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It was 2021, and the world was still very much in the grips of a global pandemic. Despite this, much of the world had returned to some sense of normalcy, albeit with some compromises. And if you’re anything like me, it’s at this point that you started to go a little crazy. I’d always wanted a Golf GTI, and in February of that year I picked up a used 2017 GTI model with 27,000 miles for just under $21,000. Not long after, I found it is one of the best road trip cars for the money. Realizing that pandemic life was here to stay for at least a bit longer, I decided to get away from the makeshift home office. It was time to explore New England in one of my dream cars. 

A used MK7 GTI parked in front of a cliff on a road trip.
A used MK7 GTI on a road trip in Vermont | Marc Wiley, MotorBiscuit

Crisp, accessible handling sets the GTI apart

There are a lot of affordable sports cars that are good at one thing. The Miata, for example, is great for road feel but lacks a real sense of refinement. A Subaru BRZ or Toyota GR86 sends power through tires that are too skinny to handle it, but it gives the car a rowdier sense of character than the sub-200-horsepower engine would imply.

In the GTI, though, I found myself chucking it into every corner with near-reckless abandon. It’s not that you can’t get this car unsettled – throw it too hard, and the short wheelbase combines with lift-off oversteer to pitch you into a momentary sideways frenzy. But it takes to apexes like a bear to honey when you find the limit.

Tight shot of the chrome GTI badge on a blue 2017 model
Close-up of the GTI grille badge | Marc Wiley, MotorBiscuit

In carving through the mountains of Vermont, I’d find myself scything from mustard to mayonnaise with a permanent smile plastered on my face. That’s the other thing – the GTI is small enough to play around with while staying in a single lane.

Unfortunately, the GTI I brought home didn’t have the performance pack. That meant I was left with just the standard brakes. Those were adequate for a touge run or two, but beyond that, showed more fade than a sun-bleached umbrella.

The ride was compliant and comfortable, even in the 27,000-mile example I brought home. Only the biggest of imperfections would significantly interrupt the quality driving experience. And with the bolstered seats and excellent headroom, this MK7 GTI is an easy fit for almost any size driver. Even on an extended road trip, this car is one of the best I’ve experienced.

Punchy performance meets road-trip efficiency

The 2017 GTI I drove was, as ever, powered by Volkswagen’s vaunted EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. This iteration delivered 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. To that point, I, Mr. Save-the-Manuals, had never experienced the VW DSG, but within minutes I understood why so many automakers are going this way.

The shifts are quicker than anything I could manage, even disregarding rev hang and clutch wear. And they did so with a satisfying crackle as the fuel cut briefly interrupted proceedings and the transmission swapped cogs.

Unlike the GLI, the GTI in manual mode puts you in complete control over the gear shifts. Leave it in first, mash the gas, and it’ll bang off the rev limiter until you pull the paddle.

As I left the winding roads of the Green Mountains for a highway blast on I-89, the GTI showed another side – efficiency.

Clark Plaid seats of a used MK7 GTI
MK7 GTI plaid interior with Monster Mats | Marc Wiley, MotorBiscuit

Cruising at 70 mph, I could average upwards of 35 mpg, so long as stop-and-go traffic or rolling hills didn’t get in the way. If there’s anything negative I could say about this hot hatch, it gets very thirsty at anything above a cruise. In traffic, I’d get 20 to 22 mpg at most. And when romping through the hills and mountains of New England, there were times when I was lucky to get 15.

It’s easy to think about when you’re paying for premium – and just as easy to forget with a snaking ribbon of tarmac laid out ahead of you.

A night sleeping in the GTI

The 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space in the MK7 GTI is more than enough for a bi-weekly CostCo excursion, but it turns out that this hot hatch doesn’t make a half-bad camper for a night either.

On one particular leg of my New England adventure, I’d gotten caught wandering too far off the beaten path and decided to bed down in a parking area for the night.

Fortunately, with the rear seats folded flat and the front seats pushed forward, the Golf left just enough room for a mostly comfortable night’s sleep. I’m 5’11”, but when laying on my side with legs slightly bent, the GTI is just big enough. That said, the measured distance is just over five feet from the back of the front seats to the hatch. However, anyone taller than six feet may not find the same level of comfort I experienced.

Meanwhile, the sloping roofline didn’t do me any favors the next morning when, prompted by a rather rude alarm clock, I sprang up and immediately whacked my head on the ceiling. Overall though, the little hatch proved its versatility, adding “bed” to its list of possible applications.

Is the MK7 GTI fast?

Once I was done seeing stars, brushed my teeth with bottled water, and my back made a sound like distant firecrackers, it was time to have a little fun. I found an abandoned back road just south of Pisgah State Park in New Hampshire and decided to see how Launch Control works in the MK7 GTI.

A used 2017 GTI parked while on a road trip
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI | Marc Wiley, MotorBiscuit

At this point, I was running on all-season tires halfway through their lifespan. Still, the spirited hatchback managed a respectable 6.8-second run to 60 mph, according to my very amateur calculations. Overall though, that figure makes sense, given Car and Driver reported a 5.9-second sprint to 60 in their test car.

After spending days wandering from Northern Vermont through New Hampshire, it was time to visit Boston. Here, I learned how the little hatchback handled the city.

Small enough for city driving, too harsh to find the fun

As much as I loved both Boston and my Golf GTI by this point, combining the two wasn’t exactly pleasant. It’s here where the GTI’s sport suspension shows its weak points. Without adaptive dampers, the MK7 GTI absolutely violates its driver and passengers on rough city streets. Dealing with repeated, large bumps is unpleasant in any car. However, the GTI’s short wheelbase and stiffened suspension make it particularly jarring. As much as I’d loved the entire road trip to this point, I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and back onto open, more well-kept roads.

That said, the little Volkswagen is agile enough to make those quick jaunts through small gaps in traffic. Furthermore, it’s punchy enough to take advantage of them when they pop up. And because it has such short overhangs, parallel parking one of these feels like cheating.

Quality in-car tech

In contrast to the current MK8 GTI, the MK7 has just the right amount of in-car tech. The Apple CarPlay worked well enough, and Bluetooth was nearly flawless. And even in this relatively basic model, sound quality and depth were more than respectable. That said, it was far from the best-sounding car audio out there.

My only gripe is that the car offered little in the way of keyfob functions without external modifications. The only options are lock and unlock, with no long-press functions from the factory. And because of how the immobilizer is designed, there is no way to add a remote start to the MK7. That’s a pain when you just want to cool off the cabin on a steamy July afternoon.

Is the MK7 GTI the perfect road trip car?

The front of a MK7 Golf GTI, one of the best road trip cars
A rainy day of road-tripping the GTI | Marc Wiley, MotorBiscuit

If it’s just one or two of you coming along for the ride, a used MK7 GTI is probably one of the best road trip cars you can buy if you love to drive. It’s comfortable everywhere except the roughest streets and an absolute riot on back roads and mountain passes.

Furthermore, the GTI delivers ample highway efficiency at a modest cruising speed and has enough space to pack a couple of suitcases or even bed down for a night in a pinch. These days, a used, low-mileage MK7 GTI goes for around $25,000. However, you can spend as little as $17,000 by opting for one between 50,000 and 75,000 miles and still feel good about it.

That price, with its driving experience and versatility, makes the MK7 GTI one of the best all-around road trip cars available today.

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