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Test Drive: How well do dogs fit in the 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI?

Picture of Chris Teague

Chris Teague

Golf GTI
The Golf GTI can do almost everything well, but how does it handle a 60-pound dog?

Earlier this year, my family’s pet count began growing. After losing our oldest cat (20) and dog (13), we adopted a Golden Doodle puppy and two kittens. Rebound relationships, I know, but the crew has bonded, and our house never has a quiet moment in the best ways possible. Around the same time, I leased a 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI so that I’d have a somewhat practical but fun daily driver to carry the dog. How well does it handle that task? Let’s take a closer look.

2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI Cargo Space

The GTI offers 19.9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seats. That’s shy of the room offered by some compact crossovers, such as the VW Taos, which offers 25 cubic feet. On the other hand, it’s significantly larger than the Volkswagen Jetta’s 14.1 cubic feet. With just 4.7 inches of ground clearance, the GTI is easy to load and unload, and the space is reasonably tall to accommodate larger items – like a lanky puppy. 

Charlie had much more room in the Golf GTI when he was younger.

How well does my dog fit in the GTI?

When he arrived, Charlie was a wee lad at just around 14 pounds, most of which was hair. Many months later, after a steady diet of socks, kids’ toys, cat food, and paper towels, he’s grown to almost 60 pounds and frequently forgets how big he is. When he was smaller, Charlie rode in a car seat with a restraint up front, but he quickly outgrew that option. 

That left me with the rear cargo area, which will require a barrier for safety before I spend significant time on the road with the dog in tow. We’ll review a dog car barrier in a separate post once it arrives (who knows when). The space is still tall and wide enough to allow him to stand and turn around. 

Even though he’s still a puppy, at just nine months old, Charlie’s quite lazy, so while he can easily jump into most vehicles, he prefers to have his back legs lifted by a person. However, the new GTI rides just 4.7 inches off the ground, so he has little excuse to complain about the jump. In fact, it’s the only car he willingly jumps into, and I’ve tested nearly 40 cars with him at this point.

A younger Charlie enjoying the GTI’s front seat in his dog harness.

How Does the 2022 GTI Drive?

Though newcomers from Korea are encroaching on its territory, the GTI has long been the definitive hot hatchback. Early on, frisky engines paired with delightful chassis tuning meant the cars could iron out twisty roads like no other. Today’s GTI is larger and heavier, but it retains the spirit of its ancestors. That means a responsive powertrain, excellent handling, and engaging steering and braking feel. 

Every GTI comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) is available. After a frustrating, extensive search, I settled for a DSG-equipped GTI to avoid paying dealer markups on more desirable 6MT models. 

I’m here to bring good news if you’re stuck in the same boat: The new GTI is fun, even without the manual transmission. Sure, the chintzy plastic paddle shifters can be infuriating, and the shift between reverse and drive is sometimes slow. Those are small prices to pay for the overall experience, however. The gearbox cracks off shifts with lightning speed and offers responsive performance in most situations

Handling is predictably sharp, even without the available adaptive dampers. A new torque-sensing limited-slip differential drastically reduces torque steer and improves grip in corners. The front brake discs measure 13.4 inches, and the rears are 12.2, providing excellent stopping power and little fade over time.

Black was not my first color choice, as it’s difficult to keep clean – especially during a Maine winter.

Why I Chose a GTI Over Other Hatchbacks

Car shopping in 2022 can be a harrowing experience, and I’d recommend against it unless you’re desperate for a new ride. My criteria for a new vehicle: I needed a rear liftgate for the dog, either front- or all-wheel drive to deal with winter, and preferably a decent level of driving engagement. Those requirements drastically narrowed the list of potential vehicles, and I avoided most crossovers.

That only left the Golf GTI, Golf R, or Hyundai Kona N. Having driven the Kona N during the launch event for the Hyundai Santa Cruz, I knew I was too big to be comfortable in the seats. I briefly considered premium options, such as the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 or GLB 35, but sparse availability and markups (again) drove me away. 

The Mark 8 GTI features a clean design with a hidden backup camera under the VW badge.

Volkswagens had to be more available than the brand-new Hyundai, right? Not so fast. My preference was a blue Golf R with a manual transmission, but the closest option was 500 miles away, and the dealer had slapped a $10,000 “market adjustment” to the price tag. Luckily, there was one GTI in Maine, and it was close. 

Rather than my blue Golf R dream car, I got a black GTI SE – first-world problems, I know. It came with the available $1,225 leather package, which added leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, and a 12-way power driver seat with memory. The seats are wider and offer better bolstering than those in the Kona N, and they remain comfortable on longer drives. 

The GTI isn’t Perfect

I can’t gush about the GTI without detailing its flaws, which are few in number but severely annoying. Much fuss has been made about the car’s controls and infotainment system, which are almost entirely touch-sensitive buttons instead of physical, tactile controls. While it’s true that those things are unnecessarily complicated and irritating at first, they become less so over time.

Speed, responsiveness, and intuitiveness are the real issues. Times vary, but there is a significant lag between when the car is started and when the first touch inputs register on the screen. Some functions, such as climate controls, read as unavailable for a short period after startup, and it’s not always clear how to achieve a task. That said, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto work flawlessly, so it’s possible to circumvent the system for audio and navigation needs.

The system gets easier to use, but remains frustrating at times.

I enjoy the GTI and look forward to driving it on most occasions, but my highly privileged lifestyle means I have new cars to test every week, leaving the VW idle. We own a Volvo XC90 that my wife primarily drives, so there’s already a capable family and dog hauler in my driveway. Maine winters love to eat cars, especially when they’re parked under feet of snow. To avoid that hassle and unnecessary expenses for repairs, I’ll probably turn the lease in (way) early. I’ve accumulated just 1,800 miles in the seven months I’ve owned it, so it’s hard to justify the expense. In the meantime, Charlie enjoys taking a ride through the twisties.

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