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ENTHUSIASTIC HATCH: Volkswagen’s excellent 2018 GTI performance compact upgrades tech while maintaining superb driving dynamics

Seven generations of Volkswagen’s spunky, hot-rodded hatchback brings us to what is widely regarded as the best of the bunch.

There are quicker cars among the GTI’s adversaries (including VW’s own Golf R), but the progenitor of the “hot hatch” sector is unmatched in its balance of performance, quality, comfort and utility.

Our test vehicle, a midlevel SE model, was powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, a motor ubiquitous in a number of Volkswagen and Audi models. Its 220 horsepower drives the front wheels through a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic renowned for its lighting-fast shifts. Only from a dead stop is there the slightest hesitation before the gearbox snaps into action. (A six-speed manual is also available, at a savings of $1,100)

The GTI’s sport-tuned suspension is a Goldilocks compromise: not too hard, not too soft, but just right for agile handling along with smooth, comfortable cruising.

The speed-sensitive, variable-ratio electronic steering is a rarity among that type of system, delivering sharp precision, an engaging amount of road feel, and minimum numbness.

Brakes deliver plentiful stopping power in a linear, progressive fashion. And speaking of fashion, their bright-red calipers deliver a splash of color peeking through the edgy alloys.

Selectable modes allow the driver to vary the car’s performance behavior, from Eco through Normal, Sport and a customizable option.

The cabin reeks of quality, from the top-flight, soft-touch materials swathing dash and doors, to the heavily bolstered, leather-clad (a $695 option) sport bucket seats, to the excellent stereo system.

The upgraded infotainment system brings the 2018 GTI up to current standards, with user-friendly controls and an easy-to-learn layout. Colorful graphics take the guesswork out of most selections, and the voice command system works well.

Like most German-based vehicles, options can quickly inflate the bottom line. But the S base model has most of the great performance goodies, and its starting price of $26,415 looks like a real bargain.

Add in VW’s new People First warranty, and you’ll receive bumper-to-bumper converage for a generous 6 years/71,000 miles. Talk about bargains!

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