More cars with earth-shattering performance have been launched in the new century than we can shake a multiprofiled camshaft at. Yet, too often, supercars aren’t the most super cars. Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, the delightful , reminds us why.
Don’t get us wrong. We’ll never look down our noses at 500-hp screamers with roofs so low you can slip in and out from under semitrailers without a scratch. But if the last year has shown us anything–with its punishing fuel prices and growing recognition of the dire effects of global warming–it’s that what the world really needs now is not cars that are fast, but cars that are practical, fuel-efficient, and fast. And that’s where the new GTI, reborn for the ‘s–excuse us, Rabbit‘s–fifth generation and once again immensely fun to drive, comes in. It’s the right car for our times. Hell, it’s the right car for any time.
A star when Volkswagen conjured the hot hatch segment out of thin air nearly twenty-five years ago, the GTI infamously became–in later generations–if not exactly obese and clumsy then no longer the crazy funster it had been, the one that wanted to tear up tarmac just as much as it wanted to haul you to work and your laundry to the cleaner.
Keys to the reborn GTI’s success are numerous, but the combined effect is to recall the glory of GTIs long gone. First credit goes to VW’s superb 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four, a modern case study of successful internal combustion marriage, hitching exemplary, almost lag-free drivability and superior economy–more than 30 mpg on the highway–to ample urge for when the going gets frisky. The well-chosen ratios of its standard six-speed manual suit it well, but we’re here to tell you, for perhaps the first time ever, that you might want to consider the self-shifting option. Volkswagen’s DSG gearbox–an electronically controlled, twin-clutch device–is simply the best automatic-type transmission we’ve ever driven, and it posts better performance and around-town fuel-economy numbers than the manual.
Steering that translates the language of the road with maximum fluency and a minimum of the dreaded front-wheel-drive torque steer, an absorbent yet buttoned-down suspension, and in-it-to-win-it brakes make back-road flying one’s preferred mode of conduct, although this is also a grown-up, five-passenger machine with impeccable long-distance and highway credentials. While, in theory, we ought to bemoan its size–about 1000 pounds heavier than the first GTI–in practice we have to say it’s safer, quieter, more refined, and less polluting than any GTI that has gone before. The newly available four-door version only enhances what is already a supremely practical proposition.
We marvel, like everyone else, at the excellent fit and finish of the GTI‘s Japanese competition. But while Volkswagen reliability has often failed to prove out, this GTI feels like it has more build quality than anything within miles of its price point. It exudes substance in ways that worthy, sometimes faster speed machines from the Far East–the WRX, the Evolution, and the Mazdaspeed 3, for instance–just don’t. We hope that this feeling of quality is a gift that will keep on giving. Because that would make this super car for our times even superer.
What we said then:
Mk 1 Rabbit GTi
Output: 90 hp @ 5500 rpm
105 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
Weight: 2100 lb
“The GTI isn’t another one of those dumb boy racers that ride like produce wagons and make power like blenders stuck on pure. It’s a fast little car without the nonsense.”
Car and Driver
Mk 2 GTi 16v 1.8L
Output: 123 hp @ 5800 rpm
120 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Weight: 2267 lb
“Even at heart-quickening velocities, driving the GTI through tight ess-bends is a routine operation. Push hard and the car won’t bite back.”
Mk 3 GTi VR6
Output: 172 hp @ 5400 rpm
173 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Weight: 2780 lb
“The new GTI feels tuned more for comfort than for [a] twisted stretch of blacktop . . . the engine and the transmission are willing, but the chassis won’t play. The GTI [is] an excellent sedan, not the hot-rod hatchback we were expecting.”
Mk 4 GTi 1.8T
Output: 180 hp @ 5500 rpm
174 lb-ft @ 1950 rpm
Weight: 2920 lb
“If the GTI works well on the track and brilliantly on the highway, it falls all over itself on twisty back roads. There is too much weight shifting around for this car to feel controllable.”