Editor's note: This review was written in January 2010 about the 2010 Volkswagen GTI. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Never the fastest or most outlandish-looking car in its class, the Volkswagen GTI has long been the civilized sport compact — like a grunge guitarist with a haircut and a Men's Wearhouse suit. Redesigned for 2010, this still holds true. The GTI looks rakish but not rowdy; it prefers balance to sheer power. The kids will prefer a Mazdaspeed3 or Subaru WRX, but the GTI will keep its fans — and were it not for Volkswagen's dual-clutch gearbox, which our test car had, I'd be among them.
A performance-oriented compact that's related to the Golf — formerly the Rabbit — the 2010 GTI comes in two- and four-door versions, which you can compare with the Golf, Rabbit and 2009 GTI here. Last year's drivetrains remain: a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic. I tested an automatic, four-door GTI.
Slightly wider but identical in length and wheelbase to its predecessor, the sixth-generation GTI has Volkswagen's most sinister face this side of the resurrected Scirocco hatch — which, sadly, we won't see here. Red pinstripes run horizontally across the grille, splitting it cleanly from the lower air dam. Taken together with the nose-jobbed 2010 Jetta wagon, this could signal an end to Volkswagen's half-decade experiment of grafting grilles and air dams into the same visual unit. I don't mind the new look, but it bears mentioning that the grille-meets-bumper theme was distinctive. You could spot a Volkswagen sporting that design a block or two away, and that may not be the case anymore. The new GTI is sharp, but conventionally so.
Contrast that with the well-done rear. Volkswagen scaled back the outgoing GTI's dominant black cladding a great deal; it now sits at the bumper's bottom lip, with an exhaust pipe at each side. See, this is the sort of hunkered-down look we always wanted.
Standard equipment includes fog lights, a rear hatch spoiler and 17-inch alloy wheels. Eighteen-inch rims and xenon headlights are optional.
With the dual-clutch transmission, the GTI leaves stoplights quickly, but it doesn't blast away like a WRX or Mazdaspeed3 can. Stay hard on the gas, and Volkswagen's 200-horsepower turbo four-cylinder delivers lively acceleration at higher revs, with little of the Mazdaspeed3's torque steer. There's usable power with little hint of turbo lag in almost any situation; peak torque comes at just 1,800 rpm, so you can pass cars on the highway even in 6th gear.
That's fortunate, because the dual-clutch automatic hates downshifting like Conan hates NBC. It upshifts as soon as possible, with virtually no power interruption, but coaxing a downshift out of the thing takes patience — or a swift kick on the gas. Squeeze the pedal entering a bend in the road, and the transmission often stubbornly refuses to kick down to a lower gear until long after you needed it to. The same goes for highway passing. Get used to 6th gear; 5th and 4th are on lunch break.
The GTI's Sport mode mitigates some of this — it holds lower gears longer and kicks down faster — as do the standard steering-wheel paddle shifters. In my book, though, that's not a solution. Call me old-fashioned, but I want a responsive gearbox when I put it in Drive, not Sport mode or with me using paddles to shift.
At low speeds, some dual-clutch automatics — including the seven-speed unit in the S5 convertible from VW's sister brand Audi — work nearly as smoothly as conventional torque-converter automatics. The GTI's does not. It clunks around hesitatingly in parking lots, and it takes a moment too long to settle into Drive or Reverse during multipoint turns.
Still, in a straight line, the automatic can move the GTI to 60 mph in a handy 6.7 seconds, Volkswagen says. Stick-shift models take 6.8 seconds. That's quicker than the outgoing GTI, which took 7.2 seconds with the stick and 6.9 seconds with a dual-clutch auto.
Stick-shift GTIs carry the same 21/31 mpg city/highway EPA mileage rating as they did before, but dual-clutch models are rated at 24/32 mpg for 2010. That's up 2 mpg over last year's dual-clutch GTI, and it leads other go-fast hatchbacks by a fair margin. Like most competitors, however, the GTI wants premium gas. Product manager Andres Valbuena said Volkswagen didn't tinker with the automatic this time around, so the differences are mostly due to the EPA's testing cycles. That's a perplexing answer, to say the least. If you owned a fifth-generation, dual-clutch GTI and get the new one, shoot me an email. I'd be interested to know how your mileage differs.
Ride & Handling
The GTI retains its predecessor's electromechanical power steering, but Volkswagen is getting better at making such systems feel more natural; this version requires appropriate effort to turn, and it unwinds to straight ahead on its own. Hurl the car into a corner, and the steering responds with firm, controllable precision. A new electronic limited-slip differential aims to pre-empt partial wheelspin when you're barreling through turns by reducing power to the inside wheel as soon as it senses body roll. The outgoing GTI, in comparison, had no limited-slip differential, so the most it could do to react to midcorner squirrelliness was reduce power or brake certain wheels through the stability system — not the smoothest reaction, in any case. The new electronics work as advertised. On winding off-ramps or curvy roads, the GTI holds its course well, without undue traction loss or sudden power cuts. Body roll is limited, and the car displays impressive overall balance. Charge down a highway cloverleaf, and there's little of the nose-heavy understeer that a lot of front-wheel-drive cars — including VW's GLI — exhibit.
