Some cars have always carried a certain stigma attached to them. When I think about the quintessential scene-kid car, one of two comes to mind. I picture either a Honda Civic or a Volkswagen GTI. In my humble opinion, the GTI replaced the Civic as the go-to boy-racer vehicle of choice in recent years. Despite my attitude towards the little hatchbacks, a sizable chunk of ECS Tuning customers and consumers around the world gravitate towards the Volkswagen GTI for some reason. As a writer and car enthusiast, I had to finally see why the VW GTI is so inexplicably tantalizing as a daily driven subject for tasteful modification.
Since we are a tuning company, there was no better choice than our own MK7 GTI 6-speed as a prime test subject. With this car, I could experience living with a GTI and drive around in an example that has been modified similarly to my own tastes. Its current state makes our MK7 a poor selection to talk exclusively about the car as a “new car” review, but that was not the point of my investigation. I wanted to understand why the car is popular on its own as well as how it holds up with a full catalog of bolt-ons slapped in the car.
Drivers on both sides of the pro-GTI and anti-GTI fence offered their opinions of this specific car to me before, so I felt like I had an idea of what the car was going to do for me. Their opinions mixed with my own preconceived notions did not foster high expectations for the GTI. To further add perspective, I alternate my wheel time between either my 2015 WRX or my 1988 E30. Based on the information I had going in, I fully anticipated the GTI to drive like a tame WRX with more torque steer. This made me wonder why anyone would choose the VW over the Subaru.
I sat in the little MK7, turned the key, threw the ECS Shift Knob in reverse, and backed out of our R&D shop to find out what made these cars appealing. Immediately I noticed a few intricacies of the car that I quickly became accustomed to. The clutch was incredibly light, the steering was light, and the flywheel chattered like that annoying guy behind you in the movie theater. I am used to a noisy lightweight flywheel, and our ECS lightweight flywheel did not disappoint with its vocal reminder that it had been on a diet. However, the chatter became barely noticeable as I pulled the car out of our lot and onto the Wadsworth back roads.
Despite the light pedal feel, our ECS performance clutch kit excellently engaged with a snappy response. The performance clutch and flywheel kit paired with our adjustable short shifter made the driving quite engaging, but I could not help but feel that it was still a removed experience when compared to something more mechanical. The fairly quiet cabin offered a relaxed environment and some luxuries not afforded to my WRX but was otherwise a familiar experience. New cars, in general, tend to have the same vibe from behind the wheel. I felt slightly detached, but not any more than I have in other brand new commuter cars.
When I put my foot down the first time, though, the sense of detachment and slight boredom disappeared. The wheels spun and the traction control nanny I never anticipated would need to engage instantly stepped in to kill my fun. But I noticed something: this car had a chameleonic ability to transform into whatever you needed it to be depending on how far down you pressed the throttle. I should mention that the example I drove is equipped with the APR Stage 2 tune, Luft-Technik performance intake, upgraded coil packs from the RS3, a full Milltek Sport exhaust, Airlift Performance 3H air-ride kit, 034 Motorsport sway bars, and every polyurethane bushing and mount we could interchange. The basic modification list represents what I would do myself, so it provided great insight into how good the car is to modify. That said, I felt instantly more engaged before pulling in to fill the car up with some gas for my extended test drive.
An important part of getting to know any car is to just live with it for a minute. Before I could enjoy throwing the car around, I needed to get the full experience of what it would be like to own every day for the purposes of my investigation. I filled the thimble-sized 12-gallon tank, played with the air-ride settings, deactivated traction control this time, and set out to hit some back roads.
With the traction control off, there was no overprotective babysitter to stop the mad wheel-spin. I could feel the differential doing its damnedest to control the hop and spin, but it might as well have tried to reverse the rotation of the Earth. Without some seriously sticky tires, the FWD layout was doomed to forever experience torque steer and traction loss under an all-out launch. However, this is not my first LSD-equipped high-horsepower FWD. I have experienced power to weight ratios similar to the GTI in other FWD cars that have felt terrifyingly out of control under a hard launch. The GTI at no point felt out of control, just that it could benefit from better tires and possibly less PSI of pressure in the front airbags. Immediately I was having fun listening to the noticeable but not overwhelming Milltek exhaust and the sound of the turbo spooling. Compared to my nearly stock WRX, this GTI felt considerably quicker. It was not terribly fast, but I began to understand why the little Volkswagen was so popular.
After a hard launch or two, I started looking for corners. Unfortunately, this is not my native state of Tennessee. Hardly a corner could be found. For the first time in my life, I was behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive, turbocharged, hatchback that I wanted to drive hard. I am not a fan of any three of those things in any combination, but here I was with my hands glued to the wheel, engine sitting at the top of its range, and I was looking for any corner I could to try and experience the car in its natural habitat.
I drove around some back roads and eventually was able to find enough corners that I could say I at least threw the car around a little. The corners I found made me incredibly happy. The GTI just pulls you through high and low-speed corners like an excited kid pulling you down the toy aisle of a store. It begged to be driven hard, even on the air-ride and street tires. I started to fully focus on how the car wanted to be driven and found that it didn’t matter: it just wanted you to drive it. No matter what I tried, nothing made the car unhappy. Driving casually through one-horse little townships at low speed was comfortable enough to make me forget I was behind the wheel of a car that could give a new STI a feeling of humility. When the speed limits increased and the roads became more desolate, it didn’t complain that I kept it near the rev limiter almost constantly.
After I had some fun, admittedly for longer than I had intended, I needed to shift gears (figuratively) into what it was like to just use as a bit of transportation. Modified cars are quite often on a sliding scale of usability directly related to the amount and type of modifications they sport. The more you change your car to behave like a race car, the less it will behave like a street car. While this may be obvious as you read it, people frequently are caught up in the performance whirlwind. Often, they make changes that alter the car they were eager to tune into one they are eager to sell. I took the GTI through some small towns, to a store for a snack and soda, and out for some casual property hunting. All my stops were pleasantly and unexpectedly enjoyable in the modified hatchback.
Air bags are not always the most comfortable ride, but in this car, I almost didn’t notice a difference. I have driven an unmodified MK7.5 GTI and the ride quality felt quite similar just around town. Slight bounciness reminded me that the car was on air, but even railroad tracks and unpaved sections of country roads felt relatively comfortable on the Airlift suspension. A fun side-effect of the test drive is that I no longer consider air suspension to be a gimmick; adjustable ride height at the touch of a button with good ride quality is nothing to scoff at and perfectly suited for a modified MK7.
Inside the car, only a few squeaks and rattles made me remember I was in a GTI and not something much nicer. The solid feeling to everything, the chunkiness of the ECS shift knob and HVAC control knobs, and the spartan appearance inside made the car engaging and supple. My only real complaint is the car’s lack of a backup camera. I know this is silly, but I like the camera on my WRX even though I normally hate anything that makes driving easier. With the major blind spots, I noticed in the GTI, having a backup camera would make navigating something like a cramped gas station lot or a busy R&D shop much less stressful. However, that complaint aside, driving the GTI felt like driving a slightly more luxurious, more engaging, and more practical WRX.
In the few hours I drove the car I found that my fuel consumption was much lower than in the WRX, even though the GTI was pushing more horsepower and rocking a much more aggressive tune. It dawned on me that the GTI has the same mileage range as my WRX, yet more horsepower and a smaller tank than the Subaru. The theme of ‘it’s the same, but better’ just seemed to hold true for every aspect of the car.
The steering wheel design is again reminiscent of the WRX, but in a better, more comfortable material. The console controls are driver-centered, whereas in the WRX they are neutrally positioned. The seats offered similar side bolsters but were slightly more yielding yet supportive. I could easily have driven this exact GTI around the country and not become tired.
The whole time I drove the GTI I was constantly reminded of one upgrade fitted to the car that I could have done without. The ECS Big Brake Kit stopped the car tremendously but was completely unnecessary. It pulled my face off every time I touched the pedal and definitely felt like overkill for the amount of power produced by the little car. With performance pads, like Hawk HPS 5.0, and some good fluid, the brakes would have been more than sufficient. The oversized brakes on this GTI made it feel unbalanced. They would be perfect for a car with double the horsepower, but not a sub-400hp daily driver.
After spending an afternoon with the car, I felt hesitant to go back to the office. Not because it meant sitting down to write, but that it meant getting out of the GTI. I became used to the little quirks of that car and to the way it behaved with all its modifications. I grew fond of the plaid seats, oddly square rearview mirror, and the functionality of a hatchback. Even the slightly artificial sound of the engine had made an impression on me. I no longer felt that it sounded like a wannabe; it sounded like something with intention. Unfortunately, I had to bring the car back to our facility. I pulled it into the shop and said goodbye to a car with which I felt that I inexplicably bonded.
