Yet it's a practical car, based on the VW Rabbit, and available in three-door hatchback and five-door hatchback versions. The GTI gets an EPA-rated 21/29 mpg City/Highway with the manual transmission, or 22/29 mpg with the Direct Shift Gearbox.
For 2008, the GTI suspension has been lowered a half-inch for a sportier stance. A lower ride height lowers the center of gravity, which usually improves handling. Sirius satellite radio is now standard.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers the power, rated at 200 horsepower. The GTI can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 7.2 seconds, says Volkswagen. With 207 pound-feet of torque holding steady from 1800 to 5000 rpm, the GTI responds quickly to the gas pedal at any engine speed.
The Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG, is bit a of F1 wizardry that can be left in a fully automatic mode or can be manually manipulated via paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Selecting Launch Control allows the engine to rev up before the DSG clutch engages for controlled wheelspin as you leave the line.
Volkswagen GTI two-door with manual transmission ($22,730); 2-door with automatic ($23,805); four-door with manual ($23,230); four-door with automatic ($24,305)
The classic GTI emblem is displayed like a well-earned badge against a black honeycomb grille that features a red accent stripe in the shape of a slightly devilish smile, all traditional GTI styling cues.
The shape of the headlamp covers, which have an almost winking eye form, accentuates this mischievous attitude. Three large, black honeycombed air vents in the lower fascia enhance the strength of the front end, with large fog lamps housed in the outboard intakes.
Viewed in profile, the windshield rakes quickly back over the front of the passenger compartment and the roofline ends with a wind-cheating spoiler above the back window. This view also gains visual strength and a sporty stance from the way the car's waistline rises and the side windows taper above the rear fenders. Also noticeable in the profile view are the red-colored brake calipers that show through all of the various wheel choices and proclaim that this is an all-around performance car, designed to stop as well as it goes.
Even with the airy wheels and showy brakes, however, the five-door can't help but look a bit more utilitarian than the three-door. It's still undeniably sleek and handsome, but it surrenders some of the three-door's youthful chic.
Like the profile, the rear view is clean, with large tail lamps mounted high on the car's haunches with twin exhaust tips peaking out from the lower left side of the black bumper.
The GTI's cargo area is fully carpeted, and cargo can be secured via four tie-down hooks. There's also a cargo cover to hide your gear. The cover can be removed when carrying taller objects.
The rear seat can hold three people. It's best suited for two, however, who can get more comfortable by tipping out the wide center armrest. Those sitting in the back get cup holders and storage cubbies, and plenty of rear legroom if those in the front seats aren't tall.
In the two-door model, access to the back seat is easy because of a feature that VW calls Easy Entry. Here's how it works: You tip the front seatback forward until it snaps into a locked position, then you can slide the entire seat forward to open a good-sized path to the back seat. Slide the front seat back and it stops in its original position, and the seat back also returns to its former position, so the driver or front-seat passenger can climb in without having to make any readjustments. It works well.
The front seats are nicely bolstered so you won't slide around while exploring the car's dynamic capabilities. However, this is not a car for everyone. The seats may be too snug for some, and others won't like the black, gray, white and red-striped Interlagos plaid pattern in the seating and back area between the bolsters. GTI faithful will love these seats, however, and consider the Interlagos plaid an iconic part of the original GTI. It's named after the racing circuit used for the Brazilian Grand Prix. Those who don't like the plaid can opt for black leather seats with a small GTI emblem stitched into the upper part of the seat back. The front passenger's seat offers good legroom and easy access to climate and audio controls.
Drivers will like the way the three-spoke, leather-covered and flat-bottomed (like a racecar) steering wheel both tilts and telescopes to enhance steering control and comfort. The alloy pedals with rubber grips are nicely placed for heel-and-toe shifting, and there's a large dead pedal for your left foot when it isn't depressing the clutch.
The steering wheel houses audio and trip-computer control buttons. On cars with the Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission, racecar-style paddle shifters are on the steering wheel right at your fingertips.
The instrument panel features VW's blue-lit gauges with red indicator arrows as well as a trip computer to track miles to empty or to display redundant navigation system instructions within the driver's line of sight. The gauge cluster is very readable, even in bright sunlight when the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses.
Not only are the seats height-adjustable, but so is the arm rest on the center console, so you can put it high for comfortable cruising or lower it so it won't interfere when you get assertive with the six-speed manual shifter. Cup holders are positioned on the center console so they don't interfere with gear changing. And there's a grab handle on the center console so the front-seat passenger can hold on.
Cargo space is listed as 14.7 cubic feet of trunk space for the four-door and 15.1 for the two-door. Curiously, this is one of the few dimensions where the two body styles differ. Either number would do credit to a mid-size car. And that's before you fold down the back seat and double the cargo capacity.
When you want to downshift for curves on mountain roads or to make a pass on a two-lane in the country, the clutch is very light with easy pickup, the shifter has short and sure throws, and the engine spins into gear immediately. On winding pavement, we preferred the six-speed manual, which allowed us to feel truly connected to car and road.
The DSG automatic functions essentially as a computer-controlled manual that shifts at the speed of electrons. With two clutches and two countershafts, it can literally engage the next gear while simultaneously disengaging the last; which is not possible with conventional manual or automatic transmissions. Volkswagen claims acceleration performance is better with the DSG than with the manual gearbox; 0-60 mph takes just 6.9 seconds with the DSG, vs. a 7.2-second 0-60 with the manual. The DSG allows manual shifting using shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
We've found the DSG a marvelous device, especially in heavy, stop-and-go traffic.
Fuel economy for the DSG-equipped GTI is an EPA-rated City/Highway 22/29 mpg; slightly better than the 21/29 mpg of the manual-shift car.
Steering is quick and precise, and the suspension is responsiveness personified. The GTI benefits from MacPherson struts in front and a four-link suspension in the rear. We found the response of even the all-season Continental tires to be up to enthusiast standards, though we think that serious enthusiasts will want to consider the larger 18-inch wheels and high-performance summer tires. A 35.8-foot turning circle makes the GTI maneuverable in tight quarters.
Even though nearly 60 percent of the car's 3100 pounds is supported by the front wheels, the GTI does not exhibit the tendency to understeer so prevalent in most front-wheel-drive cars. To help the driver keep the car on course, the GTI comes with electronic stability control (ESP) as well as traction control.
Big disc brakes stop the GTI quickly and surely. ABS comes standard, helping the driver maintain steering control while braking. Brake Assist helps the driver maintain full braking pressure in an emergency stopping situation. Electronic brake-force distribution balances braking front to rear for quicker, more stable braking.
The Volkswagen GTI boasts sporty handling and more power than either the Honda Civic Si or Mini Cooper S. The GTI offers either its short-throw six-speed manual or fast-shifting DSG automatic with shifter paddles. With its subtly Teutonic styling, the GTI may not look like a performance car, but those inside will have no doubt about its dynamic capabilities. They also will enjoy the room, comfort and cargo capacity of its versatile interior. They may even come to like that Interlagos plaid upholstery. We do.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Larry Edsall drove the new GTI in the Phoenix area.