Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: April 25, 2019
The 1976 Volkswagen Rabbit was the first car my father ever owned. It was a front-engine, front-wheel drive compact car meant to be a replacement for the Beetle. Nobody would have ever guessed that Volkswagen would end up selling more than 30 million of these hatchbacks during its lifetime, and continues its legendary success across all continents to this day.
Giving homage to the original is the new 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI Rabbit Edition, a heritage-inspired special edition model that turns out to be more of an aesthetic and decor package than anything else. The Rabbit Edition will only be available this year, and slots between the base GTI and Autobahn trim. It offers 18-inch gloss black wheels, a black rear spoiler, LED headlights with adaptive lighting that turn as you steer, black mirror caps, rabbit-badged seat tags, red-stitched floor mats, and four unique paint colours: Cornflower Blue, Urano Grey, Pure White, and Deep Black Pearl. It also comes with keyless entry and push button start, though driver assistance features come optional for $1,750.
The Rabbit Edition will surely appease diehard Volkswagen fanatics who perhaps, like my father, used to own the original and are looking for some sort of nostalgia. But now in its seventh-generation, the Volkswagen Golf GTI offers not only one of the best driving experiences for $30,000, it offers one of the best driving experiences, period. It’s fast, it’s fuel-efficient, and it hauls enough cargo to satisfy the needs of a small family. It is the go-to hatchback for drivers who want a bit of fun but don’t want to break the bank. The Golf does not receive a full model revision until next year but Volkswagen has spruced up their spritzy performance hatchback with a few notable changes for 2019.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine gets a minor 8 horsepower bump, increasing total output from 220 hp to 228 hp. Torque stays the same at 258 lb-ft. The GTI also receives a new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission to replace the outgoing six-speed (a six-speed manual is still available for those who prefer to row their own gears), stronger and larger brakes from the Golf R, and a mechanical limited-slip differential that can send up to a 100% of torque from the left to right front wheels.
These are all but the most subtle of alterations, but it is difficult to improve a vehicle without messing up the fundamental qualities that made it so impressive in the first place. Volkswagen had to trek carefully, and have pulled off a slightly better GTI that to be honest, doesn’t feel very different from the 2018 model. It’s still the same impressive, comfortable yet sporty, premium yet affordable, and compact yet practical, hatchback.
The miniscule power bump is hardly noticeable but the maximum 258 lb-ft of torque does come on early at 1,500 rpm, and graduates into a punchy mid-range without any disruption in delivery. What more power do you really need? The GTI remains peppy off the line and the lack of turbo lag means it feels quicker than its power outputs may suggest. Being lag-free is a rare feature of a turbo-four. Part of that comes down to the masterful 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that feels right at home with lightning quick upshifts and buttery smooth transitions in between. It really offers the best of both worlds and during my week-long tenure with the GTI, I never missed having a third pedal, especially during rush hour traffic on the Don Valley Parkway. A manual is still available for $1,400 less and will undoubtedly be the preferred choice for enthusiasts but alas, different strokes for different folks.
The GTI is equally as darty around corners with a front nose that digs in and is eager to rotate. Thanks to its clearly defined limits of grip and realistic power outputs, you build up so much confidence behind the wheel that the performance and the limits of those boundaries are just so accessible, even for the average driver. There are four driving modes to choose from: Normal, Sport, Eco, and Custom, the latter of which allows you to adjust everything from the steering and suspension firmness to the amount of exhaust noise being piped into the cabin. The GTI sounds delightfully aggressive with the exhaust on or off, but it’s clearly not as rambunctious as the MINI Cooper S. It’s still miles more emotionally stimulating than the muted and muffled Honda Civic Si.
Which one drives better? If we’re talking performance, my choice would still be the smaller, zippier, and more athletic MINI Cooper S. But when looking at the overall balance between comfort and performance, it’s the GTI that takes my vote. What I admire most about the GTI is its incredibly rigid chassis and adaptive dampers. It transforms the ride quality. In most cars, you can’t tell the difference between the “Comfort” and “Sport” settings, but here it’s as clear as night and day. In Comfort, you can cruise around town without broken pavement disturbing the chassis and jolting occupants up to the headliner. Put it in Sport though, and the entire chassis firms up and darts around like an attack dog. There’s barely any body lean, and though it’s not as stiff as a MINI, every nook and cranny gets similarly absorbed and quelled when rolling over them. Not many hatchbacks of this size can acquire such a fine balance, let alone execute a graceful ride.
The rubbery electric power steering is devoid of feel but the wheel rotates linearly and predictably. With practice, you can learn to easily place the front nose right where you want it, though the amount of tire grip fails to be communicated back to the driver. It doesn’t run on rails like the MINI but the GTI does offer the driver enough satisfaction to nullify any complaints.
The interior is what gives the GTI’s competitors a run for their money. Both premium and devoid of any cheap-feeling panels, the cabin is a masterstroke of well-chosen materials, crisp styling, and enough tech to satisfy the millennial generation. Nothing here would look out of place in an Audi. The steering wheel is a significant step-up from the example in the standard Golf. It’s thin-rimmed, flat-bottomed, and wrapped in convincing leather and soft-touch textures. The cloth plaid seats are also a spiffy touch, and don’t succumb to temperature extremes as much as leather. The infotainment system is also one of the fastest, most intuitive, and sharpest examples on the market.
The 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI is one of the most versatile, entertaining, and iconic all-rounder vehicles to date. The performance is accessible and the limits are attainable, even from the average Joe. The interior is comfortable and oozing with refinement that shames the Civic and Mazda3, and its hatchback styling and clever interior packaging make it one of the most usable and practical vehicles under $35,000. The Rabbit Edition does not add much aside from nostalgic appeal but the meaningful revisions for 2019 only enhance the Golf’s universal desirability.
Model: 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI Rabbit Edition
Paint Type: Cornflower Blue
Base Price: $33,995
Price as Tested: $37,145
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,628 / 1,799 / 1,442
Curb weight (kg): 1,400
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 228 hp @ 4,700 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 1,500 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway ) L/100km: 9.8 / 7.3
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.4