Volkswagen's four-door GTI is as much fun as the two-door, yet the second set of doors makes it more practical.
The GTI is a hot version of the Golf, and it's powered by a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that pumps out an impressive 200 horsepower. This engine starts producing usable power as low as 1,800 rpm so doesn't have to be revved hard to get strong acceleration.
The original GTI was a well-known European road burner when it was first imported to the U.S. in 1983. Numerous manufacturers quickly copied its successful formula, and performance-oriented hatchbacks soon became a staple for nearly every company. Hot hatchbacks were displaced by small sports sedans because Americans seem to prefer sedans over hatchbacks.
Today's economical performance cars are considerably more sophisticated than that early GTI, but the concept is the same: Put a strong engine and sharp handling in an economy-car body. Add great seats and fat tires and you've got sports-car fun in an affordable package.
GTI prices start at $22,600 for the manual and $23,675 for the DSG automatic. Options include a power sunroof, leather seats, dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, rear side airbags, a navigation system and 18-inch wheels.
The GTI is enticing because it has a true dual-purpose personality. The optional DSG automatic gearbox is way more fun than the six-speed manual. DSG is a manual transmission with automatic clutches. It can be driven like an automatic, but it also has sport and manual-shift modes. Manual shifting is done by paddles on the steering wheel or with the gear lever.
The DSG's lightning-quick shifts are faster than a driver can execute with a manual transmission, and I loved the way the exhaust popped between shifts. Even when the transmission is in automatic mode, a couple of quick flicks of the downshift paddle instantly drops the car into a lower gear for a handy blast of acceleration.
The transverse, front-mounted engine has direct fuel injection, drive-by-wire throttle, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and maintenance-free hydraulic lifters.
Inside, the GTI reflects VW's skill at interior design. The fit and finish is among the best in the class, as are the choices of materials and surfaces.
The bucket seats are exceptionally comfortable because they are shaped to provide excellent lateral and under-thigh support. During sporty driving, the seats hold the driver and front-seat passenger securely.
Sporty handling is a large part of the GTI equation. The front McPherson struts and multi-link independent rear axle have been tuned to provide good road holding. The ride is firm but not abusively so. The independent rear axle yields a compliant ride without sacrificing cornering prowess. VW said that the fully independent four-link suspension, with coil springs, telescopic shocks and stabilizer bar, allowed engineers to create a large opening into the luggage compartment.
The electro-mechanical power rack-and-pinion steering system has good on-center feel and straight-line stability.
At Volkswagen, fun is spelled GTI.
Price The base price of the test car was $23,675. Options included the heated leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, navigation system, sunroof and satellite radio. The sticker price was $30,365.
Warranty Four years or 50,000 miles, with a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.