Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

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2013 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Word count: 3313 (~19 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 06 Jun 2019 18:30:54 GMT

Kinda cute, kinda classic, kinda confused.

What is it?

The words "hot hatch" crop up often in discussions of cars like the Golf GTI, and for good enough reason: the Mk1 Golf GTI was the hot hatch. The first one. The ur-hot hatch, if you will. This legacy is, for better or for worse, what defines the Golf GTI as it is today. The myth of the hot hatch, of the everyman's sports car, the underdog, the performance-on-a-budget black knight, is a legend in modern car culture, and is a reaction to, and potent antithesis to, increasinly ostentatious, expensive, and just plain large performance cars. In the days of the Mk1 Golf, those would be the formidable grand tourers from BMW or Mercedes or Aston Martin: in the States, performance in the early '80s was defined by the legacy of the muscle car era and the high-displacement personal luxury coupes that period left behind; in both cases, true performance and driving pleasure were inaccessible. The original Golf GTI is seen as a hero of the commons, a representative of the people who care about driving and care about having a sensible car, but can't afford a brand new BMW 2002. With the Mk1 Golf GTI, you got the best of both worlds: a compact and affordable family car that also packed a fun engine and good enough driving dynamics to justify the gas mileage. That's a hell of a legacy to grow up under.

The modern Golf GTI is of course a hot hatch insomuch as it is a higher-powered, sportier version of the Golf, Volkswagen's compact city hatchback offering. However, Volkwagen, as with other brands like Saab and Volvo, has trended upmarket in the last couple decades, seeking out the more profitable premium economy/family car segment: now, a normal Golf is not really a cheap car: nowadays, the accessible "people's car" would be a Mitsubishi Mirage or Hyundai Accent: the subcompact segment in the United States is full of small sedans and hatchbacks that do the job the Mk1 Golf was built for. Not seeing the affordable subcompact segment as worth the investment, Volkswagen doesn't make any truly small cars anymore, at least not in the United States. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, there are plenty of affordable compact new cars available, and the consumer is practically spoiled for choice when trying to pick a new hatchback. That said, the Golf family has, through no fault of its own, transgressed its original purpose, and perhaps to some extent has subverted the legacy its name holds.

Is it a hatch?

Well, yes.

The Golf keeps just enough of its old boxy lines to stay recognizable. VW moved the base of the windshield rather close to the driver to allow for that nice long hood.

Because it is just a Golf, the Golf GTI is still a perfectly sensible car. The interior is quite spacious, with a tall ceiling that allows for all passengers to have a comfortably upright seating posture. The driver's door armrest is well-placed, and the center armrest/bin lid has multiple height detents; in most respects the Golf GTI feels like a normal car to get into. The seats aren't too hard, and they avoid having annoyingly deep and obvious bolsters, instead feeling like...normal bucket seats. The front seats are comfortable even in hard turns, and support the driver and passenger well under cornering. Of course, the seats are plaid-patterned; it's very cute that way. The huge amount of space available for the back seat does compromise storage space, as the boot area is rather small, and for any significant amount of cargo, at least one half of the split rear bench will be coming down. That said, as a carpool vehicle, the Golf can easily carry four people in comfort. For road trips though, any more than two would be quite cramped without the use of a rooftop cargo pod. The car's short wheelbase gives it a tight enough turning circle for city operations, and the generously sized windows make visibility in most conditions quite good. Perhaps the only compromise on visibility is rearwards; the rear hatch's bottom sill is rather high up, and depth judgment is difficult when backing up because of the limited rear glass area. Newer Golfs will solve this problem with the obligatory rear camera, but the 2013 one was not so equipped, and if the owner has to do a lot of parallel parking, then they'll need to either get very good at guessing or very tolerant of bumping the car behind.

That plaid is just too good. Lots of headroom and legroom in the back seat, by the way.

