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2010 Automobile of the Year: 2010 Volkswagen GTI

Joe DeMatiowriterRegis Lefeburephotographer

Yes, the VW GTI is our Automobile of the Year. Again. The last-generation car got the nod only three years ago and now its successor, the sixth-generation GTI, walks away with the trophy as well. How is it that, for the first time since we started naming an Automobile of the Year exactly twenty years ago, we have deemed a single make and model vehicle worthy of our top award not once, but twice? It's very simple. Because the Volkswagen GTI continues to burn the affordable-enthusiast-car flame like no other vehicle in the world. Because the new, Mark 6 GTI, although only a mild update to the Mark 5 GTI, made a good thing even better. Because, as we pointed out in our February 2007 issue, the GTI is "the right car for our times. Hell, it's the right car for any time." And because, as we also stated three years ago, "what the world really needs now is not cars that are fast, but cars that are practical, fuel-efficient, and fast." Not to mention affordable and fun. The 2010 VW GTI is all this, and more.

We've said it before, but it's worth repeating: It's one thing for an automaker to create a car for fifty, or seventy-five, or a hundred thousand dollars or more that gets our pulses racing. Cars that cost that much certainly better be exciting to drive, rewarding to own, and well-built, with quality interiors. But it's another thing entirely, a real achievement, when an automaker creates a car that starts at only $24,239 - well within the reach of most new-car buyers - that is, as our West Coast editor, Jason Cammisa, says, "just as much fun to drive and with just as much street cred as cars costing three times as much." Volkswagen alone has managed to do this, with varying degrees of success, longer than any other automaker: the first GTI reached the U.S. in 1983 and single-handedly created the whole "pocket rocket" genre. Lots of other cars, most recently two successive generations of the Mazdaspeed 3, have attempted to replicate the GTI formula, but none have quite cracked the code.

The key to that code, of course, is the blend of athleticism, practicality, and performance that was the basis of the original GTI and which was resurrected so well in the Mark 5 edition. In 2007, we grooved to the remarkable 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and even went so far as to say that we might take the dual-clutch DSG transmission over the standard six-speed manual. Both gearbox choices have carried over to the 2010 car, but it's a little-known fact that the 2.0T engine was, as of mid-2008, new. Code-named EA888, it's still a 2.0-liter turbo four, and it still makes 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque in the GTI, but it reflects a ground-up redesign of VW's four-cylinder engine and offers as its biggest benefit improved fuel economy. The 2007 GTI with DSG was rated at 22/29 mpg by the EPA, while the 2010 GTI DSG jumps to 24/32 mpg.

Underneath its attractive new sheetmetal, the GTI is pretty much the same car as it was before, but a bigger rear antiroll bar effectively eradicates the car's understeer on the racetrack. VW also added so-called XDS programming to the stability control system to mimic a limited-slip differential, helping the GTI put its power down more efficiently. And as good as the GTI is on the road, with crisp steering, a supercommunicative chassis, and a firm but well-damped ride, on the track the car is a revelation. During our Automobile of the Year and All-Stars evaluation drive program, we drove a rich selection of the hottest new cars for 2010 during a day at GingerMan Raceway in southwest Michigan, including a Chevrolet Camaro SS, a Ford Mustang GT, a Porsche Panamera S, a Jaguar XFR, a BMW Z4, and a Porsche Cayman S. As exhilarating as they all were, the GTI was not in the least bit out of its league as it jostled among them on GingerMan's entertaining road course. Check out the logbook commentary from pit lane: "Remarkably competent on the track," said tech editor Don Sherman. "Superb handling and good feedback," seconded road test coordinator Mike Ofiara, who has a Mark 3 and a Mark 5 GTI at home. "Oodles of fun," enthused contributor Preston Lerner, adding, "front-wheel drive never seemed to be an issue." Copy editor Rusty Blackwell ordained it "the best slicer and dicer on the market today," while editor-in-chief Jean Jennings succinctly called it "a superb little rocket." Before we hit the track, Cammisa bemoaned the fact that stability control cannot be fully switched off, but even he admitted, at the end of the day, that "it's really a nonissue, as it still lets you get away with murder."

The GTI also distinguishes itself from other pretenders to the pocket-rocket throne with its interior, which we already admired in the Mark 5, especially the retro plaid upholstery (happily, it carries over to the Mark 6, and leather is optional). "The interior of the Mark 6," enthused Cammisa, "is a huge improvement on something that really didn't need much help to begin with." Luxury doesn't come at the expense of function, though: "I love the firmly bolstered seats, the flat-bottomed steering wheel with red stitching and aluminum accents, the driving position, and the great outward visibility," noted senior editor Joe Lorio. "And the back seats are spacious, with room for a six-footer to sit behind a six-foot driver."

Pocket rockets like the GTI have a reputation of being cars for callow young men, and indeed we have a few of those on our staff. But what's cool about the 2010 VW GTI is its universal appeal. From our editors who were not yet born when the GTI debuted in 1983, to those of us in our forties, to septuagenarian design editor Robert Cumberford, who calls the GTI "a perpetual good-value proposition for performance and practicality," we all like and admire the GTI and would happily have one in our own garages.

At a time when the world's economy is in shambles and fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are on everyone's minds, there remains only one car that ticks all the enthusiast boxes without setting off a single wretched-excess alarm. That's the Volkswagen GTI, and that's why it is, once again, Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year.