The Volkswagen GTI is like that attractive girl you used to think you were in love withÖ until you got to know her better. Once you found that she talked too much and snorted in an unflattering way when she laughed too hard, you werenít as interested anymore and so you moved on. But another guy came along, didnít mind the long conversations and the occasional snort, so he married her. The GTI is like that girl Ė it looks good, but some may discover that this hot hatch is not their type once they get to know it a bit better. Now, in no way am I insinuating that the GTI is a girly car or that itís an incompetent performer. This VW has plenty of bravado and has a lot of great aspects going for it. Read on and judge for yourself whether or not you and the GTI are meant to be.
Our 2 door Tornado Red GTI came fitted with a sporty set of 18" rims shod with low profile tires along with the optional Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG) paired to the turbocharged 2.0l inline 4. The exterior styling is clean and is a nice evolution from the previous Mark IV generation. The front end has a deep, honeycomb grill, similar to Audiís newly adopted snout, with a thin red outline around the top half of the grill hinting at its sporting intentions. Further evidence that the GTI means business is the twin chromed exhaust out back.
On the inside youíre treated to high quality materials, soft touch plastics with tasteful chrome bits, and impeccable fit and finish. Thereís even a sporty-chic flat-bottom steering wheel and alloy pedals. Itís rare to find such an upscale interior in this price range. Youíll also notice the very comfortable retro plaid seats. Youíll either love them or hate them; we liked them a lot. Overall, the interior is a very pleasant place to be. Thereís not a ton of extra space behind the back seats when you open the hatch, but if you have stuff to haul and no more than one extra passenger beyond yourself, fold down the rear seats and youíll be able to stow a good amount of gear.
Getting back to the mechanical side of things, the motor is good for a solid 200 hp and an impressive 207 lb-ft of torque thanks to wonders of forced induction. Fire up the engine and it quickly settles into a smooth unassuming hum. Give it some gas and the force-fed small displacement motor quickly wakes up and displays its eagerness to rev. Any anxiety about turbo lag is soon forgotten as the GTI jumps off the line quickly. An overly eager jab at the throttle will bring out some playful front wheel spin in first gear, an indication that thereís a decent amount of torque available. For you statistic nerds, the 207 lb-ft of torque curve is remarkably flat, available from a lowly 1,800rpm right round to 5,100rpm. VW claims a 0-60 time in 6.9 seconds with the 6 speed automatic and 7.1 seconds with the 6 speed manual. Yes, the automatic is faster than the shift-it-yourself manual. Top speed is limited to 130 mph should you care to test it out on a track. The V-Dub feels plenty quick.
In addition to this jewel of an engine is the sublime DSG transmission which we had the pleasure of testing. Shifts are executed quickly and smoothly, far better than most automatics in the market. Slide the gear shift towards you, set it in manual mode and take hold of the small, but intuitively placed shift paddles behind the steering wheel. Upshifts and downshifts are rifled off as quickly as your synapses can ask your fingers to fire away. There are no lazy, delayed shifts with the DSG, the common downfall of your traditional manumatic slushbox. The instantaneous execution of shifts is incredibly satisfying and makes driving the GTI almost videogame-like. If you want to bang off two rapid downshifts, the DSG is game. Two quick clicks on the left steering wheel paddle or nudging the shifter twice towards the "-" sign and youíre met with two beautiful crescendos of engine revs in succession bringing a smooth and satisfying deceleration of speed provided by the engine compression. You could never pull off shifts this quick and smooth with a traditional stick shift, even if you were named Michael Schumacher. There are no head snapping jolts from the tranny like you might find in BMWís herky jerky SMG transmission. If you need the practicality of an automatic to save your left calf muscle from exhaustion in stop and go traffic but still want the option of initiating a perfectly timed downshift when approaching a tight hairpin on your favorite back roads every once in a while, the DSGís $1073 price tag is worth every penny.
Speaking of tackling the twisties, the GTIís handling is somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde affair. First off, the ride quality is first rate. The front struts and multi-link rear setup absorbs road irregularities quickly and without drama while retaining a sophisticated firm ride. The aggressive 18" 225/40 tires provide the GTI with a high level of grip. Sounds like the perfect car so far right?
It really is a great car for spirited around town driving, but take it out for a little frolic in the hills and you begin to see a few shortcomings. When we took our GTI on some back roads and threw it some curves it was here that the once composed and athletic suspension that we found so enjoyable earlier, revealed some handling slop. The ride height of the U.S. version of the GTI was raised 15mm to help meet the 5mph bumper standards. For you non-metric citizens, 15mm is equivalent to about 0.6 inches. Thatís enough to change the handling characteristics of any car. Since the U.S. spec GTI rides a bit high (the height of the GTI is a good 5 inches taller than the Honda Civic Si), its center of gravity is not as close to the ground as the engineers in Wolfsburg originally intended. And so, it tends to throw its top heavy weight around in the form of excessive body roll when involved in high speed transitions. Now, you wonít notice this so much when driving around town, but push the GTI beyond 8/10, especially around some tight left/right bends, and that confidence-sapping body roll will become quite evident. During our road test, we took one particular ess curve a bit too aggressively and the rear end stepped out unexpectedly, but fortunately the traction control quickly brought the tail back in line.
Obviously, the GTI isnít meant to provide drivers with handling on par with a Lotus Exige, but it does fall into the category of sport compact among the likes of the Civic Si. Therefore, I do expect a certain level of handling competency. The GTI provides that ability exceptionally well, although only to a certain threshold. The majority of drivers wonít ever explore the outer reaches of the GTIís handling limits like we did and therefore will be quite satisfied with its handling dynamics. And to those people I say, to each his own. But for me, a hot engine with a slick transmission along with good looks may captivate me initially; however, I need a car that is also ready to play when Iím in the mood to tackle some demanding roads. Strong brakes are also important. Unfortunately, after several hard braking runs, we experienced some brake fade and slight pedal mushiness. Besides that, the brakes engaged smoothly and were easy to modulate.
If youíre like me and want a car that can handle aggressive driving in the turns, donít give up hope on the GTI just yet. Word has it that the 2007 U.S. model will come with the lowered, Euro-spec ride height. This will most definitely improve the handling and reduce some of that ugly body roll we experienced in the 2006 model. When we get our hands on a 2007, weíll give you an update on the handling characteristics from the lowered ride height.
In all honesty, the GTI is a smoking deal. It looks great both on the outside and in. It comes with one of the best 4 cylinder motors and automatic transmissions in the world hands down. Itís practical, seats five and can haul your gear when you need it to. Itís also quick yet gets good gas mileage (25 city/31 highway) and it rides and handles well, as long as youíre not too "spirited" in your driving. Best of all, you get all of this at a starting MSRP of $22,100. Thatís a lot of car for your money. Like I said, the GTI is like that girl you thought you were in love with. You would have been smart to have married her because she was a great catch. As for guys like me, Iím just a little too picky.