2023 VW Golf GTI Review: Will It Dog?

The 2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI has a lot of features relished by driving enthusiasts like a manual transmission, a good dose of torque, and decorative flourishes that help it stand out in a sea of staid commuter cars. It also has some of my dog’s preferred package items: a high roofline, easy ingress, and a center console that’s easy to climb over.

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Bramble the dog and her canine cadre had a fine time in this car, though I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by the experience behind the wheel. It mostly delivers on its promise of practicality plus performance, but I wasn’t really able to get emotionally invested in the GTI the way I thought I would pawing through the spec sheet. We’ll talk more about this in the review.

Meanwhile, welcome to Will It Dog, The Drive‘s car review series for canine owners. Here we’ll look at what a VW GTI is like to live with if you have dogs and point out any specific aspects that help or hurt its case as a dog taxi. We’ll focus on the car’s physical attributes when it comes to carrying animals rather than driving dynamics but provide insights there too.

Which snoot would you boop first?

Our main test dogs Bramble, Indi, and Silas are littermates; half Golden Retriever (dad) and half Australian Shepherd (mom). Bramble’s the smallest at 40-odd pounds while her brothers are about 60 pounds apiece. They’re energetic animals but comfortable with car rides, harnesses, and travel.

2023 VW Golf GTI Specs for Dog Owners
Base Price (as tested)$31,765 ($34,030)
Seating Capacity (people)5
Seating Capacity (dogs)4 (one in the cargo bay) (with human driver only)
EPA Fuel Economy23 mpg city | 32 highway | 27 combined
Cargo Volume19.9 cubic feet behind second row | 34.5 cubic feet behind first row
Quick TakeA practical performance car that certainly has room for dogs, it just doesn’t exactly feel optimized for them.
Will It Dog Score7/10

Interior Materials and Layout

For a sporty car, this is a pretty upright hatchback—the hood feels short and the driving position feels high compared to, say, a tenth-generation Honda Civic hatch which feels a little lower and slopier. The VW’s architecture makes for great visibility, and the rear hatch is very steep which yields you a lot of usable cargo space.

The cargo bay behind the rear seats is not particularly deep, but it is tall. You can lower both back seats or just half of them, to create room for large items like a dog kennel (which we’ll discuss in more detail shortly).

All the seats are wrapped in a nice and robust-feeling cloth. The front seats are nicely balanced between supportive, sporty, and comfortable though the backs feel a little more like an afterthought. VW’s signature plaid inserts are the cockpit’s primary beacons of personality in an otherwise drab sea of black plastic.

The display and driver interface are basically all digital—screen gauge cluster, screen center controls, and the few remaining buttons feel more like single-function touchscreens than switches. I’m sick of this trend in general but was pleased to see that VW took some advantage of this open platform to create some cool-looking and original-feeling gauge cluster layouts rather than just throwing some columns of numbers in front of you as most modern cars seem to.

The plastics on the door and dashboard are definitely a disappointment, though. It’s just black on black on black, with no interesting shapes or surfaces whatsoever. Seems like whoever was in charge of designing the physical cockpit saw the seats and the screen and figured they had the interior vibes box ticked so they went ahead and clocked out. Luckily we didn’t see any scratches or claw marks on any interior surfaces during our doggie test drive, but I would be very cautious about covering everything within the dog’s reach if I bought this car.

Climbing In and Out

Ingress and egress, for both people and animals, is exceptionally easy. That’s another benefit of the car’s shape—it’s not a long way down into the seat nor a climb upwards no matter how small your paws are.

Andrew P. Collins

The tailgate is a little higher than the rear door of course, but generally, this car is user-friendly to a huge range of body types and dog breeds. Especially among sporty cars.

Driving With the Dog

At normal get-around speeds, which is what I normally limit myself to with animals onboard, Bramble liked riding in the back and had plenty of space to get her snout out the open rear windows. The front seats are designed in such a way that she could also get her nose on my shoulder easily which was pretty cute.

