We're rushing up the Col de Vence into the mountains above Cannes, and we've got the windows cracked open. Every time the dual-clutch six-speed transmission shifts up a gear, the twin exhaust tips give a little pop, a clever simulation of the way that the turbo of a racing car would cavitate under the same circumstances.
Then, as we round one of the hairpins on the rocky hillsides and accelerate along a winding stretch of road, the exhaust pops a couple times instead of just once. This means we are traveling at a pretty good speed, and it occurs to us that perhaps we should be paying a little more attention.
In fact, we find ourselves thinking that this all-new car that is meant to come to the U.S. a year from now as the 2015 Volkswagen GTI might be too much car for what was once a stage of the Monte Carlo Rallye. After all, the guardrails are made of wood, and there is a distinct lack of trauma centers in the medieval hilltop towns along the way.
We've come to France to drive the new Volkswagen GTI, which goes on sale in Europe in May. This is the seventh generation of a model first introduced back in 1976, when German bad boys would swing their GTIs into the fast lane on the autobahn and go 100 mph. Since then, this front-wheel-drive hatchback has evolved from an impudent hot rod into a sophisticated sporting automobile available with either two or four doors that is capable of going 153 mph.
Back in 1976, you could find only 110 PS under the GTI's hood, but now there is double that, as this turbocharged, 16-valve, DOHC 2.0-liter inline-4 produces 220 hp @ 4500-6200 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque @ 1500-4400 rpm. This third-generation version of the EA888 engine also incorporates some very subtle tech tricks. Among other things, direct fuel injection for full-throttle power has been supplemented by multipoint fuel injection for clean part-throttle emissions. And there's a clever water-cooling strategy for the manifold runners that feed exhaust gases to the turbocharger.
What really counts, though, is the way this engine hits with a bang when you lay into the throttle. The revised EA888 delivers 20 percent more torque than before, and there's so much thrust at low rpm that transmission gearing has been made notably taller. When you further factor in the new engine's stop/start mechanism, fuel economy on the Euro cycle has increased 18 percent when the six-speed manual transmission is in place and 14 percent with the six-speed dual-clutch DSG. Once the 2015 GTI arrives in the United States, it is expected to deliver an EPA-rated 24/31 mpg (city/highway) and have a combined fuel-economy rating of 27 mpg.
More Everything Else
As we're hurtling down the autoroute and looking for our exit (some things never change, even in France), it's clear that we're in a pretty nice automobile, not some utilitarian hatchback. The GTI's standard electronics can tune the suspension damping (MacPherson struts in front, a multi-link configuration at the rear) to comfort, normal or sport modes, plus optional electronics let you can dial the powertrain and chassis to no less than five different profiles: Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Individual. You can also get radar-operated cruise control, as well as pretty much any other kind of electronic trickery that might be found on a high-quality German sedan.
All this sophistication has been echoed in the way the new GTI looks. This is VW's new, MQB modular architecture for transverse-engine vehicles, and this car is 2.1 inches longer overall than before, 0.8 inch wider, and 1.1 inches lower. It rides on a wheelbase that's 2.1 inches longer, although the track front and rear remains virtually identical. More important, the A-pillar has been moved rearward a bit, so you notice that the hood is a little longer and the roof is a little lower. All the exterior visual cues of the GTI are in place, and we understand the designers were looking pretty closely at the 2007 GTI W12 concept car as they worked.
There will be some talk about the new GTI's increase in rear-seat shoulder room, but you'll care more about the way the driver position has been repackaged. The seat has been moved back 0.8 inch, the shift lever has been raised 0.8 inch, the tilt/telescopic steering wheel has been repositioned to suit, and the space between the brake and throttle pedals has been increased 0.6 inch. You feel like you're sitting in much the same place as before, except the touchscreen interface for the electronics is larger and more sophisticated and the pattern of the tartan seat upholstery has changed subtly from what internal product planning codes describe as "Jackie Stewart" to "Jimmy Clark."
Less Is More
While we are up in the fun zone of the Maritime Alps, where spring comes slowly even in late April, the best thing about the new Volkswagen GTI is that it feels the same, not different. Indeed, much of the trickery in the Euro-spec GTI will be stripped away for the U.S.-spec 2015 GTI, reducing the Euro base price of $36,932 to something more like the current U.S. base price of $23,995.
As we climb ever higher in the mountains, the stripped-down essence of the GTI is ever more important than the tech tricks. The independent front and rear suspension proves supple, so the car seems to cling to the pavement even as there's enough deflection to shrug off the bumps. The new, electric-assist variable-ratio steering reduces the number of turns required on the wheel to just 2.1 turns from lock to lock, which really simplifies your hand discipline on the steering wheel in hairpins, although you don't feel the tires much (18-inch wheels and tires will be standard in the U.S.).
We did our run in the Volkswagen GTI Performance, an equipment package that is priced at the equivalent of $1466 and gets you an extra 10 hp, an even broader range of torque, and vented brakes on every corner, including larger, 13.4-inch front rotors. Most important, this package gets you an electronically controlled, clutch-type, limited-slip differential. (Yes, this package is expected to be on the options list for the U.S. GTI.)
This Haldex-built limited-slip unit effectively vectors the torque distribution between the front wheels, reducing understeer while making torque steer a thing of the past. As a result, you can feel the outside tire carving through the corners. The longer the radius of the corner, the more you feel it. Moreover, the front diff helps make the two-position stability control (it can't be switched off entirely) far less intrusive, so when you slip over the edge of traction, the car doesn't shake as if the ABS system were the stern hand of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.
Big Car, Big Personality
When it comes to us next year, the 2015 Volkswagen GTI will be much as before, only there will be more of it. Not in weight -- at 3020 pounds in European specification, the car actually weighs 93 pounds less than before -- but instead in personality.
This is a compact car (not a small one) that flies effortlessly down the road, only now it does so with greater degrees of quietness, comfort, and even luxury. It remains a practical package that you can fit larger people and a fraction more luggage within. And it's exciting to drive, cracking off a time of 6.5 seconds to 100 km/h (62 mph) with the six-speed manual transmission on the way to a top speed of 153 mph.
Of course, as much as hard-bitten driving enthusiasts would love the new VW GTI to be a track car, it is never going to be a Mazdaspeed 3, Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru WRX STI, or even a Ford Focus ST. It is simply more refined -- more like a big car than a small one. It reacts to the road predictably, responds to the controls deliberately, and also proves very, very drivable at the limit. The point is not that the VW GTI invites you to drive the Col de Vence up into the mountains, but instead that it has the kind of reliable personality to get you safely down again.
We wouldn't worry too much about the Volkswagen GTI's increasingly adult personality, since there's still something refreshingly disreputable about it. In fact, we have it on very good authority that even in the little towns among the turnip fields that surround VW's enormous factory in Wolfsburg, no respectable German mother would ever let her teenage daughter date anyone who drove up to the front door in a Volkswagen GTI. As long as this remains so, we think the reputation of the 2015 Volkswagen GTI will be safe.
2015 Volkswagen GTI
|On Sale:||May (Europe only)|
|Engine:||2.0L I-4 turbo|
|Horsepower:||220 hp @ 4500 - 6200 rpm|
|Torque:||258 hp @ 1500 - 4400 rpm|
|Curb Weight:||3024 lb|