America is a nation that drives. Sadly, for many it’s a chore, a necessary slog off to work or shuttling the kids about. Our lives are hectic. As a result, cars have become mobile restaurants, widescreen equipped media rooms and second offices.
Stop. Maybe it’s time to just simply drive.
You say it’s no fun? Perhaps you just have the wrong equipment. Volkswagen’s solution is the GTI. Starting at $24,200 it’s not terribly expensive. At 24/31, fuel economy is good too. For family types the 4-door version easily totes a couple kids. But be warned, the GTI is so compelling, so utterly fun to fling onto off ramps, those children will witness your encounters with law enforcement. Daddy just got an expensive time out.
First some history
Short for Gran Turismo International, has GTI put grins on driver’s faces since 1983. Back then it created the “hot hatchback” segment, a performance version of the everyday Rabbit. The original Rabbit GTI came with well bolstered plaid seats, a red striped grille and a snarling 90 HP 4 cylinder. In the day it was a revelation.
As time passed Rabbit took on the European Golf moniker (think German for Gulfstream, not Tiger Woods). Hoping nostalgia would help sales it become Rabbit again a few years back. Nope. It’s once again the Golf. Since Golf is new for 2010, so goes the 6th generation GTI. Not all gens have been embraced fully but, spoiler alert, the Mark VI edition should have no problem.
This is what driving is about
My first experience with GTI is at the Palo Alto, California press launch. Greeted at SFO by a friendly VW rep, she hands me keys to a manual 6-speed 2-door and directions. The hotel is 20 miles by freeway, my route book extends that trip to 60. First impressions as I leave the airport? GTI is fairly quiet. With no decibel meter I wager best in class. The taut ride quality is sporty without crossing over to harsh. The car looks and feels a full grade more expensive than it is.
Shift lever and clutch action are terrific dance partners, the left foot gets a place to plant itself during hard cornering. Right foot floored, just the right amount of sonic feedback comes through the firewall. Nice. Enjoying the exhaust note, the standard touch screen sound system stays off. Hop off the highway onto a snaking two lane road and… arrrrg! Stuck behind a Ford Super Duty towing a two horse trailer.
With Mr. and Mrs. Ed blocking my way, a shakedown of the GTI VI is futile. And then… can this be? The Ford graciously pulls to the side and waves me on. Dropping into second gear, the Vee Dub zips past with a torque band as wide as the Super Duty. This is a tangle of a road, a gift really. Every 200 yards brings another turn. Left. Right. Left, right, left. This goes on for 10 minutes and miraculously, at 4PM there are no other drivers ahead of me. Is this heaven? I am exceeding the speed limit. Law enforcement is mostly likely around the next corner. I do not care.
There are sound engineering reasons why I feel like Bode Miller on asphalt and I’ll find out about them at the morning press conference. But right now the only thing to think about is the next apex. The shifter always finds its mark with a dampened snick, snick, snick. Mild understeer and a feathered electronic stability are easy to read (the ESP can be mostly but not fully disabled). The thick shaped leather wrapped wheel is as lovely to grab as… well, kids might be reading this.
Let’s get less emotional for a moment.
Power is provided by, déjà vu, VWs turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 200 horsepower. Just hang on Speed Racer I’ll address that power deficit in a second. Transmission choices are the six-speed manual I’m enjoying or VW’s ultra crisp 6-speed DSG with manual control on that lovely contoured steering wheel. Good luck deciding on gear boxes. Manuals are fun but the finger snap shifts of the DSG are addicting and the $1,100 price tag seems like a steal. But wait, there’s more! VW throws in launch control with every DSG sold.
In addition to the expected ESP is another acronym- XDS. It’s an electronic limited-slip differential that uses the brakes to limit inside wheel spin, keeping a driver in control. Lighter and less expensive than its mechanical counterpart, it does its job well. My guess is that it will tax the brakes during hard frequent cornering. Those binders (yes, they’re antilock) do a terrific job off scrubbing off speed.
