When driving enthusiasts pick their favorite cars, the results are usually pretty low on practicality. Most of the world’s best-driving sports cars are small and sleek, with cozy cabins, stiff rides, and high prices.
But if you don’t need the style of a sports car, you can find some outstanding driving experiences even from affordable, ordinary-looking versions of mainstream models.
Perhaps the best of this breed is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The GTI pioneered the “hot hatch” segment of souped-up economy cars back in 1976, and VW has polished it to near-perfection over the years.
The Golf hatchback serves as an excellent starting point. Even the base model has respectable ride and handling, and its well-finished interior feels better than some humble economy car. That’s good, because the GTI starts at $27,265 and the tested high-end Autobahn model hit $36,170.
The GTI doesn’t look like a $36,000 vehicle. Volkswagen adorns the headlights with red accents on the tested car, and the alloy wheels dress up the package a little further. But it otherwise sticks with the clean, classic lines whose lineage comes clearly from the 1976 model — nothing overtly luxurious or sporty.
But on the road, the GTI feels like an Audi. And mechanically, it is — the Audi A3 sedan uses the same engine and other mechanical components.
The GTI’s punchy turbocharged 220-horsepower engine is up from the 170 horsepower on the base Golf. And tauter suspension tuning and tighter steering deliver an outstanding driving experience, without interfering with everyday comfort and easy drivability. Drive the GTI gently on a crowded street and it’s a mild-mannered Golf. But push harder, and the extra capability makes it a delight.
And unlike most sports cars, the GTI could easily serve as the only car for most buyers. It’s a five-seat hatchback, not a two-seat convertible. You can fit four adults without too much squeezing. You can fold down the rear seat to open up a useful boxy cargo hold. You can commute comfortably, especially with the available automatic transmission — a convenience not offered on the competing Ford Focus ST and Honda Civic Si.
For better or for worse, the GTI isn’t a raw performance machine. And numbers-minded car enthusiasts correctly observe that the GTI isn’t the quickest car in its class. You get lively acceleration, but it’s not a downright thrill in a straight line. (Volkswagen also sells the 292-horsepower all-wheel-drive Golf R, priced from about $40,000.)
For even better value, the 170-horsepower Golf (priced from $21,760) is already a respectable choice for driving enjoyment. But at that price point, you’ll also want to look hard at the Mazda3 — another fun but polished small car that’s sold as the tested four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback.
Prices start at just $18,985 for the Sport model. Despite that name, enthusiasts will prefer the Touring or Grand Touring, which upgrade from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 155 horsepower to a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter. There isn’t a turbocharged challenger to the GTI, but the 2.5-liter Mazda3 already returns lively acceleration. Both automatic and manual transmissions are widely available. Steering isn’t as crisp as the GTI’s, but the Mazda still lets you have a good time — for the price of an ordinary economy car.
The Mazda3 also achieves respectable fuel economy ratings with its available automatic transmission: 31 mpg with the base engine, and 30 mpg with the 2.5-liter. Compare that to 28 mpg for the Golf and 27 mpg for the GTI. However, the GTI ties the 2.5-liter Mazda’s EPA ratings with the manual transmission, at 28 mpg.
The rear seat is on the tight side even for a compact car, but it’s usable for two adults without too much squeezing. And a Honda Civic will get even better mileage. But the Mazda3 is an appealing compact car for folks who appreciate its sprightly demeanor.
For further performance savings, a potentially tempting option is the Kia Forte5 SX, a turbocharged five-door hatchback with 201 horsepower — priced from $24,795. But although it’s potent on paper, the Forte5 doesn’t match the Volkswagen or Mazda for driving enjoyment. Especially with the tested automatic transmission, the engine doesn’t seem as eager as its horsepower would suggest. And the steering lacks the well-weighted precision of a good driver’s car.
Furthermore, the Forte5 SX has an unpleasantly stiff ride, slamming hard over bumps. Throw in limited availability of exterior colors and modern features, along with humdrum cabin decor (despite some red accents on the tested car), and its appeal is pretty limited. That said, the base Forte5 LX can give you decent comfort and interior space for an affordable price — but only if you want basic transportation rather than something fun to drive.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.