Volkswagen GTI car reviews

Review Notes: Volkswagen GTI (6-Speed Manual) lexus LS460 with automatic parking

Personality True Volkswagen GTI: high-power go-kart
Why we’d buy it Incredible traction and road feel, acceleration that feels even stronger than it is, easy clutch, decent mileage, good cargo space, high fun factor, bright headlights
Why we wouldn’t Brake/road noise, uncomfortable/hard to adjust seats, clumsy controls, gas mileage on premium, snow-unfriendly summer tires, feel every bump, unknown reliability
Gas mileage EPA: 23/32 (premium)

The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI (or, as it was known through most of the world, the Golf GTI) was renowned for its cornering, acceleration, and overall fun factor. By no means a muscle car, the GTI was still remarkably quick for a practical car that had a huge cargo bay and the ability to whip around turns at high speeds. Many GTI drivers also discovered the GTI’s weaknesses: the noise, the expensive parts, the hydroplaning, the loss of traction on dirty, wet, or snow-covered roads, and few signals that you were reaching the limits.

The new GTI is stunningly close to the 1970s original in spirit. While it's not hard to find a modern car that can match the old GTI in actual performance, finding an inexpensive small car with that GTI spirit was tough for a while. Then the SRT-4 and Mazda3 came out, Subaru brought out a low-priced WRX, and the GTI itself returned. Of all these, the GTI is, well, the GTI.

The car does not appear to have grown much, if at all, since the old days; the hood is a bit longer to accommodate the new five-cylinder engine used in the Rabbit version (the GTI uses European Golf sheet metal, while the Rabbit was restyled to be more Rabbity), and the bends are far more curvy, but the basic shape is still the same. The hatchback still carries a tremendous amount of cargo for the size of the car, the rear seats are still moderately cramped (though larger than in the original, and tolerable as long as neither driver nor rear passenger has long legs), and the layout remains the same, albeit with a new rear suspension underneath. Under the hood is still a four cylinder engine, but now it's bigger - a full two liters - and turbocharged, so it puts out over 200 horsepower. All that power is needed since the GTI also put on around a thousand pounds of added weight, presumably mostly safety equipment.

Some cars feel faster than they really are, others feel slower. The GTI feels considerably faster than it should, given published 0-60 times (which have a surprisingly large range, probably based largely on the skill and aggression of the driver). Indeed, it feels faster than many cars that are in reality quicker. Part of that is the turbocharger, which brings a surge of acceleration, giving more concentrated g-forces than most engines. Part of it is the unusually tight, un-insulated feel of the GTI. Like its forebearers, the GTI does not attempt to insulate out all road noise or bumps; the suspension is tight and stiff, letting the occupants feel what there is to feel. The ride is not unpleasantly firm (except on certain roads), but it is unusually communicative, providing some cushioning but letting most details of the road surface come through. It's much smoother than some cars we've driven, but very definitely firm and in touch. Likewise, the interior is not the noisiest we've been in, but the sound and vibration of brake against rotor and tire against road are always felt, particularly at lower speeds. The six-speed manual transmission lets the driver control the engine precisely, and, with no fluid link to dampen power, lets every sudden movement of the engine penetrate.

Driving the GTI is a lot like driving a go-kart. The car sticks to the road as though it was attached with glue; we simply could not break its grip without trying foolish moves. Steering was tight and precise, without too much or too little assist. Under full acceleration there was torque steer, but not as much as one might expect given 0-60 times, and sharp, fast 90-degree turns were handled with ease. Getting the tires to squeal was a real task in the GTI. Part of that was due to the tires: low-profile summer Potenzas, 215/45R17. They were surprisingly good in the rain, keeping more grip than many cars can wrangle on dry roads, but were not suitable for snow. Those who live in the sun belt, or who keep the GTI as a second car, may find them to be just fine, though they also seem to wear quickly. (In this class, just about the only vehicle that does have winter tires is the Subaru WRX, which easily outraces the GTI in a straight line and provides considerably more interior space and comfort, at the cost of some of the superb cornering.)

Acceleration was quick and fairly smooth, despite the turbocharger, which provided a surge as it kicked in; once the turbo was engaged power remained steady and strong up through to redline, and then the turbo stayed lit as succeeding gears were used. Sudden starts could have some lag, and going uphill from a start needed more gas than in many cars. If one did stall the GTI, the key had to go all the way back to the full-off position before the engine could be restarted, which gave a real incentive to push down that gas pedal when getting into first. Around town the GTI was sometimes a bit slow to start out, relying on the turbocharger to move all that metal; GTIs weigh a lot more than they used to (to be fair they also have about 90 extra horsepower to move that around). On the highway, the turbo surge was less pronounced because the engine was already moving, and there was just a brief delay before full power came on. Passing was nearly effortless and downshifting was rarely needed, partly because even in sixth gear the engine was already moving at fairly high speed.

