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The New Car Buying Experience

The Asphalt Jungle

I may be an auto-industry insider, but I hate buying a new car just as much as you do. Sure, at first the process is all unicorns and moonbeams: the giddy anticipation of what the new sweetheart will be, the breathless reading and re-reading of AUTOMOBILE reviews, the gleeful hours poring over stats and photos on websites and glossy sales brochures (an audio system with only 12 speakers and 1,500 watts? Pass!), the endless pie-in-the-sky debates (Ferrari or Porsche … or maybe a Lambo this time!), the mental images of driving home from the showroom at last with the brand-new jewel—at 12 mph, with the hazards on, fearfully ducking away from every fender-banging motorist within 20 yards. Ah, but then reality sets in, the evil twins Bank Balance and Practicality shoulder their way into the debate, and soon you're seated in the dealership, once again shopping for a "realistic" car. And it's then that the dreaded ritual begins in earnest: the outraged haggling, the childlike pouting, the pigheaded silent staring, the laughable threats of "we just can't do that." (At this point, I must apologize to all the fine salespeople I've encountered for my boorish behavior.)

Exactly one year ago, I went through all of the above and snagged a new car. I bring it up now because at the time, a brand-new edition of my ride of choice was set to hit the market in only four or five months—and I've since had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the pros and cons of my decision. See, back then I faced a conundrum familiar to anyone in the market for fashionable shoes or a new iPhone: Buy the dusty outgoing model (the cost-conscious schmuck move) or scrape by for a while to stand in line and drop top dollar on the latest and greatest New Thing (the rash, hipster option).

I chose schmuck. Now, I've owned a pretty wide variety of rigs in recent years: Land Rovers, a BMW 528i, a Jeep Wrangler, and an Audi A6 2.7T. Because I now get my adventure fix hosting the online show "Epic Drives," I nixed going the SUV route again. I'm also fortunate to test-drive enough hot metal to get the sports-car jones out of my system. What I wanted was a good-looking, versatile, entertaining machine for a modest outlay of cash—something equally adept at hauling a load of scuba gear and tearing up the twisties in Malibu on the rare deadline-free Sunday afternoon.

I chose a Volkswagen GTI, the sixth-generation 2014 edition. The descendant of the original hot hatch is something of a default choice among automotive journalists; several colleagues of mine own or have owned one. It combines clean lines, a poised chassis, astounding interior room for its trim exterior dimensions, a gutsy turbocharged four-cylinder mill, and a very reasonable sticker (about $25,000 for the base Wolfsburg Edition). While I've opted for manuals on many of my previous purchases, this time I went for VW's brilliant dual-clutch, paddle-shift DSG manumatic (so similar to a Formula 1 car, you see). Otherwise, the GTI came standard with just about everything I wanted: super-supportive seats (heated in front), a thick leather steering wheel, cool 18-inch alloy wheels, enough air bags to float a blimp. (For all you conspiracy theorists now chuckling at the "sweet deal" I probably got via my sinister inside connections: Nope. This column is likely the first time anyone at Volkswagen has even heard of my GTI purchase. When I informed the sales guy at the dealership that I was a test driver for a world-famous—and potentially highly vindictive—car magazine, all it inspired him to say was, "That's nice. ")

I tried to rationalize waiting and paying more, but in the end I couldn't avoid the simple truth: I needed a car. Now.

Here's the rub: At the time of my shopping spree, the all-new, Mk7 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI was just around the corner. And I knew all the goodies it promised: up to a 20-horsepower bump with the Performance Package; a huge torque increase of 51 lb-ft; a lighter, more responsive suspension; new bodywork; a thoroughly modern interior; a first-ever limited-slip diff. I gnashed my teeth, tried to rationalize waiting and paying more, but in the end I couldn't avoid the simple truth: I needed a car. Now.

I love my black-on-black Mk6 GTI—love the refined moves, the burp of the exhaust on every paddle-shift gear change, the sublime styling that picks up the red trim in the corrugated front fascia, mirrors it in the brake calipers, and continues with the red stitching on the seat belts. The car makes me happy.

But, of course, not long after my purchase I drove a new 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Instant buyer's remorse? Yes and no—and probably not for the reasons you might expect. The new car is arguably better-looking. It's a little edgier, crisper, more modern. The added power is welcome but not a game-changer; it's only back to back that the difference is readily apparent. The DSG shifter is the same as before. The steering, always excellent, is now really quick, and the limited-slip reduces a mere whiff of torque steer to none at all. Yes, the Mk7 Golf GTI is an improvement—perhaps only marginally, but better—in almost every way than my Mk6.

It's not the major elements of a car—powertrain, chassis, exterior—that change drastically from generation to generation. Given the realities of engineering and development, it's more of an evolutionary thing. What does change in quantum leaps, though, are the peripherals—the conveniences and electronics so fundamental to our vehicles these days. My GTI lacks a large display screen, navigation, or even a standard USB port (it has a dongle for the old iPhone connector). I can make calls and play music from my iPhone via Bluetooth, but if I want to change the song (which always happens with 50 gigs in the cloud and some of it belonging to my 14-year-old daughter), I have to pick up the phone and manually select the next track. On the Mk7, the iPhone is fully integrated: Streaming songs appear on the center screen, and changing them is a simple matter of pressing a button on the wheel. Plus, the Mk7's cabin is worlds more stylish than mine. (No wonder the new Golf GTI easily won a 2015 AUTOMOBILE All-Star nod. )

Should I have waited on the Mk7 to enjoy its slight boost in performance and a big reduction in headaches playing music? Of course not. My Mk6 GTI is all the car I need, and I saved a bundle buying it. But ask me again when another ditty from One Direction pops up to assault my commute. I might change my mind.