2015 Volkswagen GTD First Drive

volkswagen golf gtd

Volkswagen of America is not unlike the typical successful immigrant family. It has made a comfortable home for itself in this country, growing its sales last year to 615,281 vehicles. Yet, in order to achieve that success, it has forfeited a great deal of its native culture. Its youngest offspring, the U.S.-market Passat and Jetta, barely speak German.

This well-to-do, assimilated family will, however, likely welcome a relative from the Old Country, the Golf GTD. Officially, the car is still "under consideration," but it's at least penciled in for our market. Do you want one? We went to Germany to find out.

Do we know you from somewhere?

Although this GTD is brand-new, based on the seventh generation Golf, it's hardly a recent addition to the VW model line. On the other side of the ocean, it has carried on for three decades as the diesel counterpart to the legendary GTI. The styling of the latest version affirms this kinship. Silver rather than red badge trim, different wheels, and the letter "D" are about all that distinguish it from its gas-powered brother. You can even get tartan pattern cloth seats, albeit in gray rather than the GTI's red. The whole interior maintains the standards for materials quality we've come to expect from the GTI and Golfs in general. VW promises the cabin won't pass under an accountant's ax before going on sale in the United States, as did the Jetta's.

Burning oil in the fast lane

Looks don't deceive. The GTD is very much like a GTI. Don't confuse this with the Jetta TDI Cup Edition that VW marketed in the United States a few years ago. That was a mild suspension package and appearance package. This is a performance car with a performance engine. The GTD's 2.0-liter turbo-diesel is the newest in VW's portfolio, and it puts down a stout 280 lb-ft of torque along with 184 hp. It still does what diesels do best: Europe rates it at 56 mpg combined. The EPA's more conservative tests will likely put it closer to 40 mpg on the highway, a little less than the Golf TDI (which will still be offered).

We're not in Germany to test fuel-economy claims. We're here to drive on the autobahn. First through third gears deliver the waves of torque one expects from a turbo-diesel -- and more. Volkswagen says it's enough to deliver the GTD to 62 mph in 7.5 seconds. And yet, it also feels very unlike a typical diesel. It winds up quickly and responds instantly to throttle inputs. Working the exceptionally smooth manual gearbox (a dual-clutch automatic is optional), we're able to match revs on downshifts as if we were driving something with a high-revving gas engine. At the same time, the GTD doesn't require constant shifting to keep up with traffic, as do most diesel-powered cars. There's enough power in reserve to climb into the passing lane in fifth gear, and we're still gaining steam in sixth at 220 kph (137 mph) when a VW Up! jumps into the left lane in front of us. Well, the brakes are good. With a little more room, the GTD should hit 230 kph (143 mph), 20 kph short of the GTI. At those scenery-stretching speeds, the GTD carries on confidently and quietly, never wandering in its lane or betraying a hint of nervousness through the heavy steering. A colleague dozes off in the passenger's seat.

The GTD even sounds good, warbling eagerly at high rpm. Volkswagen admits it's cheating a bit here: above 3000 rpm or so, a resonance tube pipes artificial noise into the cabin. We're dead set against this sort of thing in principal, but out in the real world, we much prefer it to diesel chatter.

High-tech hatch

The GTD has essentially the same suspension upgrades as the GTI. As with most new sports cars, a suite of electronic performance aids helps the driver go faster. They include optional adaptive dampers, variable ratio steering, and the aforementioned electronic limited-slip differential. In many cars, these technologies are like the fake butter the movie theater puts on your popcorn -- they overpower the actual taste with their own slightly artificial flavor. In the GTD, thankfully, they're more like a dash of salt. The electric power steering feels direct and natural and doesn't require mid-corner corrections, as do some variable-ratio setups. The adaptive dampers, which Volkswagen says it will offer in the United States in both the GTI and the GTD, change subtly among comfort, normal, and sport settings but always offer acceptable ride and handling, with minimal body roll. We'll be curious to see how the dampers perform on underfunded American roads, where the previous-generation GTI can feel a little stiff-legged. As in the GTI, there's no way to disable stability control fully; however, a new sport mode raises the threshold of intervention.

What the technology and tuning can't do is hide the diesel's extra weight. The fortified iron block adds some 100 pounds to the car's nose compared with the GTI. The front tires hold on gamely through off ramps and tight corners, but the GTD doesn't rotate like a GTI, even though it employs the same brake-based limited-slip differential. And although the engine feels like a high-rpm screamer by diesel standards, it still doesn't have the top-end horsepower dig out of turns. That said, the GTD's superb steering, slick shifting, and strong braking provide plenty of entertainment as we sweep up some back roads south of Wolfsburg. It feels like a real sport compact, not an oil-burning gimmick.

Changing rules

On its face, the GTD is everything Volkswagen has tried to run away from in our market -- a small, diesel-powered, expensive hatchback (expect it to cost around $2000 more than a GTI). It might as well smell like currywurst. But several factors are carrying it to our shores. Like all seventh-generation Golfs, the GTD is built off a versatile new components set called MQB. The GTD's new diesel is part of that components set and needs less after-treatment to meet U.S. emissions. Finally, the next-generation Golf will come to the United States tariff-free from Puebla, Mexico, rather than from Europe.

What all that means, in layman's terms, is that VW can afford to bring a weird little European car to America precisely because it is no longer just a weird little European brand here. That should please hardcore Volkswagen enthusiasts, whom we suspect will account for the bulk of GTD byers. Expect the car to arrive sometime after the arrival of the U.S. launch of the new Golf in 2014.

Volkswagen Golf GTD

On Sale: Late 2015
Best Price: $27,000 (est)
Engine: 2.0L turbodiesel; 184 hp, 280 lb-ft of torque
Drive: Front-wheel
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy: 30/40 mpg (est)

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