The center console is so low that our animals could get their paws on it easily, and if your dogs aren’t buckled in, you might find them sneaking into the front if you look away for a second.

One unfortunate result of the rear seat design, however, is how flat the butt bench is. Once you get any semblance of speed up and start linking corners, it’s easy for animals to get slid around back there, whereas some other small sporty cars like the Acura Integra and Toyota GR86 have nice deep buckets that dogs can nest in and brace themselves.

The rear windows roll down deep enough for dogs to take full advantage of fresh-air sniffs at low speed.

Driving in General

On paper, the GTI seems downright thrilling. I mean, come on, six-speed manual plus 273 lb-ft of torque and a curb weight below 3,500 pounds? That’s a great sport compact stat sheet in 2023. It sounds good too; I disagree with complaints against the digitally enhanced engine note (“Soundaktor” in VW parlance). But for some reason, I just had a hard time emotionally connecting with this car the way I’ve been able to with Miatas, Toyobarus, and old Hondas.

What an interesting design on those fog lights. Andrew P. Collins

A slightly numb sensation of steering and long, somewhat rubbery throws of the gear shifter kept this car from really lighting my fire. I might go so far as to say it seemed a little too refined in the wrong places if that makes sense. But unlike some other cars in this class and price category, it’s not at all tiring to drive. So what kept me from falling in love with the experience might be a boon to others.

Road noise is inoffensive and the posture that the GTI encourages is good for long stints in the saddle. This might not be my sport compact of choice for canyon carving, but for crossing the country or commuting to work every day, I can absolutely see the appeal.

Pack Hauling

The flat rear bench I complained about earlier can actually be beneficial when it comes to hauling multiple dogs, or one very large canine. We fit a few beasts in here pretty easily, and all but the biggest breeds would even fit behind the rear seats, allowing you to carry five people and an animal if you’re OK with them being unrestrained in the wayback.

Sun’s out tongues out. Andrew P. Collins

If your pups are on the back seat, watch out for that low center console even more closely with multiple animals. You could have paws vaulting off it and onto the gearshift in short order if you’re not paying attention. Though we do recommend belting your dogs in with a seatbelt-compatible harness, if you can’t or don’t want to, you’re definitely going to want some kind of taxi-style cabin divider here.

Carrying Kennels

Based on that long and high roof, I’d actually expected the Golf to accommodate kennels more easily than it does. The area behind the rear seats was tall enough for our medium-sized collapsable kennel in its assembled/inflated mode but nowhere near deep enough. You can drop one of the rear seats and the kennel fit in just fine, but then you’re down to just a three-human (including driver) passenger capacity.

Alternatively, you can leave the rear seats in place and stick a kennel right on top of them, preserving cargo space behind the seats and a little on the seat itself. This will work fine if only two humans are in the car, however, you’re going to need a kennel that can “squeeze in” through the door, like our inflatable Diggs Enventur unit.

VW GTI Dog-Friendliness Verdict

The VW Golf GTI (and by default, its higher-performance brother, the Golf R) is a damn decent car for people who enjoy driving but also need a dog taxi. I personally didn’t get the emotional rise from it that you might want in a sport compact, but it’s an objectively appealing car.

Andrew P. Collins

But in spite of its inherently practical design, you do need to be somewhat tactical about how you use the Golf’s space to have people and pups comfortably co-occupy it. With just two people in the car, you might be best served by simply dropping both back seats altogether and creating a big dog nest on top of the dropped seat backs. With three people or more in the car, you’re realistically going to be limited to just one dog if it’s approximately Golden Retriever-sized.

Getting in and out will be very easy for almost every breed, though. Just keep in mind that while the car looks spacious when it’s empty, a kennel or a large breed of canine consumes the available cubic footage surprisingly quickly. In other words, the Golf may have grown over the years but it’s still a pretty small car.

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