Versus the competiton:
The Volkswagen GTI, it can be argued, is the one that showed America that small cars can be fun.
Back in the early ’80s, Volkswagen produced it as a sporty variant on the Rabbit theme. Never mind that it had skinny tires and a mere 90 hp, it spawned a host of imitators and convinced us that even though fuel prices seemed to be heading skyward, driving fun had not been eliminated along with the fire-breathing, big-block V-8.
Almost 20 years later, they’re still at it, offering up a pair of potent alternatives to the more pedestrian Golf, which is available for 2002 with either a service-able 2-liter gas engine or an abstemious turbodiesel. Neither the turbodiesel’s 90 hp nor the 2-liter’s 115 is likely to stir the soul. The GTI, a funky two-door hatchback, however, offers two ways of getting the blood pumping, and as of this year, the choice is tougher than ever.
As in 2001, you can choose between a sweet 2.8-liter V-6 and a turbo four displacing a mere 1.8 liters. Used to be an easy call – money aside – because of the six’s superior output.
The big news this year, though, is that the turbo has been bumped from 150 hp to 180, an impressive 20 percent increment. At that figure, it eclipses the power output of the six, and does it 300 rpm lower, at 5,500 rpm. To be sure, the six still makes more torque – 181 foot-pounds vs. 174, an almost negligible margin – but the turbo’s maximal twisting force is available between 1,950 and 5,000 rpm, while the six is more peaky. VW has turned the conventional wisdom on its head: the smaller, turbocharged engine is the more flexible, perhaps better suited to pairing with an automatic, while the six can take better advantage of five driver-stirred gears.
Much as I admire the V-6, I would now opt for the turbo. For one thing, the base price on the turbo GTI with five-speed manual is $18,910, $1,385 less than one propelled by the VR6, which itself has been “decontented” to make the price more appealing. (A 200+ hp version of the six is coming later this year – that could call for a re-examination.)
Veedub has done a remarkable job of civilizing what once was a fractious beast – maybe too good a job for those of us who enjoyed turbo quirks.
A turbocharger is in essence a pump. Two turbine wheels share a single shaft. One resides in the exhaust stream, the other in the intake path. When the engine revs, the hot side is propelled by the gases which are the product of combustion, dragging along its yoke mate and thus pressurizing the intake path. As a result, considerably more fuel-air mix can be introduced to the cylinders than would naturally occur. Consequently, peak power output is typically 50 percent greater than it would be, all else being equal. It’s an elegant device, but like so many such elegant solutions, fraught with hurdles for the engineers.
Early turbos suffered from thermal effects – their bearings burned out because of the high temperatures involved – were quite peaky, i.e., effective only through a narrow range of engine revolutions, and were slow to react to the driver’s request for more power.
Most everyone in the industry has learned how to banish the hobgoblins, closing the gap between theory and practicality. The only down side of VW’s implementation here is that, to achieve 100 hp per liter output, the company has kept a rather high (9.5:1) compression ratio, which mandates premium fuel. But the V-6 insists on the barrel-aged stuff, too. The turbo/5-speed combo gets EPA estimates of 24 mpg city, 31 highway, which helps. I logged 26 even, storming along country roads for the most part.
The casual driver would not know there was a turbo under the hood. There’s neither boost gauge nor cold-engine warning to tip him off, and in average running, the breadth of the torque curve makes it feel merely as if there’s a larger displacement power source.
Under full throttle, one gets a hint of the turbo’s good effort the tachometer passes 4,000 rpm and, with some exhaust roar obbligato, zooms on to 7,000. (Redline is at 6,500, but there’s no cutoff until well past 7 grand.)
While the fun associated with the old turbosÕ on-off nature is gone, there’s still enough torque steer and traction issues to make a driver attentive.
With a stomp on the gas pedal, you can get a ride as wild as you would with a bucking strap – VW is really behind the curve in managing torque steer.
Their version of traction control was nothing to brag about, either. A half-inch of snow afforded an opportunity to try it on my fairly steep drive and it failed miserably. By switching it off, I was able to let the driving wheels claw their way down to the pavement and create some forward momentum. Rearward weight shift, of course, nullifies the purported advantage of having the engine over the driving wheels.
The shift mechanism is mid-pack, not awful, but not inspirational, either. Gear placement seemed vague, and changes were made somewhat slowly.
The test car had the optional leather interior, and it created a very handsome environment. Dark charcoal was used on the dash and it contrasted pleasingly with the warm beige of the seats and doors.
But what a different story when we got under way. The GTI was the worst rattle trap I piloted in all of 2001. The moonroof rattled; the dash squeaked and buzzed; sundry interior parts creaked and groaned – the overall sense was that the Brazilian factory had run low on adhesives. Components SEEMED to mate well, but the symphony of inappropriate sounds would drive you nuts – and this with just a couple of thousand miles on the odometer. Unfortunately, the suspension evinced a similar feeling of looseness. It was, I thought, unduly harsh over tolerable pavement considering how easily flummoxed it became over bad stuff or when pushed hard. The sense of things not being screwed down tight put a damper on my enthusiasm for pushing the edge of the envelope.
The car certainly wasn’t tire-limited – the turbo model has 205/55 Michelins on 16-inch alloy rims. (The V-6 has 17-inchers, which are available as an option on the hard-breather.) Though all-season, they performed nicely on dry pavement.
Braking was not quite so crisp or as dynamic as I like, although both front and rear are discs. The antilock functioned as it should, with some fairly noticeable pedal thumping.
It was a real treat to activate the instrument lighting at night; VW’s signature indigo backlighting combines with the glowing red needles to produce one of the prettiest – and most legible – displays available.
The test car had the luxury package, which includes both the power moonroof and a Monsoon audio system with AM, FM, cassette, prewiring for CD changer, eight speakers and bags of power. It was an impressive unit and showed good tuner sensitivity, thanks to a fixed-mast antenna. The moonroof is controlled via a headliner-mounted rotary switch, which allows one to dial in an opening amount and then let go. There was fairly severe buffeting with the aperture fully opened at highway speeds – cutting back to three-quarters or dropping a side window a bit eased the commotion. (VW must get the leftover parts, for recent Audis I’ve tested use a similar system, but with the more ergonomic push-to-tilt, turn-to-slide actuator.) Noise level – even apart from the maddening loose bits – was fairly high at speed, though the car has a respectable 0.31 coefficient of drag. Insulation/isolation seemed to be where the attention needs to be focused.
Neither the government nor the insurance folks have crash-tested a 2002 GTI. The car comes with front air bags, as well as side bags for the front passengers and head-curtain bags both front and rear. That should provide some comfort.
As far as I’m concerned, the bloom is off the rose, despite the nice power bump. If you’re intent on a GTI, do give one a good workotoe dubious roads to see whether it meets your expectations. Then try an Acura RS or Toyota Celica or Ford Focus SVT.
Base price on the GTI with five-speed manual trannie is $18,910. The test car had the aforementioned luxury package for $1,240, and the leather package, which includes heated front seats and windshield washer nozzles for $900, for a total, with freight, of $21,600. Payments would be $438, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 coupons.