It's easy to see why the Volkswagen GTI was our first two-time AOY winner (in 2007 and 2010). Everything about this car is almost perfect. The 2.0-liter turbo-four feels much stronger than its 200 hp/207 lb-ft ratings suggest. There's lots of room for passengers and cargo in a compact footprint. Interior materials are as nice as you'd find in a non-luxury car. And the chassis is tuned to be rewarding on a spirited drive without being punishing on a commute. All of that for under $25,000 makes the GTI very special.
Even though the Golf and GTI are soon to be replaced with next-generation cars, the current platform doesn't feel old. That's a very rare thing in the automotive universe. Some manufacturers only get a few months out of an all-new car before it starts to feel old. Volkswagen doesn't seem to have that problem. Impressive.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I've been hearing a lot lately how the introduction of cars like the Ford Focus ST are threatening the hegemony of the GTI in the $25-30k sporty car market. While those arguments are all valid to some degree, the GTI is still plainly the benchmark.
The benchmark…with some room for improvement. The 2.0T--now in its second generation, codename EA888--still makes 201 hp and 207 lb-ft. In terms of power that's about the same as the Honda Civic Si/Acura ILX 2.4 and the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ, all normally aspirated engines. It's also some 50 hp down compared to the Ford Focus ST and 60 hp less than the Mazdaspeed 3 and the Subaru WRX. If you're looking to buy a car to brag about on Facebook, don't buy this car.
Instead, you should buy this car for, well, everything else. Put your foot down and the car accelerates much more quickly than its 201-hp rating would suggest; short-shift the 2.0-liter engine/six-speed manual and it's a smooth, quiet experience. The steering is perfectly weighted, and while the transmission's shift action and clutch weight are a bit light, swapping cogs is smooth, easy, and enjoyable. The interior is spacious and -- even in the bone-stock model -- impressively trimmed.
Here's the thing: in an increasingly crowded field, the GTI's killer app, if you will, is its lack of sacrifice or compromise. Unlike the aforementioned sedans (ILX/Si) or coupes (BRZ/FR-S), the GTI can deliver its performance even with loads of groceries or luggage in the back (or, in my case, a 50-pound tube TV I was hauling to the recycling center). Unlike the ST and MS3, its power doesn't overwhelm the front tires or the steering wheel -- it's accessible without being adversarial. Unlike the WRX, it has an interior (and exterior) you'd be proud to show off.
In all honesty, the GTI is very nearly perfect, something reflected in its two-time Automobile of the Year award-winner status. Here's hoping it's good enough to go for a hat trick when the new one bows in 2014.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
The GTI is one of those cars where you look at the spec sheet and ask, "$25,000, for this?" Then you actually spend time with it and you want to exclaim, "$25,000 for this!" On paper, front-wheel drive and 200 hp simply don't read like something you'd rather buy than, say, a 265-hp, all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX. But in reality, they are. All the elements you actually experience -- the interior, the sound isolation, the ride -- feel like they were developed for a much more expensive car. I drove our long-term GTI on several long road trips and never wanted something bigger or more luxurious. Come upon a winding road or even an off ramp, and the GTI's precise gearbox, smooth power delivery, direct steering, and rigid body control give you the impression you're driving not a hot hatch but rather a finely tuned German sports car.
If I had one complaint about the GTI, it's that it may be a little too refined and composed. Many competitors, including the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, and Mini Cooper S, are fizzier and more overtly fun in everyday driving. But that rawness gets old rather quickly. The GTI, on the other hand, is something you can live with and enjoy all the time.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The GTI is such a singular car that, if I were get into one with my eyes closed and drive it, I would know that I was in a GTI. Mazda likes to talk about the oneness between car and driver, but Volkswagen has really perfected it with the GTI. This VW makes you feel like a great driver with its precise steering, transmission in which the clutch and gear shifter feel like extensions of your feet and hands, and a 2.0-liter turbo that rewards you with a steady stream of power that's available throughout its wide rev band.
With so much competition in the hot hatch class, it might seem that VW is falling behind its competitors. But spending a couple days with the GTI is to know you can't judge it simply by its horsepower figure and 0-to-60-mph time. The GTI is neither the fastest nor the most powerful hot hatch on the market, but if I were to choose a car to drive every day, the GTI would be high on the list.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
As my colleagues have so eloquently written, the GTI pretty much has it all. It's as versatile as most small crossovers -- my 2009 GTI recently swallowed a boxed 55-inch TV behind the front seats -- it carries people in as much comfort as many mid-size cars, front and rear; and it offers a combination of refinement and performance that requires few compromises to either, all while taking up a surprisingly small amount of real estate. As I see it, one of the few things Volkswagen could do to improve the GTI is to make its 2.0-liter turbo more efficient. Its 21/31 mpg city/highway rating isn't terrible but it's not best in class, as Ford is able to achieve an additional 23/32 mpg with its Focus ST.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms