The Volkswagen GTI is considered by many to be the iconic "hot hatchback", and the all-new 2010 GTI does nothing to dispel that rumor. With 200 turbocharged horsepower, a well-sorted suspension, and just enough jazzy trim to make it stand out, the GTI seems to have it all -- but does it come together in the real world? Read on. Price range $23,990 - $32,651, EPA fuel economy estimates 21-24 MPG city, 31-32 MPG highway.
Larger photos: Front - rear - all photos
First Glance: Everything you need to know
Now, you could go on reading the rest of this test drive, in which I will endeavor to describe why the GTI is so great. But if I were you, I'd grab your car keys, run down to your local VW dealership, and buy yourself a 2010 GTI -- quickly, before everyone else discovers what a great car it is and cleans out the dealer's stock. Then, when you get back, you can read the rest of this review and learn all about what a great car you just bought. Sound good? Hey, friends and neighbors, I'm here to serve.
I will warn you to shop carefully; the new 2010 GTI looks so much like the old GTI that I'm sure someone, somewhere, will accidentally buy the wrong one. The GTI, as you probably know, is based on the Golf. Back home in Germany, the Golf sells to the same sort of people who buy Tauruses and Malibus here in the States, so VW wasn't about to make any radical changes that might alienate das regulär volk. The main spotting features between the new GTI and the old one are the shorter grille (link goes to photo) and wider taillights.
In the Driver's Seat: More of the same
Inside, the new GTI is the same, but different. The basic shape and layout of the dash is unchanged, but the details are new, from the updated steering wheel (complete with new audio, cruise and trip computer controls) to the shape of the air vents. The climate controls are borrowed from the CC, and all GTIs get a touch-screen interface for the stereo, even cars that don't have the optional ($1,750) navigation system. And with that touch screen comes -- finally! -- a decent iPod interface. The iPod connector uses a proprietary plug rather than a standard USB port, but the stereo can also play tunes via a standard auxiliary jack and an SD card slot. Oh, and the infamous tartan seat cloth is back, although you can also opt for black leather, part of the $2,795 Autobahn Package.
I always feel like a bit of a dork when I start talking about back seat and trunk space in a car like the GTI, although practicality really is this car's second-best feature. Back seat dimensions are nearly unchanged from last year -- there's a bit more legroom -- so both two- and four-door GTIs can accommodate four adults in comfort. At 15.3 cubic feet, the trunk isn't exactly huge, but it's well shaped and easy to load.
Like most VWs, the GTI is loaded with safety equipment, including six airbags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. Rear seat-mounted side airbags are a $350 option on four-door GTIs, but a driver's knee airbag -- standard on GTIs sold in Europe -- is not available in North America. Shame, as knee airbags can prevent some rather nasty injuries.
On the Road: All you could ask for
The 200 hp 2-liter turbo engine is a carryover from last year, as are the 6-speed manual transmission and 6-speed twin-clutch automatic (called the Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG). On paper, DSG is faster and more fuel efficient; it also has a nifty launch mode that enables fantastic tire-smoking take-offs. But I'm partial to the manual -- it provides better access to the engine's power, plus I love being able to bury the tachometer needle well into the red zone. (The redline start at 6,200 RPM, but the engine's rev limiter doesn't cut in until 7,000 RPM.) With either transmission, the GTI feels way quicker than VW’s claimed 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds would lead you to believe – that’s the benefit of an engine that develops peak torque (207 lb-ft) over most of its rev range (1,800 to 5,000 RPM).
New for 2010 is an electronic limited-slip differential, or eLSD. Front-drive cars often have trouble getting traction when powering out of a curve; as the car's weight shifts rearward and towards the outside, the front-inside wheel breaks loose and spins, a problem eLSD is designed to prevent. I was skeptical; I've driven cars with similar systems and none work as well as an old-fashioned mechanical LSD. But lo and behold, eLSD works like a treat -- just like everything else on this car.
Journey's End: What's not to like?
Granted, both the Mazda and the Chevy offer significantly more power -- about 60 hp and 60 lb-ft, give or take -- and you can feel that extra power when accelerating flat-out in a straight line. But you can also feel that extra power in the curves: The Mazdaspeed3 and the Cobalt SS have serious torque-steer issues, which really dampens the fun factor. The GTI, in contrast, is almost as benign as a rear-drive car like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe (which, by the way, is probably the GTI's best rival in terms of grins-per-dollar). In fact, thanks to the nifty eLSD, it's nearly as well-poised (if not quite as grippy) as all-wheel-drive sportsters like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. And of all the cars I've mentioned, the GTI is the only one to offer both manual and automatic transmissions as well as two or four doors.