Why the Volkswagen Golf GTI Is the Perfect Car for NCOs

The special-edition 2024 Volkswagen Golf GTI 380 celebrates the manual transmission in VW’s hot hatch.
The special-edition 2024 Volkswagen Golf GTI 380 celebrates the manual transmission in VW’s hot hatch. (Photo courtesy of Volkswagen)

Getting promoted from junior enlisted to noncommissioned officer is a big change -- one of the biggest in military life. It comes with new privileges, more responsibility and a nice bump in pay. For many service members, this is a chance to finally get a new or lightly used car to replace a vehicle that’s been limping along since high school.

In addition to avoiding the financial death sentence of 30% APR that lurks at used-car dealerships within eyesight of military installations across the country, it can be hard to pick a car that can do everything a young NCO needs (and wants) it to do.

After decades of obsessively researching, driving and reviewing every motorized vehicle I can get my hands on, I have a recommendation that I think is perfect for young enlisted leaders. The elder staff NCOs can have their Cadillacs. Let the company-grade officers enjoy their Toyota 4Runners. You, the NCO who shape-shifts to accomplish any mission the U.S. military assigns to you, need a Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Noncommissioned Officers Make the World Go Around

Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa practice sword manual during Corporals Course at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy.
Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa practice sword manual during Corporals Course at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, Sept. 16, 2016. Thirty-five Marines with SPMAGTF-CR-AF completed the three-week course that included opportunities to develop the mentoring and leadership skills of noncommissioned officers. (Cpl. Alexander Mitchell/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Let's focus on our target audience before we get into the weeds on the GTI. What makes NCOs unique as a customer demographic?

At your core, NCOs are walking solutions. Commands have pointed NCOs at problems and expected nothing short of magic for centuries, and as far as I can tell, the record is heavily skewed in the NCOs’ favor. Need a working party? Tell an NCO to wrangle a few buddies and get it done. Got a question about how to make a busted piece of gear serviceable again? An NCO will have your back. In the most hellish of circumstances, a salty NCO with a rifle might be the only thing that can save you.

You, the young enlisted leaders accomplishing the U.S. military’s goals at the most personal level, deserve a car that can fill as many roles as you can. It should be a workhorse when you’re on the job, a source of enjoyment when you’re not, and a responsible entry point into the world of major financial decisions.

The GTI Is Sneaky Big

The 2022 Golf GTI. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

Some great SUVs are on the market, so why shop for a hatchback? The bottom line is that the Golf GTI can go toe to toe with crossover and midsize SUVs without the associated jump in size (and price).

Despite its compact stature, the Golf has always been deceptively large inside. According to Volkswagen, the 2024 Golf GTI has 34.5 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats folded down (or 19.9 cubic feet with them up). That gives the GTI the ability to compete directly with midsize SUVs in terms of cargo space, based on information from Consumer Reports.

This means that when you need to haul people or gear for work, make a run to the central issue facility (CIF) or move your personal effects during a permanent change of station (PCS) move, the GTI is up to the task.

As a daily driver, it’s still small enough to slip through traffic and take advantage of tight parking spaces, and fuel efficient enough to keep money in your pocket. Volkswagen claims an EPA-rated 27 miles per gallon combined fuel economy for the 2024 GTI.

The Golf GTI might be small, but somehow it pulls off impressive feats of strength, just like a solid NCO.

A Perfect Blend of Practicality and Fun

The center console of a 2022 Golf GTI
The center console of a 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

The Volkswagen Golf is one of the most practical cars currently in production and the best-selling car in its home country of Germany, as pointed out by the car journalists at Autoevolution. The spiced-up GTI variant is far from a bland commuter car, though. It’s a great option for young service members who want a sporty car to blast down country roads on the weekend.

I’ve driven the current GTI on track and can vouch for its sporting credentials. Volkswagen’s engineers have worked wonders with the front-wheel-drive platform, and it handles remarkably well. Skeptics can insist on a rear-wheel-drive coupe, but if you can’t have fun slinging a hot hatch around a corner, you don’t love driving.

The 2024 GTI’s turbocharged 2.0-liter inline, four-cylinder engine produces 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. More importantly, maximum torque is available at just 1,750 rpm, meaning you can ride a wave of power almost from idle. The EA888 engine in the current GTI has been around for several years, so it’s well-sorted and reliability is a high point.

Perhaps most importantly, Volkswagen still offers the Golf GTI with a six-speed manual transmission. Three-pedal cars are becoming tragically few and far between. This is one of the rare instances where you can get a manual gearbox with a clutch that’s light and compliant in traffic, but engaging enough to spur you on when you’re feeling frisky.

