When it comes to pocket rockets, aka small economy cars that go fast, the one that started it all was the Volkswagen GTI. Back in the 70s, VW burped out a sporty version of its popular front-wheel-drive Golf hatchback (then called the Rabbit in the United
States). Over the years, the GTI has been challenged by many competitors, but with the release of the 2002 GTI, VW aims to reclaim its spot atop the hot hatch heap.
The big news is a newly-revised 1.8-liter turbo motor that's good for an
additional 30 horsepower. That puts total power output at a healthy 180 horses. (The 2.8-liter VR6 Engine with 174 horsepower is also available, albeit only with a manual transmission.) In a compact car that weighs 3,000 pounds, that's good for a
factory-claimed 0-60 run of 7.5 seconds with the 5-speed manual, 8 seconds with the 5-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. It feels fast, but 0-60 times alone don't fully describe this car's manners.
The test vehicle was equipped with the
5-speed Tiptronic, which allows for shifting manually without a clutch.
There's turbo-lag and it's notable. The turbo kicks in under heavy throttle. The car then scrambles for grip as torque steer (or the car pulling to one side) kicks in. It's
all one can do to hold on to the steering wheel.
The squirrelly nature is aided only somewhat by VW's traction control system. Dubbed ASR, or Acceleration Slip Regulation, it's activated by hitting a dash-mounted switch. It attempts to keep
matters under control, but isn't always successful.
Handling is what you expect from a German car. The ride is firm, yet absorbent. The steering is quick and returns good road-feel through the thick steering wheel. Braking is equally swift and
assured. Anti-lock brakes are standard and there are discs at all four corners.
Surprisingly for a sporty car, there is body lean in corners. But the GTI hangs in there as long as you keep a light throttle foot. Road noise is subdued.
Unsurprisingly, tire noise and engine noise become pronounced as speed increases.
The 5-speed Tiptronic transmission is a nice thought, but somewhat pointless in this car. It's an automatic transmission that allows you to manually shift through
the gears. If you really want to shift for yourself, buy the manual. But if you have a non-shifting spouse, it's a decent compromise. The transmission does hold in each gear to the engine's redline.
Mileage was OK considering the level of
performance, with lead-footed city driving returning 23 mpg. EPA ratings are 22 city, 29 highway. The GTI requires premium fuel.
The seats are firm and form-fitting. They hug your body without confining you. Side-bolsters are strong and not
suited for the broad of beam. The optional leather package ($900) covered the seats in buttery, camel-colored leather, which contrasted nicely against the car's red exterior. The front seats were quite roomy. The rear seats had
little leg room, but did fold down to improve the already ample cargo space.
The dash is typical of VW's design: sophisticated and very European. Still, for all the pretenses of functionality, the vehicle lacks a turbo-boost gauge. Otherwise,
the gauges are easy to read. At night, the gauges are backlit in red, climate and radio controls are backlit in purple. Neat touch.
The climate controls worked with three simple rotary knobs. It worked quite well.
Safety is good,
considering the car's size. Front and side curtain airbags are standard. There doesn't seem to be a lot of crush space behind the rear wheels, and the car feels small when a big rig is bearing down on your bumper along Interstate 78. Size does matter
The audio system has too many fussy buttons that cause you to pull your eyes away from the road. But it has a single CD player as well as a CD-changer that feeds through a single slot. Build quality throughout was excellent a
the cabin had a very upscale feel.
It has an upscale price to go with it.
The GTI starts at $18,910. That includes anti-lock brakes, anti-slip regulation and an electronic differential lock, side-curtain airbags intermittent front
and rear wipers, a theft deterrent system, cruise control, keyless entry, folding rear seats, power side heated mirrors, air-conditioning, power windows along with a tilt and telescopic steering wheel. The Tiptronic was an extra $1,075, leather $900,
alloy wheels $400, and a luxury package $1,240, which included a Monsoon stereo, power glass sunroof, 17 inch wheel and tires and a cold weather package that included heated seats and windshield washer nozzles.
Total was $22,625, quite a bit
more than your average Honda Civic or Ford Focus, but at least 3 grand less than Mercedes new C-Class hatchback. Still, there are other cars for this price that are faster.
But VW has successfully carved out a posh niche at the top of the hot
hatch heap. You won't see these on every corner, but when you do see them, their owners will be smiling.