The Volkswagen GTI is the hot version of the Golf. Featuring a sports suspension, more powerful brakes, and a high-performance engine, the GTI delivers performance and fuel economy, driving enjoyment and hatchback versatility. Though understated, it comes with sport seats and special body trim.
GTI comes in two-door and four-door versions. Both are hatchbacks. The rear seat and interior space is the same in both, but the four-door offers more convenience. Four adults fit quite comfortably in either version, though getting into and out of the back of the four-door is obviously much easier.
Volkswagen's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine generates 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque over a wider rev range than anything in its class. The only choice in mechanicals is a 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
Driving a GTI is great fun. It's a well-balanced machine and that makes it satisfying. Power is immediate and gratifying at any speed. It's quicker than a Honda Civic Si. It's not as quick as the hot rods from Mazda, Subaru or Mitsubishi, but it gets better fuel economy. It's more refined than the Civic or the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. The strong torque from the GTI's engine extends across a broad range and it revs freely past its theoretical redline. This responsive power over a broad range of engine speeds makes it easy and enjoyable to drive, with quick response on tap any time. Torque steer, common on powerful front-drive cars, is noticeably absent here.
Our preference is for the 6-speed manual gearbox. The DSG shifts quickly, offering excellent acceleration performance. Modulating power with the DSG is tricky, however, with a fine line between a little more power and a lot more power.
There's good grip in corners, with summer performance tires and a sport-tuned suspension, yet it's civilized and compliant, filtering out some of the harshness of the outside world.
Inside, it's comfortable, with supportive seats and a businesslike cabin. Cloth and leather are available; we preferred the cloth for ability to grip the driver in corners. The seat bottoms are relatively long, which is good for long-legged drivers. Outward visibility is good.
Cargo capacity is a GTI feature. With folding rear seats and the big hatch opening, you can get a lot of cargo into one of these, 42 cubic feet.
Changes for 2012 are minimal, involving the simplification of the model lineup by adding a new model, called quite descriptively GTI Base with Convenience and Sunroof, which makes previously optional equipment standard. The GTI was all-new for 2010.
The GTI competes primarily against the faster, edgier, front-drive MazdaSpeed3; the more powerful, all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Subaru Impreza WRX; the less-powerful, front-drive non-hatch Civic Si; and the similarly quick, rear-drive Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T. The GTI gets better fuel economy than any of them. And it's less expensive than all but the Genesis Coupe, which has a smaller back seat and less cargo capacity.
Volkswagen GTI Base 2-door with manual ($23,695), GTI Base 2-door with DSG ($24,795), GTI Base 4-door with manual ($24,295), GTI Base 4-door with DSG ($25,395); Volkswagen GTI Base with Convenience and Sunroof 2-door with manual ($25,945), GTI Base with Convenience and Sunroof 2-door with DSG ($27,045), GTI Base with Convenience and Sunroof 4-door with manual ($26,545), GTI Base with Convenience and Sunroof 4-door with DSG ($27,645); Volkswagen GTI Base with Sunroof and Navigation 2-door with manual ($27,495), GTI Base with Sunroof and Navigation 2-door with DSG ($28,595), GTI Base with Sunroof and Navigation 4-door with manual ($28,095), GTI Base with Sunroof and Navigation 4-door with DSG ($29,195); Volkswagen GTI Autobahn 2-door with manual ($29,935), GTI Autobahn 2-door with DSG ($31,035), GTI Autobahn 4-door with manual ($30,535), GTI Autobahn 4-door with DSG ($31,635)
The GTI comes solely as a hatchback. It sits squat and square, and has a purposeful look void of tacked-on parts or extraneous wallpaper. This sixth-generation version, introduced as a 2010 model, is just seven inches longer than the original.
A horizontal theme dominates the front with a wide, level honeycomb-grille aperture along the bottom, a narrower slot above with GTI-trademark red trim stripe, and slats leading to the only vertical element, the very effective fog lamps. The slope of the hood helps both aerodynamics and close-in forward vision.