If you want to wring even more fun out of your GTI, let the folks at Integrated Engineering, Unitronic or APR unleash your car’s potential with an engine control unit (ECU) tune or an aftermarket exhaust where state and local laws allow.

Which Volkswagen GTI Should You Buy?

Volkswagen Golf GTI faces through the years.
Volkswagen Golf GTI faces through the years. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

A look back at Volkswagen’s history shows that the Golf hit the European market in 1976 and made it to the U.S. in 1983. Over the past five decades, the Golf -- and its GTI variant -- have come in eight generations, known colloquially as “marks” and written as “Mk.” If you’re open to buying a used car (and there’s no reason not to be), it’s worth digging into V-dub lore and learning a little bit about each generation.

In true German fashion, Volkswagen has methodically tweaked the GTI with each iteration rather than scrapping and reinventing it every few years. That progressive development has resulted in an incredibly refined car that exceeds quality standards for its price range and ages exceedingly well.

The Classics: Mk1, Mk2 & Mk3

Volkswagen Golf - the first generation
Volkswagen Golf - the first generation. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

Volkswagen made Americans wait for our GTI. While the Mk1 Golf was sold stateside as the Rabbit, Bud Brown Volkswagen recounts that American dealerships weren’t able to sell the Mk1 Golf GTI until 1983.

We owe the iconic plaid upholstery and golf-ball shift knob that helped popularize the first Golf GTI to Gunhild Liljequist, the trailblazing designer who brought them to the Golf’s drawing board in the early 1970s.

The Golf GTI got increasingly powerful and comfortable over the first three generations. They’re still desirable among enthusiasts (case in point: This 1993 Golf GTI that sold for $20,250 in 2024), but they aren’t what a hard-working NCO needs. You’ll be lucky to get a cassette player for entertainment, and you can all but forget about safety features. With age comes wear, and getting one of these serviced is more challenging than rolling up to a dealership that’s stocked with current parts.

Best Value: Mk4, Mk5 & Mk6

A black Volkswagen Golf GTI
A black Volkswagen Golf GTI. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

Between 1998 and 2013, Volkswagen built GTIs that are still modern enough to be reliable daily drivers but have depreciated enough to be a fantastic bargain. These cars have aged very well and still feel competitive with much newer cars. Volkswagen seems to have focused on making the interiors more comfortable and high end during this period.

As you’d expect, Mk4 and Mk5 Golf GTIs do have somewhat of a retro vibe, although they’re solidly built and can become a very reliable (and cool) daily driver with basic maintenance. If you climb in a Mk6 GTI, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find something that’s drastically better in a new hatchback or crossover SUV.

I’ve owned a Mk5 R32 and a Mk6 Golf R, so I can personally attest to how good Volkswagens of this era are to drive.

Anything with this many years and miles under its belt will need some maintenance, though, so you should budget for that. Contrary to what you might hear, Volkswagens do not necessarily have more issues than other cars, but the parts will cost you more and they do not take kindly to lapses in the maintenance schedule.

Treat them well, and you’ll get tremendous value for your money. According to the popular Car Wizard channel on YouTube, any gas-burning Volkswagen that’s been regularly serviced is a safe bet on the used market (be wary of Volkswagen’s diesel engines).

Modern Models: Mk7 & Mk8

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI
The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI. (Courtesy of Volkswagen)

New (Mk8) and lightly used (Mk7) GTIs are arguably the best cars for NCO life. They’re modern, safe, reliable and shockingly capable in the realm of performance driving. Volkswagen has dialed in the Golf platform to near perfection at this point.

Since these cars are relatively new (or actually new), prices are higher than what you’d pay for an older model. The flip side is that it’s easier to obtain financing for a newer car, and interest rates should be significantly lower.

Volkswagen lists a starting MSRP of $31,965, although that increases to $33,910 for the Golf GTI 380 S, which is the lowest trim level available with a manual transmission. That isn’t pocket change, but it’s well below the national average for a new car. In September 2023, Consumer Reports published a median new car price of $48,000.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: the Bottom Line

It’s cliche to call NCOs the backbone of the U.S. military, but it’s also true. You work hard, play hard and deserve a car that does the same. If I have to pick one vehicle that’s perfect for the NCO lifestyle, it’s not a truck, an SUV or an impractical sports car. It’s the same hatchback that’s been overachieving for 50 years: the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

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