The Volkswagen Golf has long been a staple of the American automobile market, sent in, in 1974, to replace the VW Beetle. Since then, the Golf has been a popular choice among buyers, and it has evolved into what is now being hailed as a 'hot hatch' - the GTI.
Whether you go for the standard Golf (the TSI, which is the base Golf's sole trim level) or the more high-powered GTI, you will get something fun. There is also an e-Golf hatchback version and even a SportWagen Wagon, but that will be covered elsewhere. For right now, we are going to focus on pitting the TSI against the GTI.
To be honest, both are good options in their own right. The TSI is a hatchback design, which means that you get a lot of space in the cargo area. Also, the cabin is quiet and packed with comfort, complete with a smooth ride quality. On the downside, though, the TSI does not have that many standard safety, luxury, or convenience features equipped. The engine is not the quickest to accelerate, which makes for a sluggish 0-60 mph time of 8.3 seconds (which means the Golf TSI trails behind industry leaders like the Hyundai Veloster and the Honda Civic hatchback). The TSI's sporty reputation in Germany does not carry over here as the handling feels sub par and the tires have so little road grip that they drag down on handling and emergency braking. They're simply budget tires slapped onto an economy vehicle.
Last year saw the Golf reduced down to just a single trim level - the TSI. This makes it hard to compare to anything save for the GTI, which is kind of in its own world. The GTI is the antithesis of the TSI: sporty in its handling, agile, fun to drive, riddled with sophistication (right down to the ride quality with its optional adaptive suspension), and its gorgeous interior design. It is hard not to like the GTI, which isn't even that much more expensive to start off with than the TSI.
The GTI does, of course, have a few issues. The standard all-season tires suck some of the road grip away, just as the ones from the TSI do, and we know how that affects the driving and braking capabilities. Also, the optional add-ons and higher trim levels do see pretty big jumps in their price tags. Buyers on budgets will have to keep to the lower trims and add only a few options.
So, how exactly do these two totally different VW Golfs stack up against one another? Let us dig in and find out. One of them might end up being the right 'hot hatch' for you, so be sure to read through to the end of this trim level comparison review to find out which 2021 Volkswagen Golf we recommend buying.
Compare the 2021 Volkswagen Golf TSI vs GTI - What is the Difference?
Let us start this review off by talking about the regular 2021 Volkswagen Golf TSI. As we already mentioned, it was pared down to just one trim level for the 2020 model year. This means that you do not get to make too many choices as to how you would like to customize your vehicle. What you will get is a basic array of standard features that you cannot do anything about altering. With that being said, let us get into what those standard features happen to be.
Working from the outside in, let us look at what the Golf TSI's exterior has to offer its buyers. The Golf TSI comes with standard automatic headlights, LED taillights, LED daytime running lights, and side mirrors that are power-folding. The Golf TSI also has a power tilting and sliding panoramic sunroof, windshield wipers that are able to automatically detect rain, washer nozzles that are heated, heating for the side mirrors, and 16-inch split-V alloy wheels that carry the Golf wherever you need it to take you. You can take your pick between six different paint colors: Deep Black Pearl, Pure White, Tungsten Silver Metallic, White Silver Metallic, Platinum Gray Metallic, and Silk Blue Metallic.
What about the inside, though? We will go over some of the standard interior design elements first. The Golf TSI comes with front seats that are both 6-way partially power adjustable and that have adjustable lumbar support built in as well. On top of that, the front seats both come wit a standard heating function that will warm you up on a cool winter day. The rear is designed with a 60/40-split folding rear seat with a center arm rest that can fold down between the seats. The steering wheel is a multi-functional wheel (meaning it has controls for features like cruise control and the audio system mounted onto it) one that is wrapped in leatherette, and the gear shift knob is wrapped in leather. The cabin's seating surfaces are done in V-Tex leatherette upholstery.
Looks are nice, sure, but what about tech specs? We all love a good amount of technology, even if we are paying a 'bargain' price like what the TSI offers. Volkswagen equips the Golf TFI with a standard 6.5-inch color display along with its composite color touchscreen display and AM/FM stereo. You also get features like App Connect, Volkswagen Car-Net Remote Access for five years at no extra cost, a paid subscription with Volkswagen Car-Net Safe & Secure, a 1-month/1 GB trial subscription to Volkswagen Car-Net Hotspot, one USB-C port, and Bluetooth hands-free technology with audio streaming for compatible devices.
