The 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Sport starts at $28,815 and sits just above the base S model. The base model is fine, but it lacks a few modern conveniences that really set it apart from the competition. Moving up to the Sport trim adds bi-xenon headlights, keyless entry with push-button start with both transmissions, and, most important, the GTI Performance Package. There's no moonroof, no 12-way adjustable leather seats, and no outdated navigation system. It's just simple and pure.
Ditching the moonroof saves weight, complexity, and increases the headroom. The heated tartan-patterned seats are arguably better than the GTI's leather option. You lose some adjustability, but it's not difficult to find a comfortable position. Stepping up from the disappointing halogen headlights to the Sport's xenon lights is a huge plus. The one convenience option that would top it off would be the addition of automatic climate control.
All that said, the GTI Performance Package really is the key element, as it's unavailable on the base model. It comes standard on the Sport trim and above. It adds bigger brakes from the Golf R, electronically controlled, torque sensing, limited-slip VAQ differential, and a 10 horsepower bump, though the latter carries down to the base model for 2018. It doesn't so much transform the GTI as much as it hones what was already a highly capable tool.
The 10 extra horsepower is welcome but largely negligible, especially in light of the 2018 updates. The brakes not only improve stopping distances but reduce fade. The pedal is firm but long enough to allow for good modulation. It helps that the GTI is a couple hundred pounds lighter than the all-wheel drive Golf R. We didn't take the GTI to a track, but most owners won't. There's more than enough stopping power for the street.
The limited-slip differential is the final key. It won't make a difference in your daily commute (unless your commute is Thousand Oaks to Santa Monica). But on track or on a good, winding road, that magic box works wonders. It's always thinking, sending power where you need it. It even helps quell torque steer, the bane of so many high-power front-wheel drive cars. The GTI is a car with plenty of feedback, and you can feel the LSD working in conjunction with the suspension and the tires to pull you through turns.
The Sport is the only model that combines the performance package with cloth seats and no moonroof. It's the perfect GTI. It's not loaded up with a bunch of options that push it deep into Golf R or Audi A3 price territory, and it packs in more than the equivalent Subaru WRX or Ford Focus ST. This is the GTI to buy if driving is paramount. This is the GTI distilled.