For reference, I own a 2006 Volkswagen GTI, tartan seats and all. At the time, the base engine on a fifth-generation Golf was a slow-to-rev, generally lackluster 2.5-liter five-cylinder that made the same 170 horsepower as the new 1.8-liter mill – although its unique exhaust note was a bright spot. If you really wanted to have fun in a Golf, you had to opt for the GTI or the VR6-powered R32, meaning a significant bump in price over the base car.
This newer 1.8T engine, part of the EA888 family of four-cylinders, is a sweet little thing. Though power matches the old five-cylinder, torque is up to 199 lb-ft (184 lb-ft with the five-speed manual), nearly as much as my GTI. Dip into the throttle at any speed and the 2017 Golf just pulls. Peak torque is available from 1,600 to 4,400 rpm, meaning there's next to no turbo lag. It sounds good too, as Volkswagen seems to have calmed some of the clack that comes along with direct injection. At full bore, this is one of the best-sounding four-bangers around. Compared to the old 2.5, the 1.8 feels light, free, and eager to play.
Compared to my GTI, the new Golf has a couple-hundred fewer pounds to move around, helping the peppiness. It's not quite as good through a corner, but it rides a hell of a lot better (thanks to the 16-inch wheels and a mile of sidewall). I was genuinely blown away by how similar it felt to my GTI, on the whole. It feels punchy through the rev range, and on paper it's nearly as quick. If I wanted to trade my old GTI on a new Golf, I could see myself actually passing up the GTI and sticking with the base version. Aside from the tartan seats, it has most everything I could want.
The seventh-gen Golf has the same fun-to-drive nature of my GTI, gets far better fuel economy (25 city/35 highway) and it costs thousands less than a new GTI. A stripper costs $20,715, but a fully loaded 2017 Golf Wolfsburg is a much better deal at $23,515. It's a vehicle that's ripe for modification and would be a fantastic first car for a budding enthusiast or just someone who wants a bit of getup and go on occasion. Stepping up to a base, no-option GTI will set you back you $26,415,
There are still plenty of cars with pathetic base engines; the Nissan Sentra, for example. Even optional motors like the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the current Civic (an engine I really do like) don't feel as strong as Volkswagen's. The 1.8-liter really sets the Golf apart from the crowd, an outlier in a sea of spiritless engines. Go drive one. Not every bare-bones sedan or hatchback needs to be boring.