Safety and security features are somewhat scarce on the Golf TFI, but buyers need to bear in mind that this is an economy vehicle. But VW does include several helpful features to help boost the Golf TFI's value. There is a push button start function that comes with the keyless entry system. In addition to that, you get forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and pedestrian monitoring (which gets wrapped in with Front Assist).
Of course, we cannot forget to mention what is under the hood of the Golf TFI. The engine is a 1.4-L TSI inline-4 cylinder engine direct injection with an intercooler that gets 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission (which is something of a dying breed in this day and age) comes standard but an 8-speed automatic transmission with Triptronic and Sport mode is optional. Variable assistance comes as part of the electromechanical power steering. Also, there is an independent suspension with front MacPherson struts and a fully independent 4-link rear suspension.
As you can see, the 2021 Volkswagen Golf TFI is fairly par for the course (mind the pun). The GTI is where things really get exciting. On the outside, the GTI is equipped with 18-inch 5-spoke two-toned machined alloy wheels. There are automatic headlights, fog lights, and a read spoiler lip and mirror caps done in gloss black paint.
The interior will upgrade you to chic Clark Plaid cloth seating surfaces, ambient interior lighting, and illuminated door sills. There is still a manual air conditioning system and leather-wrapped gear shift knob and multi-function steering wheel.
You do get to choose between three different trim levels on the GTI: the S, the SE, and the Autobahn, so you can customize the vehicle more than you can on the regular Golf TFI. With the S, you get Drive Mode Selection, VAQ limited slip front differential lock, and blind spot monitoring with front assist. The SE will upgrade you to an adaptive front headlight system on the LED front headlights, leather seating surfaces, and a panoramic sunroof. The line-topping Autobahn gives you DCC adaptive chassis control, sticky summer performance tires, and a Fender premium sound system for an all-around sportier vibe.
The Golf GTI receives its power from a standard 2.0-L TSI engine that gets paired up with an optional 7-speed DSG automatic transmission with Triptronic and Sport Mode or the standard 6-speed manual transmission. This engine is able to get the Golf GTI a powerful 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Front wheel drive is the only available drivetrain on the GTI, as is the case on the TFI.
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Which Trim to Choose?
There you have it, folks, the core of the 2021 Volkswagen Golf line-up. You will find a lot of other vehicles with the Golf name associated with them, but the TFI and the GTI are the two that potential buyers will likely be looking at the most. Unfortunately, it seems that the TFI has run its course, and this sole trim level is on its way out the door, making room for the sportier GTI and its three trim levels.
If you are a buyer on a budget, then you might feel like you have to stick with the 2021 Volkswagen Golf TFI. An extra $5,000 or so more for the base S trim on the GTI might just be out of the question. And that is understandable; the economy is tough on a lot of people right now, and many shoppers are having to stick to some pretty reserved budgets.
But, if you can swing it, we recommend opting for the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI's base S trim level. The two higher trim levels have some super cool features, sure, but they are not necessarily worth the skyrocketing price tags. The base S trim level is quite reasonable and gives you a nice balance of powerful performance and standard technology. The amount of safety and infotainment features you get is worth the price tag, whereas the TFI only offers the bare-bones minimum for an economy vehicle.
To be quite honest, we have seen a lot of growth from other economy automakers. "Budget" vehicles are not necessarily "cheap" vehicles, and buyers know this. That's why they will skip over them and spend a little more on something with more features and higher quality materials. If VW wants to keep the Golf TFI on the market, they are going to need to change the way they design and equip this economy vehicle. It seems, though, that the TFI is being slowly phased out in favor of more powerful, sporty vehicles like the GTI.
And we really like the GTI. This 'hot hatch' is one of the best in its segment and is definitely worth at least taking for a test drive. The 2.0-L engine supplies a steady amount of power and massively outperforms the TFI's smaller engine. If you can swing it, go for the GTI's S trim level; we think most buyers will be pleasantly surprised by just how fun this vehicle is to drive, especially given how smoothly it handles every turn you take.
• Compare the 2020 Volkswagen Golf Trim Levels