Driven: 2010 Volkswagen GTI
The Best Hot Hatch Ever Made, Or Pretender To The Throne?
Let me begin by saying that, outside of a Volkswagen employee, I am likely the worst person in the entire world to provide a balanced review of the 2010 Volkswagen GTI. Or, for that matter, any VW GTI.
For roughly five years through middle school and high school I believed (don't laugh) the GTI was the greatest car ever made, even though I knew it had its faults. I tore pictures out of magazines and pasted them inside my school books, providing a small but necessary hit of mid- to late- 80s Fahrvergngen on my way to geometry class. I sweated the details of model year enhancements (particularly nerdy: the belief that the big bumpers found on the later years of the second generation GTI somehow made the car, um, faster?), leaping with joy when I learned the 1990 car received an increase in displacement from 1.8 liters to 2.0 liters. An entire 200 cc’s more! The earth might be pulled out of its orbit.
It was foolish, perhaps, but when you are young you need heroes in which to believe. Who cares if you come to your senses later on, it’s healthy to have an unhealthy obsession for a short period of time, right?
Well, the obsession ended when VW started making GTIs that no longer felt like GTIs. Some might say this started happening when GTIs received many of the same parts as the garden-variety Golf. The GTI was always -- and in my mind, should always be -- positioned as a very fast, very nimble hatchback that was based on the Golf's shell, but with a good complement of unique equipment. Alas, eventually the GTI was offered with an automatic transmission, it gained weight and, frankly, it wasn't really all that fun to drive anymore.
The GTI’s original success was due in large part to it making the operator believe that he was a better driver. This is a far contrast from, say, a Porsche 911 or a Dodge Viper. Those sharp knives -- although remarkable in their own way -- aren't flattering to most wheelmen. And I don't mean the way you look driving them with the wind flowing through your Propecia-thick hair. The act of steering a 911 or Viper requires more control and more skill the harder you push.
The GTI didn't require such credentials. As a city car it was easy to squirt in and out of traffic, but as the driver asked for more power, the car kept a consistent and steady slope toward 100 mph or more. Cornering at high speeds was as predictable as it was fun; the inside rear wheel might lift slightly off the ground, which shocked more than a few first-timers but never really threw the car for a loop when it landed mid-corner. Overall the GTI flattered the driver and was a perfect car in which to learn how to drive fast.
It's not easy making heavy cars do the same. Beyond a certain size, it's just plain difficult to create that liveliness in a vehicle unless you're willing to move to a bigger engine, which in turn adds more weight, creating something of a vicious cycle.. Which leads us to the new, sixth-generation 2010 VW GTI.
The car weighs in at 3,113 lbs but rather than opting for a larger engine (many previous GTIs were available with V6 engines, but I always considered them anomalies), VW has stuck with its tried and true 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder. The engine has direct injection, one of those joys of the new millennium that creates both greater efficiency and more power. Power is rated at 200 horsepower and 207 lbs-ft of torque, running through either a six-speed manual gearbox (which we drove) or a six-speed direct-shift gearbox (which we haven't). The DSG tranny allows the driver to shift without a clutch and, truth be told, is faster than doing it yourself. Still, I prefer the manual setup.
When I walked down to the parking garage and saw the 2010 GTI sitting there in afternoon sunlight, I admit I had a few flashbacks to the early 1990s. The rear of the hatch looked incredibly upright, tall and a bit bigger than I imagined, but it also looked a bit mischievous. Yes, yes, this is exactly what it should be. Maybe after all these years VW realized what they had forgotten and actually refocused on what made the GTI special
Then I noticed the wheels -- the optional, 18-inch "Detroit" alloys with summer tires -- that are somewhat reminiscent of the old “telephone dial” wheels VW sold in the 1980s and 90s that I loved so much. Indeed, the exterior resonated.
The interior did similarly. The cloth seats displayed a loud tartan pattern that was a direct hat tip to the early-1980s GTI. I’m fine without leather, by the way, as it just adds costs and wears faster than the new-age cloth surfacing. During my week with the car, rear legroom was acceptable for two six-footers that rode with me, but a car like the Mazda3 (and faster Mazdaspeed3 variant) offers more room in the back if you're looking to please your passengers.
Overall I'd note that sometimes these kneel-down homages can be tacky and overwrought, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. The balanced interior is still a contemporary Volkswagen design and all that much better for it.
Starting the GTI reveals a small but noticeable amount of exhaust feedback, a gentle reminder that your life isn't over just yet. The sound goes away rather quickly, however, and at idle it’s downright quiet. Playing with the shifter and launching the car from first gear, I'm surprised how smooth shifting has become. Only two years ago I complained about the previous generation GTI having a gear shifter that could never really figure out where it wanted to go. This improvement makes the new car feel much easier to drive and gets back to the notion of flattering the driver. In all honesty, those earlier GTIs from the late 80s and early 90s had horrendous shift linkage problems, a fault that was easier to overlook in my youth.
Power delivery from the 2.0T engine is considerable but controllable, like pouring a 20-lb bag of rice into a storm drain. The turbocharger forces air into the engine but needs some time to get spooled up (not horribly late like some earlier turbos, but it's not instant, either). When the power comes on your chest separates from the steering wheel and you are reminded that holding on with two hands is a good thing.
Stopping is something the GTI does equally well but for which nobody seems to give it much credit. The four-wheel discs are vented 312 mm x 25 mm jobs up front and solid 286 mm x 12 mm stoppers in the rear. That's a good amount of brake force for a little car, even one that weighs 3,000-plus lbs.
At high speeds the GTI is more confident than any car you can buy in this pants size. Remember that it's a little less than 14 feet long, just four inches longer than the Honda Fit. But it feels like a car with a much longer wheelbase and drives confidently at speeds well past 100 mph. It is remarkable at high speeds but strangely, in low- and medium-speed driving I detected a weakness in the steering feedback. Turning the wheel in second and third gear felt slightly detached and could benefit from less power assistance to give the driver more feedback.
Another gripe I noted after my week of driving is that VW has become so adept at making cars quiet that the GTI could profit from a little bit more intrusion of the elements. Even with the 18-inch alloy wheels and the thin spread of rubber covering them, road noise is reduced to levels that might lead you to believe that you’re driving a Buick.
At the end of the day, I think VW still has room to go in bringing the GTI back to greatness. VW sells only a few thousand GTIs in America each year, meaning that the audience for this product is more willing to accept some rough edges in the name of performance, individuality and a good story. This new model is very good -- perhaps the closest they've come since the second-generation GTI went out of service in 1992 -- but it isn't quite there yet. It seems as if it's trying to do everything well, but that could be a fool's errand.
If VW continues to stroke those elements of GTI lore for owners, while leading the vehicle in a new direction and continuing to push the boundaries of what a hot hatch means, the car could reign supreme again. It's no longer “the greatest car ever made” to me, but I'd be willing to give it another shot.
Not all cars need to be perfect in every single way. Embracing that could be the secret.
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