Ok, longtime readers may feel as if they’ve seen this movie before. In 2007, AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE named the Volkswagen GTI its Automobile of the Year, calling it not only “the right car for our times” but also “the right car for any time.” To see if it was the right car for a long time, we undertook a Four Seasons test of the GTI, and after twelve months we came away impressed. Three years later, the revised (Mark 6) GTI again took our highest award. Once more, we couldn’t resist a long-term test.
We did try to mix it up a bit. Whereas last time we chose the then-new four-door body style and the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, this time we switched to the more traditional two-door configuration and a manual transmission. We stuck with the plaid cloth seats, because we still think they’re supercool. We added some options, too: a sunroof ($1000), eighteen-inch “Detroit” wheels with summer tires ($890), swiveling bixenon headlamps ($700), a Dynaudio sound system ($476), and that modern essential, Bluetooth connectivity ($199). VW now agrees that it’s essential, as it has made Bluetooth-and eighteen-inch wheels-standard for 2011. Our options pushed the GTI’s $23,990 base price to $27,255.
Although the four-door configuration is better for those who often have four passengers, we found that the two-door GTI’s rear-seat accommodations are astonishingly good for a coupe. “My five-foot six-inch back-seat rider had no trouble climbing into the back and had plenty of leg-, hip-, and headroom,” wrote managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros. “The relatively large rear-quarter windows alleviate the claustrophobia that often afflicts rear passengers in coupes and hatchbacks. And the rear seat itself is almost as comfortable as the front buckets; it has side bolsters and a slightly curved seat bottom that keep riders planted should you betempted to demonstrate what the little GTI can do.”
If the rear seat is surprisingly good, the supportive and grippy front buckets are truly excellent. Only the shortest drivers groused about the long seat bottoms; those who sit close to the dashboard also must reach a long way back to grab the seatbelt on the B-pillar.
Once in place, occupants can take in their surroundings, which, if anything, have only improved over the Mark 5 GTI. “The willingness to lavish a few extra pennies for quality is evident throughout the cabin, from the materials on the dash to the substantial feel of the door handles,” said assistant editor David Zenlea. We loved the sculpted steering wheel, the padded armrests, and the way the whole lot held up over 30,000 miles. One expensive-looking item that didn’t endear itself to everyone, however, was the radio, which uses a touch-screen interface. The touch screen has become the infatuation item of the moment, but for a car stereo without navigation, it really holds noadvantage. One suspects that the real reason it’s there is for showroom impact.
Speaking of impact, our car’s optional “Detroit” eighteen-inch wheels have a lot of visual impact, but on the beat-up streets of their namesake city, they transmit a different kind of impact to the cabin. Several staffers speculated that seventeen-inch wheels, with taller tire sidewalls, would improve the ride quality, although others worried about sacrificing some of the car’s much-praised steering sharpness. In any event, the choice of smaller wheels is no longer on the table, as VW has made the eighteens standard for 2011. On the subject of ride quality, we also found that the GTI could work itself into a tiresome oscillation over expansion bumps on seemingly smooth freeways, although not every highway had that effect.
Despite those issues, the responsive chassis was a major contributor to the car’s fun-to-drive character. Deprived of the proper twisty roads on which to wring out our GTI, we took it to an autocross. Matched against a Honda Civic Si, the GTI proved untouchable. From the logbook: “Where the Civic needed 7500 rpm to stay on point, the GTI’s turbo delivers torque everywhere in the rev range-and still, the VW remained planted and asked to be pushed harder. Also, body control is superb.”
One factor that contributes to the chassis’s overall composure is the way it quells torque steer. This Mark 6 GTI’s traction control system, which is far more accomplished than most, includes extra programming that imitates a limited-slip differential to help put the power down when accelerating out of a corner. Observed associate editor Eric Tingwall: “The traction control system steps in earlier than in many other cars, but it’s also much more restrained in the amount of power that it cuts. It’s predictive, rather than reactive. As a result, there’s never the sensation that you’re accelerating slower than is physically possible.”
Effective traction control helps make the GTI quicker in the real world, but the car is not exactly a slouch in the unreal world of the test track, either. We recorded 6.5 seconds for the 0-to-60-mph sprint and a 15.3-second quarter mile at 95 mph. Both of those are just fractionally behind our Mark 5 GTI and its superquick DSG transmission. The turbo four-cylinder is new, although its displacement (2.0 liters) and output (200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque) are the same as before. As always, the numbers aren’t the whole story. “I love the immediate thrust of the 2.0T,” wrote senior web editor Phil Floraday. “There’s a nice whoosh from the turbo and a healthy exhaust note.”
Although it’s no more powerful, the new engine was more economical. With our ’07 GTI we rang up a rather disappointing 23-mpg average, but we managed 25 mpg this time around. Interestingly, our 2010 GTI’s EPA ratings of 21/31 mpg city/highway aren’t appreciably better than the old car’s (adjusted) 22/29 mpg figures. The EPA pegs the automatic as the more economical variant, at 24/32 mpg, so we might have done even better with the DSG.