The Golf GTI does not have any obvious aesthetic differences from the normal Golf, except for the obligatory red grille and perhaps one or two other styling accents. There is no obnoxious ground effect kit or aerodynamic equipment, apart from a toned-down aesthetic diffuser under the rear bumper. The Golf GTI blends perfectly into traffic, and manages to look purposeful without being ridiculous. There is an institutional fear of being cute in modern car design, and few cars play into looking cute as an aesthetic strength. Modern cars need to look angry and edgy to be taken seriously (or something) and particularly modern econo-sport models like the Civic Si (and its higher-powered cousin, the Type R), Hyundai's Elantra Sport, and the Toyota Corolla SE all get meaner, edgier styling than their economy-oriented brethren. These days, it isn't enough for a sports car to just look like a normal car. The 2013 Golf GTI bucks this trend and instead leans hard into looking charming but meaningful enough to not be dismissed. The Golf GTI looks normal enough to avoid ridicule as an ostentatious codpiece, but sporty enough to just slightly stand out from a lineup of economy cars.

The GTI is blessedly not overdesigned.

Typically for Volkswagen, interior design, particularly the driver's UI, is sensible and logical, yet a little difficult to get used to. Cruise control is commanded with the signal stalk, with its normal position by the right thumb being taken up with controls for the multifunction display. The left thumb busies itself with infotainment controls and a charmingly outdated voice command recognition system. The infotainment system itself uses a touchscreen interface, but seems to have come just a couple years before dedicated phone infotainment connectivity (like Android Auto and Apple's Carplay) became common. Rather, it relies on Bluetooth connectivity. The UI design clusters driving controls together and infotainment/HVAC controls elsewhere, compartmentalizing functionality well, and is overall a completely normal, usable interface. Perhaps curiously, what stands out the most is the steering wheel: it does not feel overbuilt and overcushioned, but rather, is low-profile, hard, and easy to hold.

The infotainment system shows its age, but it works fine. Besides, in a car like this, the driver isn't likely to be concentrating on the music.

In normal driving, the Golf GTI does just fine. Uncommonly for a modern car, the steering is a happy medium between heavy steering feel with good road feedback and light steering feel with enough power boost that road feel is nonexistent. The steering is sensitive enough for all normal maneuvers, and never seemed to be too loose or sloppy. For a normal commuter or grocery run driving style, power delivery feels...normal. Engine power is easy enough to demand, but when the driver is light on the pedal, the car is happy to loaf along at a comfortable pace. Once moving, the dual clutch transmission makes quick upshifts with no loss in acceleration as normal automatics do, and downshifts, while not perfect, are very smooth as well. Unlike the DCT of the Audi A4, the "blipping" of the throttle to match revolutions when downshifting is more pronounced in the Golf GTI. That said, the transmission still feels more comfortable than an automatic, and of course boasts lower operating friction than a torque converter-based gearbox. The weakness of the dual clutch transmission, odd behavior at low speeds, is still present however. Setting off from a stop can be a little jerky, and the car doesn't always quite know which gear it wants to be in when arriving at or pulling out from a light. While not enough to compromise the enjoyment of the car, the transmission's behavior at low speeds is enough to remind the driver that they're not in a normal automatic. The brakes are of course very responsive and feel fine for speed adjustments and quick stopping, though the stiff rear suspension can lead to some strange juddering when stopping hard. For normal operations, the Golf GTI feels totally normal to drive, and apart from the suspension, drives like an economy car when the driver isn't in a hurry.

The steering wheel feels good in the hands and the gauge cluster is easy to look at. VW put a lot of functionality into those steering column stalks though.

The suspension is what betrays the Golf GTI as a sports car. Spring and damper rates are both stiff, and every single crack in the pavement is transmitted directly into the passengers' spines. Body roll is minimal (to be expected) and grip is always available, helped by the big wheels and low-profile tires. Road feel with this suspension is very good, and the driver gets good feedback from the rear wheels when on rougher surfaces. The low-profile tires are of course for dedicated on-road use, but climbing a steep gravel road, the Golf GTI offered no wheelspin or slippage. This is a sports car suspension, and you feel it in every turn you take.

