It’s one thing to become infatuated with a car after a short fling, as we did when we declared Volkswagen‘s GTI the 2007 Automobile of the Year. It’s something else to live with it for a full year – especially when we’re continually spoiled by machinery costing two, three, or even ten times as much.
And so a year ago, we ordered our little Volkswagen to see if the candy white GTI would still taste delicious after a full year. The verdict? The sweet taste of some confections just never gets old.
Our $26,754 four-door GTI arrived with just four options: a sunroof and satellite radio package ($1370), a six-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission ($1075), eighteen-inch wheels with summer tires ($750), and a (useless and frustrating) $199 iPod adapter. Included in the VW’s base price are power windows, mirrors, and door locks; stability control; front, side, and side curtain air bags; HID headlights; and a six-CD changer. The GTI may be a small car, but it certainly wants for no convenience or safety features.
Although everyone agreed that the standard plaid cloth seats were cool enough to forgo leather, the decision to order the dual-clutch transmission was more difficult. While most of the staff begged for three pedals and a stick, this test offered the perfect opportunity to finally settle the gearbox question: is the DSG so good that it’s a worthy substitute for a manual transmission?
It took all of one day for that question to be answered. Senior editor Joe Lorio concluded that “the DSG may be the world’s sportiest automatic, but it’s not the ultimate manual.” Over the next twelve months, everyone seemed to agree with Lorio. The DSG received endless praise for its ability to shift instantaneously and with no interruption of power, but no one thought of it as a substitute for a conventional manual. Associate editor Sam Smith: “Would I buy one? Sure, if I didn’t have a left leg.”
A few staffers noticed that the DSG was a little slow to engage reverse in the morning, and several commented that the dual-clutch GTI wasn’t as smooth off the line as it would be with a conventional automatic. “The combination of nonlinear clutch takeup and turbo lag means off-the-line acceleration is hard to predict,” commented one staffer. “I love that the GTI isn’t slow, but I wish I had a better idea of when, exactly, it was going to go faster.”
There was not another complaint about the driveline. Everyone loved the GTI‘s 200-hp engine, which provides big thrust with minimal turbo lag. Thanks to a resonance tube that pipes the engine’s intake honk directly into the cabin, you’re always aware of what the little four-cylinder is doing without needing a loud exhaust. From outside, the loudest part of the GTI’s sound track is the big burp it emits during on-boost upshifts. We played endlessly with the steering-wheel shift paddles to hear the music over and over again.
Perhaps that’s why the downshift paddle wore out. It was replaced under warranty at 10,082 miles, and at the same time, the dealer located the source of a front-end clunk we had been hearing for some time. The sound was caused by subframe bolts that had loosened – a problem other GTI owners have experienced. Our VW also needed an oxygen sensor at 17,099 miles to extinguish a check-engine light, and it developed some interior rattles during its stay with us, but otherwise the GTI was problem-free. One of the repairs was performed at a routine service interval, so our car visited the dealer five times during its one-year test.
The total bill for the three service visits, however, was a whopping $570.13 – that’s luxury-car territory. VW just announced that all of its 2009 model year cars will have free maintenance during their bumper-to-bumper warranty. That period, however, shrinks from our 2007 warranty’s four years and 50,000 miles to three years and 36,000 miles.
Our disappointment with the GTI’s service costs dissipated when we were behind the thick, sculpted leather steering wheel, though. Smith gushed, “The steering. Oh, my God, the steering. The GTI offers the most steering feel for your new-car dollar, period. It’s direct, it’s light, it feels blissfully unassisted but never heavy, and you always know exactly what the front wheels are doing. It reminds me of an older, lighter car.” The GTI’s fuel economy, however, didn’t get such rave reviews.
With an overall average of 23 mpg, the GTI definitely was not the econohatch we expected it to be. Our DSG-equipped GTI didn’t even come close to achieving its 25-mpg city and 32-mpg highway EPA economy ratings. (Our observed mileage was even at the low end of the updated 2008 scale – 22/29 mpg.) Although the GTI’s appetite for premium fuel became slightly less voracious during its stay with us, it barely achieved 27 mpg on the interstate. We’ve easily beaten that in much larger cars with bigger engines.
Of course, we didn’t often treat the GTI as an economy car. In fact, for a quarter of its year with us, the little Vee Dub drove around slammed to the ground with Koni FSD (Frequency-Selective Damping) shocks and Eibach Pro-Kit springs – and chipped to 252 hp (on 93-octane gasoline) courtesy of APR engine reprogramming.
The pimping happened in unassuming Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where Next Level Performance Tuning transformed our GTI from bunny-quick to cheetah-fast. In addition to the 52-hp boost, the new engine programming gave us a shocking 96 lb-ft of additional torque. The massive midrange torque made the GTI “the fastest traffic-beater in the world” according to road test editor Marc Noordeloos. Smith pined for the stock engine’s more linear power delivery – until we returned the car to 200-hp mode. Then, he wanted the power back.