But as much as we admire the DSG for its seamless shifting, not a single staff member wished we had gone that route. “The six-speed manual gearbox is a delight to work,” enthused Tingwall, “and the clutch is fantastic.” Deputy editor Joe DeMatio also pointed out that the pedal placement makes for easy heel-and-toeing. Only associate web editor Evan McCausland thought the shift throws were too long and suggested a short-shift kit.
We were also pleased by the improvement in the GTI’s reliability. Our ’07 GTI required a new shift paddle, a new oxygen sensor, and a tightening of its subframe bolts; it also developed some interior rattles by the end of its stay. Our 2010 GTI suffered only one check-engine light, caused by a bad flap motor inside the air intake. Oh, and the iPod input never worked, because our car was delivered with the wrong cable (which the dealer couldn’t manage to diagnose until the car’s last days with us).
On the subject of service, maintenance visits are now gratis for the first three years or 36,000 miles. At the same time, they’re also less frequent: only every 10,000 miles. A coincidence? In any event, our GTI required only three in 30,650 miles, for a total cost of zero dollars, which is a heck of a lot better than the $570.13 we spent servicing our ’07 GTI (over only 21,371 miles). We only wish that the free scheduled maintenance included tires-those programs never do-since we wore out the factory-fitted Continentals after only 16,000 miles of admittedly enthusiastic driving.
But, hey, this is a car that begs for enthusiastic driving. It’s “fast, frugal, and fun,” in the words of West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, who also called it, “the gold standard of small cars.” That standard has loomed large in our consciousness over the past year. The GTI repeatedly emerged as a point of comparison, for cars all across the spectrum.
This Four Seasons test wasn’t exactly a revelation. Yes, this car has become more refined, more economical, and more reliable, but its underlying character is unchanged. That’s hardly a bad thing. “VW has spent a lot of time refining a very good idea instead of trying to start all over with each generation of the car,” said Floraday. “Other great examples of this are the Porsche 911 and the BMW 3-Series.” The GTI has been refined, not redefined-and that’s just fine with us.
Pros & Cons
+ Lots of fun to drive
+ Spacious and Practical
+ Good fuel economy
+ Comfortable cabin
– Sometimes poor ride quality
10,276 mi: $0
20,724 mi: $0
30,131 mi: $0
30,131: Investigate check-engine light (faulty intake flap motor), diagnose inoperable iPod connector (incorrect cord)
20,724 mi: Secure
driver’s-side footwell vent
30,131 mi: Software update for body control module
3501 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Bridgestone Blizzak LM-22 winter tires, $1066.29
12,086 mi: Remount stock Continental SportContact 2 summer tires, $110.03
24,717 mi: Replace windshield-wiper blades, $52.80
28,150 mi: Remount winter tires, dispose of summer tires, $118.77
EPA city/hwy/combined 21/31/25 mpg
Observed 25 mpg
COST PER MILE
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.18 ($0.43 including depreciation)
PRICE AS TESTED
ABS; traction and stability control; air-conditioning; cruise control; trip computer; foglights; heated front seats and power sideview mirrors; power windows and door locks; leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel; tilting/telescoping steering column; touch-screen AM/FM radio with
in-dash six-CD changer and iPod adapter; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Power sunroof, $1000; eighteen-inch wheels with summer tires, $890; swiveling bixenon headlights, $700; Dynaudio sound system, $476; Bluetooth, $199
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
Body style: 2-door hatchback
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Construction: Steel unibody
Engine: 16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
Displacement: 2.0 liters (121 cu in)
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque: 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Steering: Electrically assisted
Lock-to-lock: 3.0 turns
Turning circle: 35.8 ft
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires : Continental SportContact 2
Tire size: 225/40YR-18
Headroom f/r: 39.3/38.5 in
Legroom f/r : 41.2/35.5 in
Shoulder room f/r: 54.7/54.6 in
L X W X H : 165.8 x 70.0 x 57.8 in
Wheelbase : 101.5 in
Track f/r: 60.4/59.7 in
Weight: 3120 lb
Weight dist. f/r : 61.5/38.5%
Cargo capacity: 15.3 cu ft
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons
Est. fuel range: 360 miles
Fuel grade: 91 octane
Our Test Results
0-60 mph: 6.5 sec
0-100 mph: 17.0 sec
1/4-mile: 15.3 sec @ 95 mph
30-70 mph passing: 6.7 sec
Peak acceleration: 0.52 g
Ppeed in gears: 1) 33; 2) 54; 3) 77; 4) 104;
5) 126; 6) 126 mph
Cornering l/r: 0.94/0.90 g
70-0 mph braking: 158 ft
Peak braking: 1.07 g