Four-unit headlamps are standard in black housings, with bi-xenon turn-following lights available that resemble beady little eyes. Turn-signal repeaters in the mirrors help cross-traffic sort your intentions, while wraparound taillamps do the same for following cars. The rear center stop lamp is mounted in the integral spoiler so it never bathes the rear window in a red glow.
This is a clean shape with enough curve to keep it interesting and minimal creases to show it off. Ornamentation is minimal, with chrome badges and tailpipes lurking below and red brake calipers hiding behind 18-inch alloys and low-profile rubber. The two-door is slightly slicker looking with just two side windows, while the four-door has an extra window pillar in the rear door and the same forward-leaning rear pillar; four-door versions look better in dark colors that better hide the door lines.
The hatch opens to bumper level by pivoting the top half of the VW logo inwards (also by pushbutton inside) and cargo doesn't require a big lift to clear the painted surfaces. A rear wiper sits at the bottom of the glass out of mirror-view but sweeps almost all the glass one looks through.
The GTI cabin is businesslike, a place the driver can appreciate and passengers will find quite accommodating. It's nicely trimmed and well-assembled. The level of fit and finish better than you might expect for the price, especially since plenty of money was also spent on the engineering. You might argue that the instruments and switches benefit from Audi influence, or the other way round since VW owns Audi.
Heated sport seats are standard up front with a fair range of adjustment, long cushions for long-legged support, excellent bolstering that contains you without restricting movement or entry and exit, and comfort for all-day drives. Leather is available yet we find the standard cloth better breathing and a bit less slippery if you're of slender build.
The rear seats are designed for three-across seating, but as usual this is better for slim adults or children; more bolstering might be beneficial for some passengers but would compromise flexibility. There are three adjustable headrests, reading lights, cupholders, and storage bins, but the side windows open only on four-door models (the seats and space are the same). It may not be a long car but it is roomy; we put four 6-plus-footers in a model with a moonroof and had no complaints thanks to the tall, flat hatchback roofline.
In the two-door, both front seats slide forward for access to the rear and the long doors make that access fairly easy. With the narrow part of the split-folding rear seat behind the driver, a tall driver with the seat well back can still carry longer loads and two rear passengers, or one passenger in back and really long things over a reclined front passenger seat.
A tilt and telescoping column with a flat-bottom, heavily contoured steering wheel, a good dead pedal and nearby brake and shifter allow anyone from 5-foot to 6-foot, 5 inches to find a comfortable driving position. Audio controls are available for the steering wheel, and cars equipped with the DSG have shift buttons behind the steering wheel, so it's rare to need to remove a hand from the wheel.
Gauges are basic white-on-black analog with large RPM and speed readouts, and 270-degree sweep fuel and temperature gauges inside them. A central display handles trip computer and radio data, exterior temperature, door-open warnings and so forth. The audio and navigation systems are MP3/iPod compatible and offered with a touchscreen. Climate control is three-ring simple and unlike many cars, each of the center vents can be closed independent of the other.
Storage is reasonably good. The sides of the bin ahead of the shifter double as places to brace a knee. The door pockets have good space and bottleholder contours, but the center-console under-armrest room is good for little more than a smartphone and/or a pack of smokes.
Outward visibility is very good. Outside mirrors are low and the inside high enough that neither blocks any vision even on climbing switchbacks. The bottom of the windshield is unobstructed the full width of the dash and the top is high for an excellent view forward. The rear pillars are so far away they don't compromise quarter views.
Behind the seats there is 15.2 cubic feet of cargo space; a bit less below the cargo cover. Folding the rear seats expands that to more than 40 cubic feet, which is approaching crossover territory. The cargo area also has tie-down loops, grocery bag hooks, three baby-seat tethers, a multitude of cubby holes underneath and a surprise below: the spare tire and wheel are identical to the other four so you avoid temporary-spare or run-flat speed limits and wondering where the flat tire will go.