The lowered suspension got mixed reviews. Suspension supernanny Noordeloos complained of too little wheel travel and diminished steering feel, but most people agreed that the GTI was the best-riding lowered car that they’d ever driven. We credit Koni’s FSD kit for preserving most of the ride quality despite a huge (1.2 inches front and rear) drop in ride height. As an added benefit, we observed a slight increase in fuel economy when the car was lowered and chipped.
The added power knocked 0.4 second off our GTI’s 0-to-60-mph time, making it even faster than the six-cylinder Volkswagen R32. We conducted an online comparison test in which the tuned GTI beat the all-wheel-drive R32 on every acceleration measure, although the R32 was still quicker through the corners. Visit automobilemag.com for the comparison story and full test results, including dyno plots of the GTI before and after the APR chip.
One area where the R32 excelled – and our GTI did not – was in brake feel. The logbook was full of complaints about the GTI’s brakes. A squishy pedal and overactive ABS programming gave little confidence, prompting technical editor Don Sherman to note that “the GTI’s brakes were marginal to start with, so I would not recommend that anyone add power and/or lateral adhesion without also investigating ways to upgrade braking capacity.”
It didn’t help that we always seemed to be traveling at felonious speeds in the GTI. Assistant editor David Yochum said that “the GTI tricks you into thinking you’re going 15 to 20 mph slower than you actually are.” One particularly anal-retentive editor (yours truly) went so far as to test the speedometer against a GPS unit under the suspicion that it was reading 15 mph high. It wasn’t – the GTI is just that cool and collected.
But its composure didn’t stop everyone from enjoying it – the word “fun” appeared more times in the GTI‘s logbook than in any other Four Seasons log in recent memory. Copy editor Rusty Blackwell went so far as to say that the GTI was “the kind of rare car that can cheer you up from a bad mood.” Production manager Al Luckwald wrote, “Other than a Lotus Elise, I’ve not driven a car that’s more fun.”
You’d have a hard time matching the GTI’s combination of useful packaging, cheerful personality, and outright speed at any price – and especially for less than $27,000. Many of us agree with Noordeloos when he said, “I would own one of these cars if I were in the market.” In fact, Luckwald wants to buy our GTI. You don’t get praise much higher than that.
Americans got their first taste of the go-fast VW with the 1983 GTI. The Mark 1 had only 90 hp, but it managed to keep up with serious sports cars of the era. Its superb handling and big fun factor gave it street cred that belied its pip-squeak mass.
The second-generation GTI arrived in 1985 but finally outshined the original in 1987, when the sixteen-valve model debuted. First a 1.8-liter with 123 hp and later a 2.0-liter with 134 hp, the Mark 2 kept all of the GTI’s character but with more punch.
The Mark 3 GTI debuted in 1995 with a 172-hp VR6. It was brutally fast and sounded amazing, but the 2.8-liter’s mass killed the GTI’s handling balance. An uninspired 115-hp, 2.0-liter in-line four came later but couldn’t come close to matching the personality of earlier GTIs.
The Mark 4 arrived in 1999 and eventually got two different 1.8-liter turbo engines (150 hp and 180 hp) and a 200-hp VR6, but it lost even more of the GTI’s focus in favor of an almost Audi-esque level of luxury. The 2006 Mark 5 brought back the GTI’s fun factor.
Rating: 4/5 Stars
- Body Style 4-door hatchback
- Accomodation 5 passengers
- Construction Steel unibody
- Engine 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
- Displacement 2.0 liters (121 cu in)
- Torque 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
- Transmission Type 6-speed automatic
- Drive Front wheel
- Steering Power rack-and-pinion
- Lock-to-Lock 3.0 turns
- Turning Circle 35.8 ft
- Suspension, Front Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, Rear Multi-link coil springs
- Brakes F/R Vented discs/discs, ABS
- Tires Continental
- ContiSportContact 2
- Tire Size 225/40YR-18
- Headroom F/R 39.3/38.5 in
- Legroom F/R 41.2/35.3 in
- Shoulder Room F/R 54.8/53.1 in
- L x W x H 165.8 x 69.3 x 58.4 in
- Wheelbase 101.5 in
- Track F/R 60.4/59.7 in
- Weight 3245 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R 61.8/38.2%
- Cargo Capacity 14.7 cu ft
- Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal
- Est. Fuel Range 330 miles
- Fuel Grade 91 Octane
- OUR TEST RESULTS*
- 0-60 mph 6.4 sec
- 0-100 mph 16.9 sec
- 1/4-mile 15.0 sec @ 96 mph
- 30-70 mph passing 6.7 sec
- Peak Acceleration 0.51 g
- Speed in Gears 1) 34; 2) 54; 3) 80; 4) 108; 5) 130; 6) 130mph
- Cornering L/R 0.89/0.88 g
- 70-0 mph braking 163 ft
- Peak Braking 1.04 g
- *in stock trim