The Volkswagen GTI combines performance, fuel economy, driving enjoyment and hatchback versatility in an understated exterior and nicely finished interior. The current sixth-generation version was introduced for 2010 amidst a raft of awards and lists: GTI won Automobile magazine's automobile of the year for 2010 and is the only car to have won that award twice.
Nearly 40 years ago GTi helped spawn the hot-hatch segment of the market, economy car staples given the tuner treatment for driving fun (VW called it Fahrvergnugen) and extra performance without making it useless for daily tasks in the process. Now a GTI with a capital I, the GTI is based on the Volkwswagen Golf compact but gets different suspension, brakes, engine, transmission, seats and body trim.
GTI was all-new for 2010.
The 2011 Volkswagen GTI carries over largely unchanged but gets some significant technological upgrades: new audio, navigation, Bluetooth with audio streaming and phonebook download, a new smart key system, and 18-inch wheels as standard equipment. Other changes are aimed primarily at packaging simplicity to keep costs down, and therein lie our two minor criticisms: If you want something in the Autobahn package, like the Dyanudio sound system, you have to get every other option. Also, rear-seat side airbags, which aren't appropriate for hauling kids around anyway, are no longer offered.
One of a handful of performance hatchbacks to do so, the GTI offers a choice of two or four doors. The four-door (aka five-door) offers more convenience but the rear seat and space is the same in both. With folding rear seats and big hatch opening you can get a lot of odd-shaped items into this sub-14-foot car, and four adults fit quite comfortably.
A turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine generates 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque over a wider range than anything in its class. The only choice in mechanicals is a 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. Tight suspension, rubber-band tires, big wheels and stout brakes are built in.
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, trunk-equipped Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T. The GTI gets better fuel economy than any of them, and is less expensive than all but the Genesis Coupe which has a comparably small rear seat and trunk.
The GTI comes solely as a hatchback. It sits squat and square, like it wouldn't be easily taken out literally or figuratively, 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 units available that resemble beady little eyes. Turn-signal repeaters in the mirrors help cross-traffic sort your intentions, while wraparound tail lamps 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-doors look better in dark colors that better hide door openings.
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.
Curb weight is approximately 3,050 pounds.
The GTI cabin is businesslike without being austere, 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 knowing money also got spent on the engineering. You might argue 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 moonroof model with no complaints thanks to the hatchback roofline.
Both front seats slide forward for entry/exit and with big side doors make the two-door a realistic proposition. 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 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. Any option pack adds controls to both wheel spokes and automatics have shift buttons behind, so it's rare to need to remove a hand from the wheel.
Gauges are basic white-on-black analog with large engine and road speed, and 270-degree sweep fuel and temperature 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 new for 2011, MP3/iPod compatible, most touch-screen and Bluetooth controls are roof mounted. 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, door pockets have good space and bottle holder contours, but the center-console under-armrest room is good for little more than a smartphone and 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, and the rear pillars are so far away they don't compromise quarter views.
Behind the seats there is 15 cubic feet of trunk space; a bit less below the cargo cover. Folding the rear seats expands that to more than 40 cubic feet bettering some SUVs. 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. The synergy makes it balanced, capable and a great blend, even if other cars have more speed or higher handling limits.
With a small turbocharger on the 2-liter four-cylinder, response is immediate and the power is gratifying at any speed. Peak horsepower is 200 hp and maximum torque 207 lb-ft, both inferior to the MazdaSpeed3, Mitusbishi Ralliart and the 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 horsepower but falls behind on torque and economy. Hyundai's rear-drive Genesis coupe 2-liter turbo is slightly more powerful and less economical, and not quite as refined as the GTI.
Underway, that refinement counts for a lot. All 207 lb-ft is available from 1800 rpm to 5000, and max power from 5100-6000, so there is virtually nowhere on the rev band without plenty of urge. 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 makes you enjoy it.
A 6-speed manual is standard and properly setup 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) is available, cracks off gear-changes faster than humans, dropping the 0-60 time by 1/10 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, 24/32 mpg with the DSG transmission.
There are few drawbacks to either gearbox. The manual might give 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.
MacPherson-strut front and coil/link rear suspension, both with hollow antiroll bars and sticky 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 circumstances. 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 sixth-generation Volkswagen GTI returns the driving fun of the first two iterations while retaining 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.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com following his test drive of a GTI near Los Angeles.