When a car takes over the steering, it can be  disconcerting. You let the vehicle assume control, but you have to pay attention in case there are any  foibles.

I tested a  2018 VW Golf GTI Autobahn recently, and there are two automated driving features that stood out, but both took some time to win me over. (Actually, they are parking features--so it gave me an excuse to head over to Cabela's.) The car shows you a display for how to park; or, you can let the vehicle take over entirely for parallel or perpendicular parking. The feature has been around for a while in other cars like the Ford Focus, but the strange thing about the Golf GTI is that it has a manual transmission. It means the car steers for you when you park, but you do everything else, including shifting into gear.

In my first test, I relied only on what VW calls Park Pilot. Red lines appear in the touchscreen display as parking guides, and they move as you steer. If you get too close to another car, the GTI will beep at you. If you get really close, it will apply the brakes automatically, preventing any dings or mishaps. I liked how quickly the red lines changed to show my angle for steering, almost like a silent driving instructor who gives you tips about which approach to use for a tricky spot. I've never seen these aids before, though.

For Park Assist, it's even easier but also a little odd at first. You shift, accelerate, and brake but the hard part is getting the right angle for the parking spot, and after using it a few times, I noticed it can speed up the process quite a bit--if you decide to trust the sensors scanning for obstructions. I remember testing this feature in a Chevy SS (base price $46,625) in Las Vegas a while ago, and VW has perfected it slightly in that it feels a bit more natural and fluid; you don't have to work quite as hard to get it to work.

Is it a quick button press and you're done? Not really. In one parking spot, a large SUV had positioned a front wheel at an angle, and the VW did stop but I wondered about it the entire time. I can imagine smaller objects like a backpack sitting in the road and the VW GTI not seeing it. Park Assist became useful in tricky situations; otherwise, Park Pilot made more sense because I felt more in control. Both took some time to learn. Eventually, these features will work autonomously, and a carbot like Alexa will talk to us.

The GTI is a fun car, and these safety features are helpful because you can zip around all day, then rely on the parking features to finish the final maneuvers for you.

I prefer how Ford does the parking assistance features in the Focus, because they tend to give you more feedback, but this is most likely a personal preference. At the end of the day, you just want parking to be easier and faster. The parking features certainly helps.

Surprisingly, the GTI has several other automated features, For a small, sporty car with a manual transmission, it also provides adaptive cruise control, adjusting your speed automatically on the highway for other cars in your lane. The lane-keeping features alert you if you drift too much (because you're not paying attention). Even the high-beam headlamps will turns off automatically when they sense an approaching car. A 220-horsepower engine, nimble handling, and the smaller size made the GTI a joy to drive.

In terms of competition among new cars, there are quite a few options out there, some of them much lower in cost. The GTI costs $34,905 so it is a long way from something like the 2018 Chevy Spark (at $13,050) or the Mazda 3, which costs just $19,345.

Only the GTI has the sporty, turbo-charged power though, and it's my top pick in a crowded field of affordable hatchbacks. Well, unless you count one of my favorite hatchbacks of all time, the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 that costs $50,600. 

Published on: Feb 15, 2018