If you know the difference between a GTI and a regular Golf and care enough to read this review, then you probably don't need me to regurgitate the history of the GTI one more time for you. Everyone has their favorite GTI and mine is the Mk II -- I liked it so much I actually owned two of them. The Mk III GTI, by comparison, was so lame I'm surprised VW doesn't disown it like a bad-egg offspring. The faster but comfier Mk IV was so far from the original hot-hatch concept they really should have called it something else.
Unfortunately, the all-new Mk V is off a bad start because as I sift through the specifications, I find that the suspension has been changed for the American market, partially to raise the ride height by 0.6 of an inch to comply with some pointless regulation or other, but also to accommodate the younger and (often) less experienced American buyer, I suspect. GTIs are expensive cars in Europe and exorbitantly costly to insurance too, so they tend to be bought be older enthusiasts than their American counterparts. In addition, the GTI has taken well over a year to get here and, well, frankly I'm tired of waiting. My colleagues in Europe have been raving about it and I haven't enjoyed a good GTI since I sold mine over six years ago. So please, just give me the keys and step back.
I can't stay mad at the new GTI, though. Just look at it! The blobby dimensions of the old car give way to tight proportions, crisp detailing and understated purposefulness. VW signals the GTI's return to form with its traditional red grille insert and the resurrection of the same GTI lettering that adorned the backside of my favorite model. At the same time, it's not at all retro -- there's a definite family resemblance but there's nothing old fashioned about its new suit of clothes.
Cabin designers practiced the same measured use of classic GTI references as the exterior stylists, with only the "Heritage" plaid seat material and the small badge on the steering wheel to stir up memories of past GTI greatness. Purists like me, we're a little bemused at the absence of the old golf-ball shifter, perhaps, but even so it's still a wonderfully attractive and well-made cabin, and perfectly laid out for the enthusiastic driver. The seats are deep and well bolstered, the pedals are well placed with grippy rubber inserts and the steering wheel is funkier than just about any performance car I can think of. Audio controls are integrated into the steering wheel as well, as are the gear-shifters if you opt for the six-speed DSG automatic transmission, while the dials, switches and storage areas are about as logically and intelligently placed as you could expect.
Overall, the GTI boasts one of the best cabins in the business -- so much so that I really can't find anything to complain about in there. I can't even bitch about how awkward it is to put baby in the back because there's a five-door GTI coming at the end of the year just for family folk like me.
The quiet type
Jump in, turn the key and … there's nothing. No, the GTI hasn't broken down. Hopefully those days are behind VW now. It's just that the engine is so quiet and refined you really can't tell if it's idling or not.
This is something you might expect from a V-6 or V-8 in a luxury car, but this is a four-banger hot hatch for heaven's sake. Where's the rough and tumble? Where's the sense of occasion? Ah, yes, VW points out that the GTI is likely to be an only car for most owners so it not only has to be a back-road terror, it also has to double as a comfortable cruiser and accommodating commuter.
For a sporty car its refinement is exceptional -- the ride is quiet and astonishingly supple, although that's not to suggest for a moment that it's in anyway soft or wallowy. You're very aware of how the tires and road surface are getting along but the suspension somehow isolates occupants for the really unpleasant stuff so you get most of the information without any of the unwanted road spam. Engine and tire noise are also kept to a minimum while the standard ten-speaker, six-CD stereo is more than capable of drowning out whatever little noise is left.
DSG-equipped cars also boast about the slickest gearshift this side of a Mercedes automatic, though it can occasionally be caught napping by erratic use of the gas pedal or shift paddles.
Our challenging test route in the Californian mountains really let us explore the front-wheel-drive GTI's performance and handling. These are the kinds of roads it was specifically designed for, after all.
Volkswagen says that its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces a healthy 200 hp at 5100 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1800 rpm, so care is needed with the gas pedal to avoid lighting up the unloaded front tire when exiting a tight corner or intersection. You won't have to combat any torque steer, though, and once you get the wheels pointing relatively straight the GTI does prove to be quick. Zero to 60 takes just 6.8 seconds, according to VW, and top speed is limited to 130 mph, though European models are capable of running 146 mph unrestricted.
The GTI is most at home on fast, winding roads. The steering is quick and responsive, the pedals are perfectly placed for quick footwork and the gearshift is light and very precise. When you push the GTI too far, it doesn't snap into disastrous understeer; instead it gradually slides into a remarkably controllable four-wheel drift and needs only a lift of the throttle to bring it back on line.
Snap oversteer -- the tendency of some front-drive hot hatches to sling sideways when you lift off the gas suddenly in a corner - is all but absent here. The GTI's multi-link back end won't step out of line under any circumstances, even in the wet, and that's with the ESP turned off. If you leave the electric nannies do their thing then the GTI's handling as about as foolproof as I've ever experienced in a front-drive car.
(GT)I forgive you
I found myself repeating the same word over and over as I drove the GTI in the hills north of San Diego: benign. The GTI is fast and agile but it's also incredibly sensible and serious. Its dynamics are so predictable and so forgiving that it takes some of the fun and excitement away from the GTI experience.
That's not to say it's a doddle to drive -- keeping the turbo on boost and getting that torque to the ground effectively takes some practice and effort. It's just that the GTI is only interested in letting you play if you follow its strict rules of conduct. There is a limited amount of throttle steer on tap - unless you're in a fast, open sweeper the chassis reacts too slowly to throttle lifts to really affect the cornering line. Indeed, the throttle pedal itself feels a little artificial and numb at times, as does the electro-mechanical power steering, meaning that the driver can feel somewhat removed from the driving experience when you really push it.
I don't know if the GTI was set up this way specifically for the U.S. market or whether it's a by-product of the altered suspension. Either way, it's not as playful as I had expected and that's a little disappointing. That said, it is still a great deal of fun and easily the best GTI in a well over a decade.
It represents a superb overall package with everything from Xenon lights to climate control to 17-inch alloy wheels to ESP as standard and all for just $21,990 plus destination charges.
The Mk V captures the essence of the original and best GTIs but reinvented for the modern age where customers have different safety and comfort expectations than before. In that context, the GTI really is an excellent little car and arguably one of the best all-rounders on sale in America today.