First Drive: 2010 Volkswagen GTI reminds us why we like hot hatches so much

2010 Volkswagen GTI – Click above for high-res gallery

Performance Icon. That two-word phrase is bandied about so often there's hardly any meaning left in its 15 letters. After all, if a Porsche 911 is rightly referred to as a performance icon, can we call a Honda Civic Si the same? And are we talking any old 911/Civic Si, or just certain years and models? For instance, there is no doubt that the B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R, with its killer SR20DE engine, is a performance icon, but what about the current B17 Sentra SE-R? How about the Spec V? No way – the Versa has a better chassis.

We mention this problem with the Performance Icon label because Volkswagen described the all-new 2010 MkVI GTI to us as the "performance icon of the brand." As you may have noticed, Volkswagen's been delving pretty deeply into its past for marketing purposes as of late. First they tried reintroducing the Rabbit name much to the chagrin of Golf fans nationwide, and now they have Max, the black 1964 Beetle telling you that VW is "Das Auto." On a smaller scale, it's attempting to remind potential GTI buyers that the new model is both a direct descendant of and flag bearer for the original 1983 MkI GTI. Here comes the begged question: is it?

Photos copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Looks-wise, almost. In this case it's hard to argue with an icon, and let's not forget that the original Golf (called Rabbit in the U.S.) was a Giugiaro design, perhaps his best ever (he also did the OG Scirocco, which we also like very much). That first GTI, with its big rectangular headlights and grille is, for all intents and purposes, a classic. It even managed to make giant Seventies-era bumpers look good. On the other hand, the new GTI is simply a good looking small car. And in a lot of ways, it owes its looks to the MkII GTI, not the MkI. But remember, the MkI is the performance icon, so that's what VW's trying to sell us.

Besides having red striping like the MkI, the front end of the new MkVI GTI accomplishes two very important tasks. The first is a big, "We're sorry" from Volkswagen to America for not bringing over the new Scirocco. They want to, but they can't. The other task accomplished by the GTI's schnoz is saying auf Wiedersehen to VW's gigantic goatee-like grilles, a seemingly never-ending trend introduced to the mainstream by none other than VW's own Audi brand and now being carried out to silly extremes by Mazda and Lincoln, to name just a couple. Volkswagen had the good sense to realize that this particular cliché has finally jumped Billy the Big Mouth Bass. Also, the little chin spoiler is not only slimming but quite slickly integrated.

As far as the rest of the car is concerned, changes over the MkV GTI are subtle. Quickly, the cutline is deeper, the mirrors are tricker, the C-pillar has been slimmed down dramatically, the taillights are squished flatter and the rear end is fitted with twin-pipes (another trend that's gotten out of control). From a driver's perspective, the most important change is the increased greenhouse area. Again, since the introduction of the Chrysler 300C, almost every new car has been gaining metal and losing glass. Hopefully this trend has peaked with the new Chevrolet Camaro, a car you actually can't see out of. We can't tell you how refreshing it is to be able to see the road when you peer out the side windows. But the real changes happen both under the skin and inside it.

Starting with the interior, the GTI's cabin is decidedly more upscale than the outgoing model. The materials are noticeably finer and the flat-bottomed steering wheel is worlds better. Even the air vents look great. In fact, the MkVI's cabin is almost identical to the VW CC, minus the fancy CC-only pleated leather seats. But who wants leather when you can get VW's sharp plaid cloth seats? We drove GTI's equipped with both the cool-as-all-get-out cloth pattern and the optional leathers, and we have to advise you to save the money and go cloth. Not only are they more comfortable (and less sticky), but they weigh a little less. And you get those throwback Euro adjuster knobs. Tech geeks might be put off by the good-not-great nav-radio unit, but it's totally passable. In the interest of truth we should point out that we had but a few hours with the car and were less interested in the radio and more interested in wringing the GTI out.

Now we get to what lies below – the real point of any GTI. There might be some consternation – if not outright groans – regarding the fact that the engine is unchanged from last year's MkV GTI. One might be led to believe that in 2010, 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter turbo four just isn't enough gumption to keep up with the Subaru WRXs and Mazdaspeed3s of the world. After all, even the Chevy Cobalt SS comes with 260 hp. In one sense, you might be right. But, in a more factual sense, the MkVI has plenty of power.

There are couple of reasons why – the first being refinement. Introduced four years ago in the 2007 GTI, Volkswagen's FSI (direct injection) 2.0-liter mill feels as smooth as 1,500 thread count sheets. There's no perceivable lag, no shortcomings and the engine is ready and willing to rev all the way up to its 6,250 redline (remember – turbo engines don't need lofty redlines to produce their power). Another reason why the carryover engine works so well is that the new GTI weighs less than the old one. Eighty-six pounds less to be exact, but less is less. True, over in Europe the MkVI sports an all-new engine, but it makes just 210 hp. Volkswagen didn't feel the increased cost of a new mill would justify just ten ponies. We'll go ahead and agree with 'em.

