2023 VW GTI 6-Speed Manual Review: Still Fun, but Facing Stiff Competition

My mind is pretty solidly made up about the prior generation – the ‘Mk7.5’ – of VW GTI and VW Golf R being the best hot hatchback ever made. Formulaically, VW took decades of experience and customer feedback and ended up with a practical, fun car that could do it all with reasonable competence. And when it was time for the next generation of Golf-and-variants, they had to do something. I don’t think the Mk8 2023 VW GTI is as good as its predecessor, but it’s still pretty fun. And as affordable fun cars are few and far between lately, I’m glad it still exists at all.

2023 VW GTI Kings Red
2023 VW GTI at James Madison University, my alma mater

What Is It?

The 2023 VW GTI follows the formula that made the original GTI – and every generation since – successful. And it doesn’t stray much from the outgoing model. The same EA888 2.0-liter turbo four is under-hood, making 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. The same six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG transmissions are offered. Plaid cloth seats are still available, though with a more serious and less funky pattern than in previous models.

My specific test car was a Kings Red GTI Autobahn with 6-speed manual. Choosing the loaded Autobahn trim normally brings heated and ventilated black leather seats, though VW is still making some “COVID cars,” of which mine was one. I got all the other Autobahn goodies, but with heated plaid cloth instead. I liked it more anyway.

Other Autobahn goodies include the DCC adaptive suspension, pulled from the VW Golf R, 19-inch wheels with summer tires, a heads-up display, tri-zone climate control, and power-adjustable driver’s seat. It makes for a nice place to spend time, though it’ll cost you. The 2023 VW GTI Autobahn is a $40,000 car; mine cost less thanks to the $1,225 cloth seat credit.

2023 VW GTI plaid seats

Driving the 2023 VW GTI

I took this GTI on our Mountain Mama road rally, which involved almost three hours of winding back roads in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was a great drive, bookended by a few hours of highway time to feel out the GTI’s manners in a more relaxed scenario as well.

On the highway, the GTI was happy to sit in sixth gear and cruise. Pulling out to pass – a frequent occurrence on Interstate 81 – was doable in sixth, though the engine was far happier if I dropped down to fourth before standing on it. Either way, the car picked up speed sneakily, which meant I ended up using the pretty-good adaptive cruise control for a lot of the trip. Ride comfort was good with the adaptive shocks set to their softest mode, and the driver’s seat was plenty comfortable. Road noise was fine given the type of car and I arrived at our Mountain Mama rally refreshed and ready for harder driving.

2023 VW GTI Kings Red
Did I think I’d take photos of a press car behind my freshman dorm? Not when I lived there, that’s for sure.

As our route began, I popped the GTI into its Sport mode. The DCC suspension offers more granular adjustment, but I didn’t need anything too wild for twisting, paved roads. While the Mk8 2023 VW GTI is not quite as playful on winding roads as its predecessor – owed partially to its 100ish-pound weight gain – it’s very precise, with great body control. I like a softer car and the Mk8 simply isn’t that. VW stiffened the chassis, raised the spring rates, and sharpened the steering. It’s technically better, but loses some personality in the process.

Regardless, the Mk8 GTI is still a tossable, silly car if you push it hard enough. The chassis loves to rotate with a touch of trail-braking into corners, and standing on the throttle reveals the “magic” limited-slip differential that does its thing without a hint of torque steer as it pulls you out. The manual shifter is a good partner, with crisp engagement and medium-length throws. It pairs to a clutch that won’t wear you out in traffic, but isn’t so light it feels like a Logitech sim-rig pedal, either. I often advocate for the two-pedal DSG in a VW, but the manual was good here.

2023 VW GTI manual transmission

The Interior Needs Help, and VW Knows It

So yes, the Mk8 2023 VW GTI is plenty fun despite growing up a bit. I’d still buy a Mk7.5, though, because the Mk8’s interior is not that of a driver’s car. VW knows this and is working on some changes for 2024, although I question if they will be enough.

While the digital gauge cluster is actually a good use of pixels, where many often aren’t, the rest of the 2023 VW GTI’s interior is too “the future is touch” when in fact touch controls are irritating and unsafe to use while moving. The now-notorious touch bar below the infotainment screen, used for climate temperature and volume, is not backlit at night (being fixed for ’24) and easy to hit if you are messing with the screen itself. The infotainment software itself is fine, though some controls are buried in menus a few layers deep. The system is only okay in its responsiveness.

2023 VW GTI dashboard

Steering wheel controls are also giant touchpads, though they do click in when you push various “buttons.” They’re still fussy, and VW has confirmed real buttons are coming back to the GTI’s wheel next year. Good start. Lighting controls should be next. They’re tough to use when you need them most, like in heavy rain that soaked the roads on my drive back to Washington, DC after our event.

Looking at the ceiling, the didn’t-need-fixing sunroof controls were replaced by a… touch panel. You swipe front to back to open the sunroof. It works on the fifth try, every try. Closing the sunroof is a fun game of “will this close or stay vented.”

As with every other car that has gone primarily touch-based for input, the Mk8’s interior comes across as change for the sake of change. Touch controls are cheaper to develop than actual buttons and knobs, and while I know margins are tight for everyone, I’m still surprised that the interior of a car like the GTI was green-lit in its current state.

And yes, I find all of this just as annoying and unsafe in the ID.4 crossover, but nobody’s throwing the ID.4 around corners like they do a GTI.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a hot hatch die-hard and simply must have a new car, the 2023 VW GTI is a fine choice. I liked it much more than the Mk8 Golf R that I drove last year – despite being more grown-up, it’s got a cheekiness to it that the all-wheel drive R doesn’t really carry. I’ve felt that way about the Golf R for years though, that’s not a Mk8 thing.

Really, I think the Mk8 has two things working against it – the interior and the price. It’s the only true hatchback in the “sorta affordable new car” space, but a loaded Acura Integra A-Spec has an arguably nicer and easier-to-use interior and drives just as well for thousands less. If you don’t need all the features, VW will sell you a GTI SE, but Honda will sell you a Civic Si for, you guessed it, less money. Hyundai’s got the fabulous, if challenging-looking, Elantra N that splits the difference on price and feels a bit sharper on back roads. Toyota’s GR Corolla undercuts the GTI on base price and really competes against the Golf R, albeit with a (much) more basic vibe inside.

The 2023 VW GTI is still a great all-purpose “car.” It’s fun enough yet nice enough; just as much at home an an autocross or mountain road as it is freshly detailed for date night. My feelings about the Mk8 undoubtedly come across as mixed, because they are.

In general, there’s plenty of appeal here. That said, I know the Barbie movie comes out in a week, but I’d really prefer we keep “touch me here, touch me there” to the Aqua song and out of our performance cars.

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