The performance of the GTI did not come with some of the usual costs. The price tag, for one thing, was fairly small for such a fun vehicle - $23,200 with destination charge. That's high for a small car, but good for a performance car. The clutch, which can be quite heavy on vehicles with fast acceleration, was light and easy to engage, allowing for much smoother shifts than Rabbits of years past. The brakes had a soft touch, so that stops could easily be done gently, but stopped the GTI quickly and surely. Gas mileage, while hardly good for a compact four-cylinder, was also quite tolerable and far better than a V8 with similar zoom; we were able to get about 22 mpg city and 30 highway, not far from the EPA estimates of 23/32, albeit on premium fuel. On a practical note, the hatchback design allowed for a lot of cargo room coupled with easy access; and not only did the rear seats fold down, but there was a pass-through in case both rear seats were occupied and a long, skinny object (like wood or skis) had to be carried.

While one of the most fun cars we've tested for quite a while, the GTI does have some shortfalls, mainly in ergonomics (and Volkswagen's inconsistent quality record). The seats seemed comfortable to us but hurt our backs on long trips; reclining the seatback required turning a big, awkwardly placed knob that resisted any movement, the same device we remembered from the Rabbit. On the steering column, the cruise control was placed where the turn signal stalk is on most cars; turn signals were on a higher stalk, reversing the also-nutty Mercedes arrangement. The headlight control had two positions - off (DRL) and on - with the "parking lights" option as a pushback position on the turn signal stalk. The rheostat or dimmer controlled only the informational display in the center of the dashboard and not the backlighting. The choice of backlighting colors was modern Volkswagen; while the original GTI used amber lighting to preserve night vision, the current selection is purple for the gauges and bright red for the large information display, choices which may look hip and trendy but which are not the most logical for actual driving.

The speedometer was marked out to 180 mph (300 km/h), which is not only optimistic but also pushes the entire legal speed range into roughly 1/3 of the dial; and the speedometer is marked out in hundreds, rather than tens or thousands, of rpms, so it goes from 0 to 80 (though the engine only goes up to around 6500 rpm).

The cruise control was stalk based, but unlike the Japanese standard, it sat on the left hand side of the wheel, just underneath the turn signal; both had the same shape, though the turn signal (which was also the brights, flash-to-pass, and parking lights control) stuck out a little more. Increasing and decreasing speed were simple enough (up and down), but the pull-to-resume and push-to-cancel were a bit odd, especially since the system was activated by pulling the stalk towards the driver. Pushing to cancel all too often meant shutting it off entirely; finding just the right amount of effort wasn't easy. The same goes for the windshield wiper/washer control; pushing the stalk back just a little activated the rear wiper, but pushing it back just a little more activated the washer. This is one area where conventional controls would have made more sense.

There were also ergonomic triumphs that went far beyond the dead pedal. The gearshift has a reverse lockout, making drivers push down to get into reverse; the stereo has real-life knobs for bass, midrange, trebel, balance, fade, volume, and tuning, as well as real buttons for each of the presets and separate buttons for each mode (FM, AM, CD, and Satellite). Likewise, the climate control is sensibly arranged with a thermostat, fan control, and simply vent control, as well as pushbuttons for a/c, recirculation, and rear defroster. The vent controls all felt cheaper than usual, stiff and plasticky, with a mechanical feel; the thermostat clearly wants to be set at 72°, the center temperature and the only one with a firm detente.

The air conditioning was not particularly powerful, and had a hard time cooling the car on hot days, but the defrosters were very powerful, with dedicated side demisters, and the wipers easily kept the windshield clear with relatively short blades. Headlight washers appear to be optional, based on the blank switchplates in the cabin and blank plastic pieces inserted underneath the headlights.

The stereo was quite good, with clear sound, strong bass when desired, and good spatial imaging. It was easy to adjust the tone for talk radio as well, with quick twists of the knobs (oh, how we miss knobs!). The CD player was designed for MP3 data discs, with controls for folder navigation as well as the usual track and seek control. The folder control could also be used to navigate satellite-radio categories (if you ordered the satellite radio service); the LCD screen provided instructions when needed (e.g. on inserting a CD, the unit asked the user to choose an empty CD slot). There was no provision for iPods, and after changing the volume, the volume-level display overrode the radio preset descriptions for a few seconds, but on the whole we were happier with this stereo's usability than with most competitors. We also preferred it to the Monsoon system used in other Volkswagens we’ve tested.

The instrument panel is fairly straightforward, dominated by the tachometer and speedometer, each in their circular pods; the temperature (marked out in actual degrees Farenheit rather than the usual C/H) and gas gauge (fractions rather than E/F) were the only other gauges, and both were smaller than usual, which was not a great loss. The information display was a red-backlit LCD type, with fairly high resolution, so that words could be spelled out in both capitals and lower case, with bold and plain type. For most displays, the compass reading and time remained at the top, and the odometer and trip odometer remained at the bottom, set off from other information by static lines; the outside temperature also showed most of the time. Information shown included average and current gas mileage, driving time since reset, audio information (track and CD name), speed warning setting, average speed, distance travelled, and fuel range.

