On Autos: In ‘hot hatch’ segment, GTI still stands out

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2018 Volkswagen GTI. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Volkswagen took its Golf hatchback and stuck in a powerful engine from its premium Audi brand in 1976. This was the birth of the “hot hatch” — the transformation of a humble hatchback economy car into a zesty performance machine. Volkswagen called this new car the GTI.

Today, the 2018 GTI follows a variation of that same formula. These days, even the base Golf is now premium-feeling, quick to accelerate, and fun to drive. But the GTI improves further on the package, creating a half-step between Volkswagen and Audi.

The GTI still looks like a Golf. It’s nothing flashy — a simple boxy shape without swoopy creases, dramatic wedges, an aggressive body kit, or a huge spoiler. It wears different alloy wheels from an ordinary Golf and has some other mild cosmetic tweaks. But you’d have to be a car person to identify it as a performance car. You can also drive the GTI like a normal economy car, which comes in handy when you just need to get around town.

Some competing “hot hatch” vehicles have loud exhaust notes and stiffly tuned suspensions that can be exhilarating on an open road. But they can be merely tiresome in ordinary commuting or errands. The GTI shows its Audi roots in the gracefully subtle way it tackles daily life.

Once you get to that open road, the GTI’s 220-horsepower turbocharged engine isn’t as outright ferocious as a Ford Focus ST. But this mild-mannered little hatchback has some serious kick. And its quick steering and stable handling inspire confidence.

Inside the car, most of the experience matches other Golfs. The cabin design is austere, but everything is impeccably built. A bigger touchscreen dresses up the dashboard this year. But some controls remain a little convoluted.

The big difference is the seats are extra-supportive, perfect for holding you in place when you go around a fast curve. The rear seat can fit two adults on a comfortable cushion. But knee space is tight. Folding the rear seat opens up a usefully boxy cargo hold.

Overall, the GTI offers an appealing balance of everyday comfort and practicality, respectable luxury, and sporty performance. One key downside: It’s expensive for a Golf, starting at $27,265 and reaching $36,170 as tested.

For budget-focused buyers, Hyundai offers a new competitor to the GTI: a turbocharged version of the redesigned 2018 Elantra GT. This hatchback is also a European design. It’s sold there as the i30 and has no relation to the more popular Elantra sedan. Clean styling; a spacious, modern interior; lots of safety, luxury and convenience features; an available 201-horsepower engine; and a base price of just $20,235 make a positive first impression.

And if you’re not focused on maximum driving enjoyment, the Elantra GT does offer everyday comfort and utility at affordable prices. It also combines relatively upscale styling with user-friendly controls, in a market segment where several key competitors can manage neither.

However, this is no GTI. The Elantra GT lacks the GTI’s exquisite driving dynamics, instead of feeling like an ordinary economy car with some extra pep. There’s less steering precision, lower handling limits, and less of a fun-to-drive feel. The Elantra GT also suffers from mediocre gas mileage, particularly with its less powerful base engine.

And to get the best safety technology, you need a fully loaded model like the tested $29,210 GT Sport model. Any value-minded shopper would do well to consider the competition carefully.

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

If you’re more interested in handling than acceleration, a stronger budget alternative to the GTI is the Mazda3. The Elantra GT looks more similar to the GTI on paper — with its European design and turbocharged engine. But the Mazda brings you closer to the Volkswagen’s combination of driving enjoyment and an upscale vibe.

Because there isn’t a dedicated performance version of the Mazda3, it aligns more closely with the base Golf than with the GTI. However, every Mazda vehicle tends to have sprightlier handling and a more engaging character than its respective competition. The Mazda3 is no different.

2018 Mazda3 sedan. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Furthermore, unlike most economy cars, you can get a manual transmission without having to stick with the base model — perfect for driving enthusiasts who enjoy shifting their own gears.

The Volkswagen’s and even the Hyundai’s manual transmissions are slightly slicker, though. And the most-powerful Mazda3 has 184 horsepower. The Mazda3 is not as roomy or as fuel-efficient as a Honda Civic. But it’s more elegant and poised. It’s available in both sedan and hatchback versions, and prices start at just $18,985.

Visit tinyurl.com/gti-current to see more photos of the tested 2018 Volkswagen GTI and 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT.