When you picture the quintessential hot hatchback, you probably think first of the Volkswagen GTI. For over forty years, VW has consistently set the paradigm with its GTI in that segment. Most recently, the MK7 and updated MK7.5 GTI 2.0T have delivered more performance and potential from essentially the same formula that created the namesake’s original success. As a staple in the enthusiast community, the GTI is enjoyed by a range of drivers with many different approaches to customizing their VW. From purists to tuners and racing drivers, the GTI offers a little something for everyone. So too can be said about the aftermarket support for the platform, which is considerable. We have already talked about some of our favorite modifications for the MK7 here, and we even built out both a MK7 and MK7.5 GTI, on which you can also read more to see what all we put into those cars and why. Today, we want to do a little thought exercise, though. We are going to walk you through a few ways we would choose to modify a personal MK7 or MK7.5 had we just bought one stock and were on a fairly restrictive budget.

First, let’s establish some parameters. I’ve just purchased a MK7 or MK7.5 and have decided I want a fun and daily drivable performance car that can be happy on a grocery run or spirited drive through some mountain roads. I would actually like the GTI to look slightly more aggressive, but I have a limited budget of $3,500 for modifications, so performance will be prioritized and visual upgrades like wheels or accent pieces will be omitted from my initial list. I have also decided I would prefer to spend a little more on ‘name-brand’ parts rather than buy the cheapest options for the most modifications possible in my budget.

Now that I have set some guidelines in place for my build, I can start ordering parts. First and foremost, what I buy needs to be complimentary. I don’t want to dump all the money into making the engine more powerful and leave out brakes, suspension, and mounts. So let’s look at the first parts I would choose for moderate improvements across the board within my price range.

Intake

Obviously, there is a huge debate about whether intakes are necessary or just expensive filters on a stick. We have written extensively about our own testing and research on the subject, which you can read here. To paraphrase, intakes by themselves are not these magical power adders, nor do manufacturers just design completely suffocating intakes while cackling maniacally about how much power they are robbing from the consumer. The purpose of a true cold air intake is to prevent heat soak, reduce turbulence, and yes, increase airflow for marginal gains in performance. The biggest benefits to the intake are that it cleans up the engine bay with a more sleek and compact design and also meets the general requirements called for by software tunes in order to achieve the stated power gains. This just leaves the question of which intake should I buy.

Fortunately, ECS has done a lot of the legwork for tuners wanting to put together the perfect intake system that meets their budget. For the easiest package, I chose the Assembled by ECS Build-Your-Own Air Intake Kit to put together everything I need all at once. With this kit, I can select either an open or closed intake system from one of a number of top manufacturers, add a silicone coolant hose re-route kit, include an SAI adapter for a clean secondary air injection solution, choose between options for turbo inlet hoses and pipes, and ultimately build the perfect intake system for myself. There are a few ways to build out the kit:

Easy, Fast, and Cheap:

The Luft-Technik intake system includes the dual air inlet scoop, turbo inlet hose, SAI filter adapter, and coolant reroute hose for a thrifty $365. This kit will give me a slight power increase and the induction noises I am looking for but definitely won’t take too much away from my initial budget of $3,500.

Total Package

Personally, I prefer the look of the APR sealed carbon fiber intake. It looks like a snail, and snails are cool. It just has a presence under the hood that says “I add power and I know it.” Even if that power is marginal, the APR design certainly looks like its just brimming with machismo. This intake, with the APR Carbon Fiber Turbo Inlet Hose and APR aluminum Turbo Inlet Pipe, would finish off the cold air passageways. Of course, going all out, I would also include the SAI adapter and Coolant Hose Re-route Kit for a complete upgrade. This method gives me the most power, the best looks, and takes care of a few minor issues associated with the intake upgrade all for $700. While it is double the cost of the fast and easy way, it absolutely justifies itself with both looks and performance capabilities well past double that of just the ECS intake by itself.

Exhaust

When it comes to exhaust, I am pretty picky. I don’t want something that is going to drone on the highway, but I want to be able to hear it when I step on the throttle. I don’t particularly care for flashy quad tips and I definitely don’t like chrome. So my options are fairly limited. If you don’t have the same restrictions I have, there are multiple exhaust options that will definitely fit inside the remaining budget of $2,800 with room to spare.

Supersprint

I particularly like the Supersprint system, outside of the price. The exhaust is simple, pretty, and offers both sound and performance improvements. Unfortunately for me, it is a little out of the budget but does offer that quality and capability I want. If you have a more liberal budget, the Supersprint 2.75” Resonated Cat-Back system is an excellent choice.

APR

Probably my personal choice of exhaust, the APR Cat-Back Exhaust System, either resonated or non-resonated, offers the same kind of sound and performance benefits as the Supersprint exhaust at a much more pleasing price. When it comes to aftermarket parts, you do get what you pay for, but APR is a trusted source for quality that I wouldn’t soon balk at for my build. The polished tips may have to go, though.

Milltek Sport

Perhaps the most affordable on the market within the mid-shelf to top-shelf producers, the Milltek 3” CBE is a stainless steel kit that is much fewer pieces than the APR or Supersprint systems. I love Milltek and highly respect their products. For a lower-cost solution from a reputable company, the Milltek system is the best choice.

For my car, I would pick the APR system with the black tips to give the exhaust a stealthy look while it improves the sound and performance of my GTI. That, and I have already been pretty APR-heavy in the mods, so I’d like to use consistent products since they should work well together. We do, of course, carry many other high-quality exhaust manufacturers for this platform, which we encourage you to explore if this brief list doesn’t satisfy your exhaust expectations.

Next, with my remaining $1,500 or so, I will have to stretch my budget as far as I can to get the well-rounded package I want right off the bat. There are a few tuning options, but I want to go with something that will let me grow rather than lock me into a category, especially for the money we are talking when it comes to software upgrades. The tuning options include actual ECU flash tunes and piggyback methods from a number of companies. In my case, the most versatile system will be best.

APR

APR software tunes are known to be some of the most aggressive on the market, where they use years of experience tuning these cars to their advantage to pull the most power safely possible from the MK7. Anyone looking for the peak gains possible from their hardware should go APR for their software needs.

ChipWerke

This plug-and-play system from ChipWerke is basically a zero-effort power booster. The piggyback unit overrides particular information to help your GTI produce more power safely. While not as aggressive as the APR tune, this unit doesn’t require your ECU to be sent off for professional flash tuning. Unfortunately, it is a static unit and not adjustable. You either buy the unit for a stock car or one with an upgrade package, but you have that one forever or until you decide to buy a different unit.

COBB

COBB Tuning is no stranger to getting more bang for your buck when it comes to stock or modified turbo engines. By itself, the COBB Accessport allows you to override certain information for more power from your stock engine. Paired with an intake and exhaust, you can safely run Stage 1+ software for a significant increase in power thanks to the additional supporting modifications. Finally, whenever/if ever you decide to upgrade your hardware further, a simple reflash from the handheld device lets you take the map up to Stage 2+ for the biggest performance gains. Plus, the AP works as a digital gauge cluster and will display all sorts of helpful information. For $600, this is probably the most well-rounded modification you can make to your GTI without ever touching a toolbox.

Suspension

We’re down to our last $1,000 here, so I have to make a hard choice. I can either dump it all into coilovers and have the most capable suspension setup for the money, or I can split it between springs, brake pads, and rotors for modest stopping power and handling upgrades.

Since I want to go with quality parts, but would like to do as much as I possibly can within my budget, I would choose to do the latter.

Springs

Ok, there are endless numbers of spring manufacturers, many of whom produce absolutely stellar products. Like exhaust, there isn’t much variation between companies other than the specific height and rates of the springs changing ever so slightly. Most of the companies ECS Tuning supports test their products extensively on the street and track, giving them excellent reputations among tuners as top-shelf products. The biggest differences are ride quality, drop, and price.

H&R

From touring cars to daily driven enthusiast cars, H&R has perhaps the most well-known name in the European performance suspension department. With a 1.3” drop all the way around on their Sport Springs, the H&R springs offer a good ride height without sacrificing ride quality.

Racingline

These guys know VWs, especially the new MQB platforms. With Racingline VWR Sport Springs, your car will sit in the same height range as the H&R springs, but these tend to be more comfortable using factory struts. They are, however, slightly more expensive than the H&R, Megan, and Vogtland options.

Eibach

From America, Eibach has been manufacturing high-quality suspension components for decades across all vehicle makes. They may be the most widely known of all suspension companies, especially if you are new to VW. This does come with a price tag, though, making Eibach the most expensive springs on the market by $100 over Racingline or ST.

For my car, I would pick H&R, leaving me with about $750 left to change up some last little gaps in my well-rounded daily driver build.

Brakes

This is where you can really go down a rabbit hole. However, this is also where I am just considering one kit: the StopTech Performance Sport Kit. This kit includes slotted rotors, performance pads, and new stainless brake lines, making it the most complete and affordable upgrade kit that uses original calipers on the market. At $730, it rounds out my $3,500 budget while also improving both pedal feel and stopping distance as well as reducing heat dissipation times thanks to the slots for venting heat gas.

With a better flowing exhaust, less restrictive intake, COBB off the shelf Stage 1+ tune, lowering springs, and upgraded braking components, the little GTI would be a competent and sporty hot hatchback that hasn’t strayed from its original looks. Other than the lowered ride height, a basically stock appearance that has all the driving experience improvements needed is exactly what I want from a daily driven enthusiast car. Naturally, adding aftermarket wheels and possibly some carbon fiber exterior mods would tell a more accurate story about what mild performance improvements have been made, but that sort of defeats my intentions. I like flying under the radar but being able to enjoy the competitive performance and a glorious sound from my turbo four-cylinder cars, so this list is reflective of those intentions. Let’s just take one last look at my parts list:

Intake

APR Carbon Fiber Enclosed Intake
APR Carbon Fiber Turbo Inlet Hose
APR Aluminum Inlet Pipe
ECS Coolant Hose Relocate Kit
ECS SAI Filter Adapter Kit

Exhaust

APR 2.75”Non-Resonated Cat-Back Exhaust

Software

COBB Accessport Stage 1+ Tune

Suspension

H&R Sport Springs

Brakes

StopTech Performance Pads
StopTech Performance Rotors
StopTech Braided Steel Brake Lines

This pretty much wraps up what I would confidently consider a daily drivable setup that provides more smiles per throttle press and improved performance across all categories. The act of matching the handling, braking, and horsepower capabilities are paramount to well-rounded performance. With improved handling and stopping power, using the engine to its full potential becomes much safer and easier either on the street or in an AutoX event, which means I can use that power more often. As I mentioned before, increasing the power dramatically without addressing the way that power affects other parts of your car is definitely something I want to avoid. With this list, I have safely improved many qualities that will compliment each other and combine to give a hearty increase in performance in my MK7 GTI over a stock vehicle without sacrificing drivability, OEM looks, or reliability.

For marginally more money, a set of wheels would definitely complete the look, but hey, I like the factory GTI wheels, especially with a slight drop, even if they do really need spacers. This may be my ideal list of upgrades for a mildly improved daily, but I want to know what you would do differently. How would you spend $3,500 on your MK7 GTI?