Numerous settings could also be changed through this system. The first, which was outside of the preference-setting menus, was the speed warning setting, a feature we wish all cars had; it played a mild, musical bong when we went past a certain number of miles per hour. This can be especially handy on cars where power surges without reserve at highway speeds, like the GTI, but it comes in handy any time one isn't using the cruise control - keeping one to reasonable speeds in residential areas (e.g. under 25 or 30 mph), or to "non-enforced" speeds on highways. Many people have suddenly realized they were going far faster than they thought; this device prevents that, but doesn't get in the way if you temporarily need a bit of extra speed, for example to pass someone who mistakes the highway for a race-track whenever anyone tries to pass (and for a country lane otherwise). Overall, the information system was easier to read and more handy than most; its position in the dead center of the instrument panel also made it more convenient. Warning messages were generally elaborated on (except the door open display, which was graphical and quite easy to read).

The other preference concern the usual areas - door locking and unlocking, lights, and the like - as well as some that are unusual. This includes an automatic window lowering feature, quite handy in the summer, where all windows (or just certain windows) are automatically opened when the driver's door is unlocked; automatically adjusting the passenger side mirror when the driver's mirror is adjusted; setting the brightness of the footwell light; and shutting off the obnoxious "if you touch the turn signal stalk, I'll blink the turn signal three times" feature. These are all set from buttons on the right side of the steering wheel. On the left side of the steering wheel were sound up, sound down, and radio mute buttons, along with the cellphone button.

Within the GTI, storage spaces abounded. The huge, padded glove compartment was devoid of clutter, with a special shelf for the owner's manual. The doors all contained oversized beverage holders integrated into the map pockets, and more reasonably sized cupholders were also included between the front seats. A small covered compartment under the center stack was nicely sized for an EZ-Pass or cellphone, and included the 12V power adapter; the center console was small, though, and hard to reach (but conveniently did not have a latch). Overhead, a small bin held sunglasses.

Vehicles with a sunroof took advantage of the Volkswagen sunroof dial, which needed a only quick twist to open the sunroof to any position; it's the best sunroof switch we've seen, because it takes the least time and attention; and the sunroof shade included vents to allow hot air to leave the car without letting the sun bake the interior. The four electric windows also required little attention, thanks to automatic up/down controls. Volkswagen packed a lot of hidden functionality into the GTI.

The GTI comes with a 2.0 liter, 200 horsepower engine with 207 pound-feet of torque, standard, with a six-speed manual transmission and front wheel drive. The engine has direct injection for power and efficiency. Power steering has electric assist, cleverly tuned to feel as though it is a traditional hydraulic system. The front suspension has the usual independent strut system, while the rear is now a multilink setup, which may be what helps the GTI Mark V to deal with rough roads better than the Mark I. The standard stability control - with electronic differential locking and antilock brakes - may also help. One big factor is the 225/45R17H summer performance tires - a very low profile which helps you to feel every pebble (admittedly dampened), but also sticks to the ground like glue, as long as the ground isn't covered in snow, in which case you'll stay at home.

Safety equipment includes front side airbags, side curtain airbags for front and rear, bright xenon headlights (also handy for those who just like blue headlights for fashion reasons), fog lights and daytime running lights, rear impact optimized head restraints on the front seats, front and rear power disc brakes, and tire pressure monitoring.

More frivolous features include standard filtered air conditioning, cruise, leather wrapped wheel, power windows with pinch protection, power heated outside mirrors, telescopic tilting steering column, intermittent front and rear wipers, power trunk and gas cap lid release, power locks with fancy switchblade-style key, and the normally pricey floor mats. Also standard are fashionable red brake calipers, radio and vehicle alarm system, and in-dash 6-disc CD. Customers can be reassured (especially if they don't keep cars longer than four years) by a four year, 50,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty; the powertrain gets one more year (five years, 60,000 miles).

With all that, the price is a very reasonable $23,230, including destination. Our test car also had the power sunroof and satellite radio, at $1,370; and rear side airbags, at $350, pushing the total up to just under $25,000.

Overall, the GTI is a real blast from the past. It returns to the cheap thrills of its predecessor, without some of the dangers; the new, fifth generation GTI deals with dirty or wet pavement in a much more confident way than the original did. The interior is moderately cheap-looking and cheap-feeling, but the complement of standard features is simply stunning, and Volkswagen put a lot of money under the hood and into the chassis. Getting this kind of cornering and acceleration, in that order, out of a car that starts at around $23,000 is amazing. It is one of the most fun cars we've driven in quite a while, though the seats kept us coming back to the chiropractor, the controls were sometimes nutty, and Volkswagen is all over the place (but generally low) in reliability ratings.

We’ve read so many reviews proclaiming something “the next GTI” that we were happy to finally test the real next GTI ... namely, the Volkswagen GTI. It is, once again, bargain-priced (for the performance, if not the space) and chock full o’ fun.