phone-dial wheels on an Alfa or kidneys on a BMW.

Indeed, since Golf GTI took away its own classic phone-dial wheels (blasphemy among us GTI fans, but due to return in 2025), the signature elements of the GTI are slowly being removed for a new generation of buyers. Goodbye manual geeks, hello electronics geeks.

Whatever kind of nerd you are, you’ll love the 2024 Golf GTI’s exterior packaging.

Like a Porsche 911, the Golf GTI has evolved carefully over its eight generations, sticking to the design fundamentals of a square hatchback, thin front grille and big wheels while adding subtle tweaks for each model year update. I’m particularly fond of the current evolution.

The headlights are leaner than ever to complement the chassis’ athleticism. But the pair of five-point fog lights above the front skirt are both cool and functional. The pattern reminds of Porsche’s own quint-headlight details. And when the turn signal is activated, the fog lamps will pool light so you can better see your turn-in point.


Interior space has barely evolved, too, and that’s a miss. The VW’s rear seat is cramped compared to competitors like the Honda Civic Si/Type R and Hyundai Elantra N. More controversial is the big dual digital instrument display that stretches across the dash — a major electronic upgrade for the 8th-gen model. Its lack of buttons has irked many a media reviewer, but I rather like its simple layout once you’ve learned the system’s shortcuts. Plus, my recommended SE trim comes with a smaller 10-inch infotainment display that adds room for volume and tuning knobs.

VW is reportedly adding more buttons for the imminent 2025 model year if you want to wait. Add buttons, subtract the manual shifter.

If it were me, I’d gobble up the ‘24, manual, six-speed 380 SE trim before its disappears. #SavetheManual.

2024 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hot hatch

Price: $33,190, including $1,150 destination fee ($42,170 manual 380 Autobahn model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power:  241 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed manual, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (manual, Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,299 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 24 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined (manual); 25 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined (auto)

Report card

Highs: FWD from the gods; stick shift

Lows: Gets pricey; last of the stick shifts

Overall: 4 stars


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