So what's new for 2010, then? The suspension for one, though not massively so. Stiffer springs have been attached to all four corners and the rear sway bar is two millimeters thicker. There's been a bit of damper retuning, too. The dual exhausts allow the installation of an H-pipe, though you shouldn't expect to hear anything from inside the car – the new GTI is spooky quiet. In fact, the only sound you hear is produced by a resonator box fed off the air intake, which is a little odd. The big news is the electronic limited-slip differential, or XDS in VW-speak. This "Cross Differential System" uses the GTI's existing ABS and stability control program to limit front wheel slip in corners. Once again, Volkswagen cited cost concerns as the reason why they went with an electronic as opposed to a mechanical LSD.

So what's it all add up to? Turns out that less weight, a sportier suspension and the XDS does make for a remarkable new GTI, one that you'd be hard pressed to confuse with the MkV. Volkswagen turned us loose on some of the finest driving roads exurban Atlanta has to offer (Wolf Pen Gap, for instance) and the GTI lived up to its task admirably. We're typically fond of front-wheel drive hatches on tight and twisty mountain roads because in those situations rear-drive cars can be a handful. The GTI reconfirmed our bias, but with a little asterisk.

Because of the MkVI GTI's new electronic limited slip, you can get on the power incredibly early when coming out of a corner. We're talking pre-apex here. And this is fantastic, allowing you to attack turns the way you might in an all-wheel drive car. The XDS partnered with the revised suspension means you're at full power more often than not, taking big speed into (and more importantly) out of bends faster than we were expecting given our impression of the outgoing GTI. However, and this is big, driving this way shortens the useful life of the brakes considerably when you push the GTI hard. Remember, electronic LSDs use ABS to stop the wheel from spinning so fade comes on fast.

Even when we would downshift into a turn and blast our way out, the car was still using its brakes, which provided an unwelcome surprise when suddenly we got on the brakes and the pedal (*gulp*) sunk almost to the floor. Be advised that we were really pushing the car, so much so that we arrived at our destination 40 minutes ahead of the next GTI. Could you fit better pads? Sure. Stouter brakes? Maybe, but doing so might foul up the XDS and then where would you be? Just think of the new GTI as a part-time performance ride instead of a track toy and you'll do just fine.

The 2010 GTI is a worthy successor to the original 1983 GTI.
Then there's the new eternal argument, DSG versus plain old manual. A couple of facts we learned about GTI transmissions: Interestingly, unlike most cars sold in the U.S., a full 50% of GTI buyers opt for the manual (as opposed to the 90% slushbox rate in VW's other offerings). The fast shifting dual-clutch unit weighs 22.4 pounds more than the manual. That might seem like nothing (in fact, other journalists laughed at our question once the answer was given), but remember that people pay big $$$ for a Porsche GT3 RS fitted with a lithium-ion battery that saves... 22 pounds.

While largely carried over from the old GTI, the DSG now features launch control, and it's incredibly easy to use: Disengage the traction control. Flop the transmission over into Sport. Push the brake pedal in with your left foot. Floor the throttle with your right and watch as the tachometer climbs to 3,200 rpm. Then, simply dump the brake. You are treated to a bit of wheelspin and a slightly faster jaunt to 60 mph. It should be noted that you can get a whole bunch more wheelspin by dumping the clutch with the manual, though Volkswagen claims this way is slower.

So, which transmission to get? Call us Luddites if you must (Luddites!), but if your desire is a satisfying driver's car, then there is no question that the six-speed manual is the box to get. It's just more fun. Oh yes, we know that the DSG can change gears faster (VW claims 1/10 of a second) and all that, but it feels artificial. While there are dual-clutch transmissions that float our boat ( hello, Nissan GT-R), in the case of the MkVI GTI, the manual transmission is the enthusiast's way to go. Which is no doubt why Volkswagen sells so many row-your-own GTIs. It's cheaper, too.

The 2010 Volkswagen GTI MkVI has a lot going for it. As far as hot hatches are concerned, none of the competition offers the same mix of refinement, sophistication and driving good times that the GTI does. The price – starting at $23,290 and hitting $29,030 with all the boxes checked – is right, too. Yes, you can get faster cars for the money. Slightly better handling ones, too. But then again, GTIs have never been about flat-out performance. They're too civilized, too – dare we say – nice. In that regard, the 2010 GTI is a worthy successor to the original 1983 GTI, and we wouldn't regret owning one. Besides, if big time power and performance are what you're after, the upcoming Golf GTI-R/R20 is right around the corner. As it stands, the MkVI GTI is a practical albeit fancy little hatchback that's up to the occasional back road burn.

Photos copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

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