Antilock brakes are standard. The calipers are painted red — purely cosmetic — but the discs they grab at all four wheels are larger than those in the Golf. There's a bit of pedal travel before the brakes take hold, but beyond that they deliver strong power that's easy to fine-tune for smooth stops.
The Mazdaspeed3 and WRX are surprisingly comfortable, as far as cars with sport-tuned suspensions go. Ride comfort in the GTI isn't exactly shabby, but certain types of highway pavement, like poured concrete, can produce a constant pattern of choppy up-and-down motions. That's often an unavoidable reality for short-wheelbase cars, as the front suspension doesn't have time to settle before the rear wheels hit the same bump. En route from Chicago to Detroit earlier this month, my tolerance for it wore thin.
Our test car had 17-inch wheels; I can only presume ride comfort would suffer even more if you move up to the 18s. If you're married to the idea of a Volkswagen hatchback but want better ride comfort, the base Golf would likely be a better choice. It can be had with 15-inch wheels and cushier suspension tuning.
Not surprisingly, a major GTI strength is cabin quality. Interior materials look consistently upscale, and there's more padding where it counts — along the upper door trim, namely — than before. Volkswagen's usual upscale touches, from upholstered window pillars to express operation for all four power windows, are reminiscent of luxury cars.
A standard center touch-screen incorporates a fairly elaborate radio display, complete with tagged station presets and enough room to display all the characters for songs like ZZ Top's "Gimme All Your Lovin'." (And other such fine tunes. Quit laughing.) The base stereo — a respectable six-CD unit with full iPod compatibility — belts out decent sound, but it has to compete with significant road and wind noise on the highway.
Cloth upholstery is standard, and leather sport seats are optional. Our test car had leather. The upholstery feels a cut above for this class, and the side bolsters hold you in place when cornering hard. I spent some 10 hours in the GTI round-trip between Chicago and Detroit, which is a journey on which poorly cushioned seats can be disastrous. Only at the very end of the trip did the long-haul fatigue start to creep in. (Though that may have had something to do with ZZ Top.)
Both rows offer decent headroom, but overall legroom is hampered by the front seats' fore/aft range. I'm 5 feet, 11 inches tall, and I drove with the seat all the way back. If you're much taller than 6 feet, beware.
Backseat legroom is workable, but the cushions sit too low to the ground for adequate thigh support for adults. Those with longer legs will spend trips staring at their knees. According to the dimensions, headroom and legroom are identical in the two- and four-door GTIs. Getting into the backseat in two-door versions, of course, is certain to be more onerous.
Luggage volume behind the backseat of either model is 15.3 cubic feet. The seats fold down easily, with dedicated channels to keep the outboard seat belts out of the way. There's no gap or ledge in the load floor, which makes loading large items easier, and with the seats down maximum luggage volume is a competitive 46 cubic feet.
The four-door Golf earned the top score, Good, in front, side and rollover tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and spokesman Russ Rader said those ratings also apply to the four-door GTI. Because the GTI has unique front seats, however, the Golf's rear-impact scores — also Good, which qualifies the car for IIHS Top Safety Pick status — do not apply.
It's important to note that these scores do not apply to the two-door GTI or Golf, which have yet to be crash-tested. Like any coupe versus its sedan counterpart, there are significant structural differences, meaning the four-door model's ratings can't carry over. This doesn't necessarily mean the two-door Golf and GTI are less safe, though, just that their ratings are unknown.
Regardless of door count, standard GTI safety features include the usual front, side-impact and side curtain airbags, plus antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Side-impact airbags for the rear seats are optional in the four-door GTI. They add an extra layer of defense, no doubt, but the GTI that passed the IIHS tests didn't have them. Click here for a full rundown of safety features.
The two-door GTI starts at $23,465, and the four-door model costs an extra $605 — both hefty premiums over the sub-$20,000 Golf, but right in the ballpark of the $23,195 Mazdaspeed3. Standard features include power windows and locks, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The dual-clutch automatic runs $1,100. An Autobahn Package adds leather sport seats and a moonroof for $2,815 — rather excessive, considering the moonroof can be added à la carte for $1,000.
Throw in a Dynaudio stereo upgrade, navigation system, xenon headlights and a handful of other options, and the GTI tops out at roughly $32,000.
GTI in the Market
Styling aside, the GTI hasn't changed a great deal with its 2010 redesign. Its overall refinement should draw plenty of returning fans, and probably a few new ones. Strong safety ratings and solid fuel efficiency round out the case for VW, and if the prior GTI's reliability ratings are any indication, the sixth generation should be smack-dab average. With a 270-hp, all-wheel-drive GTI-R expected to hit our shores sometime this year or next — succeeding the GTI-based R32 — performance enthusiasts should have plenty to choose from.
That's fine and all, but the gearbox still needs some work.
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