Yes, it will lose a drag race with You Know Who3.
Volkswagen claims a 0-60 time of 6.8 seconds (6.7 with DSG). It feels faster. Still, it’s not as powerful as MAZDASPEED3 or Subaru WRX. Here’s where a thorough test drive is important. If all you want is velocity then by all means write the check for the 3 or STI. Volkswagen takes a different road. GTI shines with terrific driving dynamics. Floor the Mazda with its 63 horse advantage and you’re playing tug of war with the steering because of torque steer. The VW only has a hint of it even when accelerating out of a turn. And since we’re talking SPEED3 (GTI’s main competition) it doesn’t offer an automatic transmission, leather seating, sunroof or four door option. Purists won’t care but daily drivers might. BTW, our friends across the pond get 10 more ponies. Hey VW, what gives?
GTI has that intangible German solidness just like the designer Teutonic fashion labels. For the enthusiast that hasn’t won the lottery, this is the automotive equivalent of a mispriced suit at Nordstrom Rack. No, it’s not rear drive, but this front wheel drive set up is as good as it gets.
There’s Vurberry inside
Inside, Volkswagen has improved an already good cabin. Everything touched- door releases, fabrics, the sensual steering wheel- feels expensive. The instrument panel is soft touch plastic, crisp white and red lighting is Audi quality (I miss the indigo accents). People seem to forget, you see the interior far more than the exterior. This is a nice space.
Bluetooth for phones and stereo audio streaming is standard, so is iPod integration. Very little storage in the center console though. Seats with classic GTI tartan hug a driver nicely. VW calls it Vurberry. Get it? Volkswagen Burberry? Hey, it’s their joke, not mine. And if plaid ain’t your thing, opt for the Autobahn package with its leather package.
Two adults will be perfectly fine in the back seat though they won’t be stretching their legs out. Three will be a bit snug. Everyone gets a headrest, both seats get map pockets and an armrest folds from the center position. Volkswagen says this car primarily appeals to the male species. A tip for you family guys trying to sell this car to your spouse- Go with the four door version (40% of buyers will). Not only is the back seat easier to enter than the coupe, it has the option of side torso airbag protection in the rear. Few cars offer this. Tell her it’s for the kids.
This car hauls. And it hauls.
I’m on a press launch so I’m far from my bath tissue supply. I have to believe it holds the same as the last gen (6 bundles). At the very least my luggage and camera gear all fit, even with the security cover in place. As expected, seats split and fold. There’s some storage space under the load floor and a 12v power outlet in the trunk as well.
GTI is styled fairly conservatively, its newly sharpened lines are a crisp Calvin Klein suit to the competition’s Abercrombie and Fitch duds. The classic red striped grille remains. Personally, I prefer a little anonymity, though really, the way the GTI lulls me to drive faster and faster on tight twisty roads, a full-on Romulan cloaking device is needed to avoid a ticket.
Want some irony?
While on the press launch, Volkswagen brought us over to Stanford University to show us VAIL, or Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab. With a 5.75 million dollar contribution, they’re partnering with Stanford to help develop autonomous vehicles or in other words, cars that drive themselves. Hmmmm. VW makes some of the most enjoyable driving cars on the road today. A robot chauffeur in a GTI? Oh the irony...
GTI is not most powerful in class but when the rubber hits the tarmac VeeDub has created a formidable competitor. There are intangibles that can’t be expressed through numbers, sometimes a driver needs to consult the hairs on the back of their neck. Mine tell me the balance of the GTI is unbeatable. A base GTI has everything needed to turn an ordinary road into a playground. I highly suggest a test drive. You have to drive. Might as well make it fun.
A post script- If you want to try Launch Control found on the DSG tranny when you test drive, here’s how to do it assuming you have a safe place to do so- 1) Turn off the ESP near the transmission lever. 2) Throw the shift lever into sport mode. 3) Mash the brake. 4) Mash the throttle. Revs will rise to 3,000 RPM or so. 5) Release the brake while holding the gas. Enjoy.