Photos by John Neff / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
By the time the GTI came Stateside, with its square headlamps and NHTSA-approved bumpers, the sharply-creased hatchback was no longer in the business of breaking any new stylistic ground. That much holds true for the 2010 Volkswagen GTI as well. It's handsome and smoothly styled with the instantly-recognizable profile of a Volkswagen two-box.
In truth, this latest generation of GTI doesn't appear hugely different than its predecessor. The front and rear light clusters are revised, with less startled-looking headlamps and more horizontal taillights. The front fascia and grille are also redone on a more horizontal theme and red stripes at the top and bottom of the new grille are a touch deftly lifted from 1983. While evolutionary, changes wrought between MkV and MkVI are successful in smoothing and modernizing the GTI.
Inside, it's more of the same updated-retro theme. The standard seats fitted to our tester arrived finished in Interlagos Plaid upholstery. Tartan fabric still carries echoes of the 1970s and is as polarizing as the Bacon Explosion. Some love it, but if you don't, VW offers upgraded sport seats with partial leather upholstery as part of the $2,185 Autobahn package, which also adds a power sunroof.
Very few people will complain about front seat space in the GTI, though anyone who has to climb into the back might gripe about the hike. In two-door form, that means climbing in and over the sill, so carpoolers or family users would do best to choose the five-door version, although it costs around $600 more. Once gluteals are planted on the cushion in the second row, passengers will find it relatively comfy back there, but claustrophobes will definitely want the extra doors. The 15.3 cubic feet of cargo space is useful and accessible thanks to the GTI's classic hatch profile; this a well-rounded little hellraiser that can haul both people and cargo at ascot-flipping speeds.
Build quality both inside and out is typical Volkswagen – meticulous. The materials inside feel like what you'd find in a car costing $40,000 versus the $24,414 entry fee on our test car. The design is clean and uncluttered, with a center stack that puts an emphasis on symmetry. There are twin HVAC outlets at the top, with the touchscreen for the audio system just below. The switchgear feels high-quality and without slop, and the chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel is wrapped in leather, carries redundant controls and feels purposeful underhand. Simple, clear analog gauges keep drivers informed at a glance.
The center stack's ergonomics are first rate: there are three simple knobs for the HVAC, and the control relationships are just right. Even if you don't opt for the navigation system and its attendant Dynaudio-sourced stereo upgrade, there's still a big 'ol touchscreen for the audio controls. For our money, the standard system sounds darn good already, and nav might be anathema to the GTI's mission, anyway, especially as it drives nicely enough that you won't mind getting lost. Since it starts as an Everyman errand-runner, the GTI doesn't earn many demerits in terms of visibility, or even cupholders and cubbyholes. Despite being easily goaded into rowdiness, the GTI knows how to hold your large coffee during the morning commute, too. For a starting point under $25,000, the GTI is comprehensively equipped and materials and fit-and-finish are significantly better than vehicles like the MazdaSpeed3 and Subaru WRX.
Niceties aside, how's it go? That is, after all, the point of a GTI. Though this VW kicks it with 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque sent through the front wheels from its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, it's not a torque-steering monster. Available power is well down vis-à-vis the frothier 'Speed3 and WRX, though the resultant 6.8 seconds it takes to get to 60 mph isn't exactly leisurely. Taken as a whole, the GTI outclasses most comers: It's plenty quick, and with the new XDS differential that gets subtle brake application into the action, you can get yourself out of corners with more speed and less understeer.
The standard GTI without the optional adaptive suspension is tossable and supple, feeling like Volkswagen sent this car off to a weekend handling seminar at BMW. Since we didn't have the opportunity to sample the different modes of the upgraded package, we can't comment on any improvement that setup brings, but the standard car is plenty satisfying to wring out. Planting your right foot brings a snarl and a tug from the engine bay, and the chunky wheel rim lets you in on what the tires have to say.
While the modern way to play racecar driver is to get the dual-clutch DSG and its attendant wheel-mounted shift paddles, the standard six-speed manual gearbox is no downgrade. Action is solid and slick, and pedals allow heel/toe shifting without double-jointed ankles. Despite being a relatively small powerplant with a turbocharger, lag isn't so much an issue with peak torque available from 1,800 rpm. The way the GTI launches with aplomb, only mildly afflicted with wheelspin, may be due to some initial softness until the turbo comes up to full wail, but that works to your advantage.
Of course, nobody would turn down a GTI with thirty or forty more horsepower, and given the chassis' good manners in town and poise on curvy roads and highway strafing runs, the platform is certainly up to the job. All-out horsepower or even superior track numbers aren't everything, though, as driving the GTI shows time and time again. It's a polished package that may sprint a little less fleetly than its peers, but the VW's popularity with aftermarket tuners should quickly remedy any output deficiency for less than the price of those leather seats, anyway.
A stomp of the middle pedal brings easily modulated rapid deceleration. This car's reflexes are the stuff of hot-hatch daydreams, and while 3,000 pounds isn't featherweight anymore, neither is it as portly as most mainstream cars. The GTI feels nimble because of this, and while older VR6-equipped GTIs may have been more rapid, the six-cylinder certainly exacted a weight and handling penalty. The other demerit to the bigger engine was thirst, and the 2010 GTI provides relatively cheap thrills with fuel economy of 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway. We're happy to see that the old first-generation frisky/frugal dichotomy has once again found its mojo.
Since its inception, the Volkswagen GTI has never been the least expensive car in its class. The iconic first-generation has proven to be a tough act to follow, though, and enthusiasts have rightfully worried that with each successive generation, Volkswagen was losing its way a little more. The 2010 GTI restores our faith that the GTI can still do the things that made the original one of the all-time enthusiast greats.
The competence and sheen of careful assembly might prod you into an excitedly Ron Popiel-esque "Now how much would you pay?" The answer to that boomingly voiced question would be a surprisingly reasonable twenty-five large. Just like the Jetta TDI is five grand cheaper than you'd think, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI strikes us as a bargain for the refinement and performance it offers.