Is it hot?

Air conditioning comes standard.

In a word, yes. the powertrain seems prescient, and behaves exactly as the driver expects at all times. The transmission and engine always know when the driver wants power, and power delivery is immediate and aggressive as soon as the pedal is pressed quickly. How far the accelerator pedal is pressed seems to matter less than how fast it is depressed, as the powertrain goes from leisurely cruising to straight horsepower as soon as the driver thinks they want to pass that truck. The powertrain is absolutely smarter than the driver; throttle response is not the same at all times, but is always exactly what it needs to be.

The Golf GTI has more than enough power. You must, not should, modulate power when accelerating off the line: there is no turbo lag to speak of, and full throttle from a stop guarantees wheelspin with any tires, on any surface. This car's powertrain is smart, but that intelligence should not be mistaken for docility. The 2 liter engine, a longer stroke version of the 2014 Passat's engine, makes 200 horsepower feel like 300, and seems to be happy to deliver as much torque as the driver can ask for in any gear. In short, yes, it's hot. It's a very, very, hot hatch.

It looks nearly the same as the NMS Passat's engine compartment. They use the same engine design that has the turbo cleverly hidden down behind the block.

Should the driver feel it is necessary, the transmission, as all good ones do these days, has a manual mode; Volkswagen's system involves bumping the stick away from the driver, which in my opinion is ergonomically flawed: Shifting up (bumping the stick forward) is fine, but if the driver doesn't take care to bump the stick directly backwards for downshifting, they can pull it back into the normal drive position. The typical solution seems to involve moving the stick towards the driver rather than away, and Volkswagen seems to be the only manufacturer who has their gear shifts move away from the driver for manual mode. But I digress. The steering wheel (not column, unfortunately) has small shift paddes, obviating use of the shift lever's up/downshift detents, and these are quite good enough for most scenarios. Overall, transmission controls are sensible. The transmission additionally has a Sport mode. On the Passat, this quickens steering wheel assistance, throttle response, and delays upshifts; in the Golf GTI, no difference in steering is noticeable, but the throttle responds even faster somehow, and the transmission, instead of being sensible yet effective, becomes annoying. In Sport mode it refuses to upshift below 5000 rpm. Sport mode is not necessary in the slightest for nearly all scenarios; in the Golf GTI it should be called Race mode, as its shift logic is almost inappropriate for normal street driving. The owner of a Golf GTI will find themself almost never using sport mode.

Isn't that shifter cute? You gotta admit it's cute. Am I right or am I right?

Handling is of course astounding. The Golf has moved far from its torsion beam origins (the Mk1 Golf invented torsion beam rear suspension!) and boasts all-around independent suspension that tenaciously hangs on to the road in all conditions. Bumps don't affect grip, and the car feels as though it is on rails in corners. Any road becomes a rollercoaster in a Golf GTI. The sensitive brakes and hugely capable powertrain make entering and leaving corners effortless, and the GTI feels completely confident in fast turns. Ultimately, at the limits of grip, it is likely that the GTI will understeer, but with the well-tuned suspension and big tires, those limits are pretty difficult to acheive in any scenario that doesn't involve a race track. For normal public roads, the Golf GTI will do any corner, at any speed, with no complaints other than those of the passengers. While its engine is astounding, the handling of the Golf GTI is its strongest aspect.

Long story short, yes it's hot. It's very hot. This is better than just a tarted-up family sedan. The Golf GTI is a legitimate sports car.

The hotness of the GTI does come at a price though. It sits in a premium price bracket, starting at about $25000, and will happily go north of $35000 depending on options. That's a far cry from the barebones price tag of the Mk1 Golf. This is not an econo-sport car that a young owner would scrimp and save for. This is a car priced for real adults with real jobs that make real money. The Golf GTI is no longer the sports car of the masses. The price continues for upkeep as well: the GTI gets about 25mpg on normal roads, and with premium gas, just fuel costs alone, not to mention the cost of keeping a turbocharged German car running in the United States, get steep very fast. When gas prices hit $4 again (for posterity, my guess at that is late 2020), the GTI will cost a pretty penny to keep running. Again, this is not a car that represents the just reward of a poor, yet noble, working-class woman (curious how the Christian idea of noble suffering and honorable poverty has affected our views on lower-class living) who saved for years for the car of her dreams. The GTI costs college degree money now.