The GTI is a hoot to drive, whether ferrying kids about or resorting to hooliganism. It's a synergy of balance and capability, even if other cars offer more speed or higher handling limits.
With a small turbocharger on the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, power is immediate and gratifying at any speed. Peak horsepower is 200 and maximum torque 207 lb-ft, both inferior to the MazdaSpeed3 and Subaru Impreza WRX. Those cars are quicker but rate about 20-percent lower fuel economy, and the all-wheel-drive Ralliart and WRX are heavier. Honda's Civic Si non-turbo matches the GTI for horsepower but falls behind on torque and is just shy in fuel economy. Hyundai's rear-drive Genesis coupe 2.0-liter turbo is slightly more powerful, slightly less economical, and not quite as refined as the GTI.
Underway, that refinement counts for a lot. All 207 lb-ft of torque are available from 1800 rpm to 5000, and max horsepower ranges from 5100 to 6000 rpm, so there is virtually nowhere on the rev band without plenty of urge. Zero to 60 mph is in the low to mid six-second range. Officially, the engine goes to 6500 rpm, smoothly and with a pleasant snarl from the tailpipes, but on more than one occasion the tach needle on a DSG car sailed right off to 7000 rpm under full throttle. The abundant torque and flexibility make it easy to drive, the willingness and lack of torque steer make enjoyable.
A 6-speed manual transmission is standard and properly set up for the car's use and broad powerband. The double-clutch DSG, essentially a 6-speed automated manual (no clutch pedal, shift only if you wish) cracks off gear-changes faster than humans, dropping the 0-60 mph time by a tenth of a second. It even has the ubiquitous launch control but you don't want to make a habit of using it. We tend to prefer manual gearboxes with small turbocharged engines.
Fuel economy for the GTI is an EPA-estimated 21/31 mpg City/Highway with manual gearbox, 24/33 mpg with the DSG transmission.
There are few drawbacks to either gearbox. The manual probably gives up one real-world mpg. The DSG requires a sensitive right foot: the combination of electronic throttle, boost and gearbox control means a fine line between asking for a little more power and instead the car downshifting, going on boost and delivering substantially more power than you wanted.
We also find a distinct difference between Drive and Sport with the DSG. Drive wants to shift up quickly. This improves fuel economy but hurts throttle response. When cruising along in the city, there often seems to be a lack of power when you finally get an open space. The Sport mode holds gears much longer, making it the choice for performance driving. During everyday driving, though, this keeps the power on boil all the time, making the car feel high strung and hurting fuel economy. It also never goes into sixth gear, which also hurts economy. We found ourselves switching between these modes to get the throttle response we desired in various situations. Another way to deal with these issues is to leave the car in Drive and shift with the steering wheel paddles or gearshift.
MacPherson-strut front and coil/link rear suspensions, both with hollow anti-roll bars and tacky summer tires ensure the GTI sticks to the ground. In this respect, the GTI gives up nothing in performance to the competition and generally delivers a more civilized, compliant ride, in part because it's lighter than anything but the Civic Si. You can make it louder, make it stiffer, or add your own 19-inch wheels (an option in Europe where road surfaces are better) but you risk giving up some civility that makes the GTI an everyday driver or interstate cruiser.
Although the GTI is front-wheel drive, it does not suffer from torque-steer like the MazdaSpeed3. The GTI seems able to put down full power under almost any circumstance. The steering is direct, nicely weighted and transmits a good idea what the front tires are doing, and the brakes are responsive and stable. Some of the competition may post higher cornering limits or braking distances but the margins won't be substantial and they all cost more.
The Volkswagen GTI is fun to drive while offering the practical versatility of a hatchback, decent operating economy, and a compact footprint. For enthusiasts with a budget for just one car that has to do everything you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with it.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles, with Kirk Bell reporting from Herndon, Virginia.