The GTI is now a car I have to own. Maybe not a MK7, but a classic GTI has made the list of cars I want to develop the same passion for that I have with my BMW. But what about this MK7? I thought exhaustively for about 5 minutes to come up with the categories on which I would judge it: practicality, drivability, comfort, fun, and complaints. Ten points for each category, a total of fifty points, and an adjusted final score out of 100 will give us the overall performance of our ECS Tuning modified MK7 GTI.
Practicality offered by the GTI is obviously high. Its large front doors make entry and exit from the car easy enough while the Hatch Pop Kit makes the spacious trunk area even more convenient. I could definitely fit all the spare parts a VW would ever need in the trunk. Out of ten, the GTI scores a nine for practicality in my eyes.
For drivability, the conclusion was a bit murkier. I definitely enjoyed the modifications and did not feel like they made the GTI behave too much differently, but I did feel that they were more aggressive than I would prefer in a daily driven vehicle. I had difficulty becoming accustomed to the light pedal feel of the clutch and actually wished for something slightly stiffer and with a more distinct engagement point on the pedal travel. The short shifter, however, behaved flawlessly. This short shifter felt precise and smooth in comparison to the average SSK feeling I am used to. Finally, the air ride suspension, of course, made sitting at a ridiculous ride height feasible. Overall, drivability suffered some from the clutch kit and oversized brakes. On a dedicated performance car, they are well suited, but for a daily, I’ll take less aggressive parts instead. I have to give the GTI a seven out of ten in drivability as a result.
Comfort is an easy category. The seats were supportive but not rough, the ride felt stiff but not bouncy or uncomfortable, and the steering wheel had a quality feel. I almost have no complaints about comfort. Easily the MK7 scores a nine out of ten in this category.
Fun is the most subjective of my judgment scale. As a daily, this would be very fun when you wanted to drive it and possibly a mild nuisance when you didn’t. This seems congruent with my experience in every car I have ruined with excessive modification only to tell everyone that I like it that way. Generally speaking, the MK7 GTI was intoxicatingly fun. The noise it made and the quick acceleration gave it a sense of excitement, while the torque and gearing gave it the ability to put a smile on my face in any gear under any conditions. However, the removed feeling and nagging reminder that I was driving a German economy car detracted from that enjoyment a bit. Fun receives an eight out of ten from my perspective.
Complaints are few and far between. To clarify, the more complaints, the lower the score out of ten. That said, I do need to mention the spring-loaded little cup supports in the cupholders. These can only be described as the absolute most annoying rattle to have ever generated sound waves near me ever. Burn them. Remove the cupholders, take them to a field, douse them in gasoline, and burn them. The same goes for the emergency brake handle. In second and fourth gear the bottom of my wrist contacts the e-brake handle no matter how I hold the shifter. A slightly shorter e-brake would be fantastic, VW. Some of us are over 6 feet tall. Lastly, the visibility out of the car was practically nonexistent. My primary concerns were the enormous pair of blind spots situated at each quarter panel. The blind spot mirror helped the driver’s side, but I almost felt hesitant to take the car on the highway for fear that I would miss a car or possible wayward planet in one of those blind spots. I will have to give the GTI a six out of ten for my complaints since these complaints would be something I’d just have to live with if the car was my daily driver.
So where does the car fall? A combined score puts the GTI at 36 out of 50 in its modified state as a daily driver. Unfortunately, that gives the car a C- on an adjusted score out of 100, but it does pass. C’s get degrees, after all. Funny enough, after sleeping on the experience, I do have to agree with the (arbitrary) score of 72/100. I feel that it accurately describes the car as one that meets nearly every requirement, fulfills those roles well, offers some excitement, but is fairly average across the board. It does a lot of things well enough, but no one or two things exceptionally well. I definitely understand the appeal, however, since it is something that you don’t have to settle for. You may settle a bit on one or two features, but as a total package, almost nothing I have ever driven offers the same levels of usability, performance, practicality, and aftermarket support. It was enough to change my perspective from that of a VW critic to a future VW fanboy, to say the least. Maybe my next project will need to be a MK1 or MK2?
Keep your eyes out for more reviews of the ECS cars and let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions, questions, or recommendations. We are always looking for cars and owners who have a story to tell or something to show off. If you think you have a car worth reviewing, let us know!