So the Golf GTI is a hatchback, and it's quick. Is it a hot hatch? Well literally speaking, yes. But the words "hot hatch" are loaded down with tons of unspoken symbolism, the classic self-made man ideals of rewards through good hard work, and the underdog, beating out overrated muscle cars and poncy grand tourers in a nimble and quick, yet charming and scruffy little hatchback. The words "hot hatch" are meant to evoke class warfare that is waged through motorsport: the noble yet downtrodden working class can triumph over the bourgeoisie if they just try hard enough. The hot hatch is the dream of everybody who ever wanted a 3 series but could only afford a Civic (and a catback exhaust system and some cheap custom rims and underbody bolsters and tinted taillights and...). You can't say GTI without someone saying hot hatch, but ultimately, the GTI is too mature, too middle-aged, too qualified to be a hot hatch any more. The GTI is a car for middle-class dads with a chip on their shoulder; it's a car for the man who can afford an Audi TT but still needs to drive his kids to school. The Golf GTI is no longer a hot hatch. It can pretend to be, with its red-lined grille and plaid seats and golf ball-dimpled shifter (ha!), but ultimately it will be passed over by budget-bound enthusiasts in favor of Civics and secondhand Ford Focus STs and the fun cars that normal people can afford. The Golf GTI has stepped out from the shadow of its legacy, but the nostalgia our culture holds for the 1980s and the way the Good Old Days used to be has us shoving it back in. It has to still be a hot hatch, because if it's grown up from that, then I've grown up as well. We don't want to age, and we don't want to accept that the things we loved in our youth have also aged. The Golf GTI isn't young any more, and that's okay. It's no worse now, just different.

What does it say as a text? Or as a space?

So then, the Golf GTI is a car that means so much more compared to its past, as opposed to existing as itself. For the sake of argument, let's use the two schools of car design outlined in my last blog post: What is the standalone message that this car sends as a text, versus what kind of human activity does the space this car creates encourage?

As itself, the 2013 GTI is a symbol of how our economy behaves. Everything must get bigger, better, faster, more well equipped. A failure to grow is a failure to continue existing. But of course, growth has its consequences. Greater resource use, greater price, greater difficulty of maintenance, greater barriers to entry. We aren't here to discuss the sustainability or lack thereof of global capitalism, but our economy's fetishization of growth is obvious. The Golf GTI as it is now is a byproduct of this philosophy. It keeps the youthful imagery of its ancestors, but itself it does not behave youthfully. The Golf GTI is now a symbol of things past, but also of a respect of things past. The Golf GTI says "I know what my legacy is, and I know my relationship with that. My legacy does not define me, but I carry it still because someone has to." The Golf GTI is a car to be driven by someone who loves that legacy. Even if it can never measure up again to the hot hatch car of the people, it can certainly try.

But what kind of space does it create? It's fun to drive and fun to ride in, and comfortable for both. The Golf GTI creates a space where enthusiast driving is communal. The driver of course is in control, but the passengers get the same road feel as the driver, and the same engine noise, and the same visibility. The Golf GTI's driving environment is not one to be occupied alone. Share it however you like! Take your friends for a picnic! Take your friends to a car meet and cruise! Carpool! The Golf GTI creates a space for multiple people to occupy, in the act of driving or being driven. This is a Volks-Wagen because it is meant to be shared! The activities this car enables belie its true nature: it's a fun car, to have fun with. This car gives serious performance, but it isn't to be taken seriously. This isn't a track day racer, it's a daily driver for the (well off) enthusiast. This is a car that loves what it does, and it wants as many people as possible to experience that.