Part of the Volkswagen lineup for two decades, the GTI carries on the tradition of being an affordable "pocket rocket" by providing performance in a small, high-value package. Similar cars include the Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru WRX.
This fifth-generation GTI has been sold since the second half of 2006, originally marketed as the 2006.5 or New GTI MkV to distinguish it from the previous-generation model also sold as a 2006. In 2007, VW added a four-door hatchback GTI model called ... the 4 Door. Both body styles technically come in one trim level, but for 2008 an option package with mostly interior upgrades has been named Autobahn.
The GTI has been lowered about 1/2 inch for 2008, Sirius Satellite Radio is standard equipment (excluding service) and automatic climate control has been eliminated as an option.
The GTI has a 101.5-inch wheelbase, measures 165.8 inches long overall and comes with standard 17-inch alloy wheels. Each GTI is equipped with a sport suspension, darkened taillight lenses and dual tailpipes. Body-colored bumpers, mirror housings, side moldings and door handles, plus a black honeycomb grille, round out the exterior picture.
Volkswagen offers a range of body kits, roof racks and other accessories for customizing the car's look and function.
Volkswagen is the longtime standard bearer for interior quality, and it's reflected here in the GTI's ergonomics and materials, including real aluminum trim, standard. The GTI's upright stance allows occupants to sit more vertically than in most small cars. Space is adequate for four adults, though seating for five is intended. VW provides a driver's seat height adjustment and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel as standard equipment. To ease backseat entry in the 2 Door, the front seats both tilt and lurch forward more than in most two-doors.
The instruments are backlit in a vibrant blue hue at night, and the driver faces a sporty three-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Cloth upholstery is standard and heated partial-leather seats are optional. An auxiliary audio input jack is standard, and an optional iPod interface allows an Apple iPod to be controlled through the premium stereo.
The area behind the rear seat holds 15.1 cubic feet of cargo in the 2 Door and 14.7 feet in the 4 Door, and the 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold to provide 46.0 cubic feet in both body styles.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 200 hp at 5,100 rpm and 207 pounds-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, and the Direct Shift Gearbox — technically an automated manual transmission — is optional. It uses separate clutches for the odd and even gears, so it can upshift from one gear to another in fractions of a second. It includes a sequential-manual shift mode by means of the stick or steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
The Rabbit, on which the GTI is based, has scored Good (the top rating) in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal crash test. Unfortunately it hasn't been tested for side impact. On the upside, standard equipment includes front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags, as well as side curtain airbags intended to protect the heads of outboard occupants in side collisions. Height-adjustable rear head restraints are standard. All-disc antilock brakes and daytime running lights are also standard. Still the exception rather than the rule in small cars, an electronic stability system is also included in the GTI.
A onetime winner of a three-way Cars.comparison among pocket rockets, the GTI 4 Door recently took second in that contest to the Mazdaspeed3, solely because the Mazda gives more performance at a lower price. That doesn't take away the GTI's excellent mix of, well, everything. The drivetrain is exceptional, and the good torque at low engine speeds makes it much more satisfying in normal driving than high-revving four-bangers like the Honda Civic Si.
The DSG's quick upshifts are stunning, and good enough to make up for downshifts that are a little slower than those of conventional automatics — and even those of an average driver operating the manual transmission, for that matter. The manual's clutch is forgiving, and the brakes are as strong as they ought to be.