Recent developments at Volkswagen have sent some enthusiasts praying for their beloved brand. A sacrilegious VW badge on a Chrysler minivan and plans for watered-down, cost-cut, U.S.-specific models are an effort to attain VW's ludicrously optimistic U.S. sales target of 800,000 cars per year. But those cars come at the risk of undermining Volkswagen's brand image - that of a premium, sporty product with superior driving dynamics.
Then again, most enthusiasts won't care what VW sells - as long as it continues to make a real GTI. Without those three little letters in its lineup, VW is nothing but another appliance manufacturer. And so, despite disappointing sales of the last, fifth-generation GTI, the Wolfsburg crew has developed Number Six. Gott sei Dank.
That means "Thank God" in German, and it's exactly the phrase you'll sigh the moment you start driving the 2010 GTI. Whether it's God or Volkswagen's engineers who need to be thanked depends on your own religious beliefs, but the prayers of devout worshippers at the church of GTI have been answered.
The new GTI is, like all GTIs, based on Volkswagen's mainstay hatchback, the Golf. (The Rabbit moniker, which was used for first- and fifth-generation U.S.-market Golfs, has again been banished to the history books.) The sixth-generation Golf is a very careful evolution of the last car, less of a generational change and more of a comprehensive update.
Design deity Walter de'Silva, who heads VW's global styling studio, has secured his sainthood with the makeover he's given the Golf. Without changing any of the hatchback's dimensions, his team has made Six look low, wide, and aggressive where Five was bloated and bulbous. Horizontal styling elements and multiple character lines have turned the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Golf into a lean and sculpted piece of delicious eye candy.
There are no new miracles under the hood, but none were necessary. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder carries over from last year's GTI. Code-named EA888, this all-new engine was quietly snuck into the GTI midway through the 2008 model year, providing better fuel economy than the original 2.0T along with additional refinement.
Output is unchanged at 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque (European-market GTIs get 10 more hp), and the 2.0T is bolted to either a light-effort six-speed manual or the divine DSG dual-clutch automatic. A resonance tube carries induction growl into the cabin when the engine is under load, but the powerplant fades away, acoustically, when cruising. Despite a slightly diesel-like coarseness just off idle, the 2.0T remains one of the most well-mannered four-cylinders on the road.
To avoid inside wheel spin in corners, a new chassis system, called XDS, anticipates conditions where one front wheel is likely to break free and preventatively applies braking force. Its interventions are smoother and more effective than those of the previous electronic differential lock, which responded to one-wheel peel after the fact and with a heavy hand. Drivers of a Mazdaspeed 3 or a Mini Cooper S equipped with a limited-slip diff might smugly raise a hand to mock open-diff GTI drivers, except that they wouldn't dare take their hands off the wheel for fear of torque-steering into a tree. Although XDS isn't a real substitute for a true limited-slip diff on the racetrack, it's a better - and far less expensive - solution for the street.
No significant suspension changes were made - a larger rear antiroll bar, which improves the GTI's cornering balance, is the only update. The Golf's all-new interior, however, is a different matter. Blessed with upgraded materials and sound deadening throughout the cabin, the sixth-generation GTI is downright churchlike in its quietness. Wind noise is notably absent, and road-roar levels are commendably low. Our only ergonomic complaint is that the power window switches, which were previously mounted too far rearward, are now placed too far forward, at least in the four-door model. As before, the GTI offers an ideal driving position - in comfortable and supportive seats - and a steering wheel that you'll want to reach out and fondle.
WHEN CAN I GET ONE? The 2010 GTI goes on sale in the United States this October, along with the 170-hp, gasoline-fueled five-cylinder Golf. A 140-hp turbo-diesel Golf is slated to follow in November. We expect the GTI's price to rise a little compared with the last generation, but the newfound interior refinement and better looks are worth it, because this is undoubtedly the best GTI yet.