Volkswagen showed the first GTI at the Frankfurt auto show in 1975, a year later it was launched in Europe. Meanwhile, Canada had to wait for the second-generation car and 1984 before finding out what the pocket-rocket (or hot-hatch) phenomenon was all about – before the GTI there really was very little to choose from if you wanted a set of wheels that was both truly sporty and affordable. However, somewhere between the arrival of the first GTI and the outgoing model, the car seemed to lose its focus – rather than being a purpose-built rocket, it became more of a gussied-up Golf. For 2007, the fifth-generation GTI goes back to its very lovable roots.
As is the current trend, the latest GTI is a considerably larger car – the wheelbase is up 67-millimetres (to 2,578-mm), its 25-mm wider and appreciably taller – and so it brings some much needed interior space, especially in the rear seat. Unlike many cars that have grown, however, the GTI looses none of it tossable charm. Through the hills to the north of Nice, it bobbed and weaved without so much as putting a tire wrong.
Bigger brakes (need to rein in the new horses), stiffer springs, firmer dampers and 2-mm larger anti-roll bars at both ends now separate the GTI from the mortal Golf. Consequently, the stopping power is prodigious, there’s virtually no body roll and the response to steering input is razor sharp without feeling at all twitchy.
The time taken to calibrate the North American version is going to be appreciated – the need for the extra work being down to a 15-mm hike in the ride height needed to pass our bumper standards. The good news is that rather than being a washed-out version of the original, which has been the case in previous years, the Canadian car is simply more compliant over bumps. As a result, it has a better ride quality without giving anything up in terms of its outright handling when compared to the European original. Indeed, the feel is such that inspires confidence.
Just in case the driver does get a little carried away, a full traction control system/dynamic stability control package is standard equipment. Again, it’s worthy of note because it does not dive in prematurely. Large 18-inch wheels and 225/45 tires round out a delightful package (17-inch wheels are standard).
Better yet, the GTI’s new engine puts a lot more fire in its belly. Borrowing Audi’s turbocharged, 2.0L FSI engine and tweaking the software to suit the GTI means plenty of power (200 horsepower) and a ton of torque. Again, there’s some good news. As the turbo spools up with very little noticeable lag, it means the peak torque of 207 pound-feet turns up for work at a very low 1,800 rpm and stays with the program all the way to 5,000 rpm, which is precisely where the horsepower starts to do its thing. The result is a long, linear flow of power than never seems to run out. Even when caught in a lower gear than might be prudent the engine does not lug, rather it just muscles its way to speed.
The reason for the engine’s very flexible feel is that all the power is directed to the front wheels through VW’s latest direct shift gearbox (DSG) – a six-speed manual is standard equipment. Rather than being an automatic transmission with a manual mode, the DSG box is a clutchless
manual with an automatic mode. The advantage is simple – it consumes less power in the act of transmitting it. Its most likeable trait is equally simple: It blips its way up and down the gears with a silkiness and speed that would make Michael Schumacher proud.
When in traffic DSG is best left to its own devices – the automated shifts are smooth and devoid of the annoying lag that mars BMW’s clutchless manual’s performance. Hit the open road and slip the shifter into the sport setting. This stretches out the shift spacing and allows the driver
to shift via a pair of paddles mounted on the underside of the wheel (the steering wheel is also perfectly shaped to allow easy access to the buttons while having a substantial feel in the hand). The best mode when an open road beckons, however, is the fully manual one. Sliding the shifter to the right of D leaves the driver in complete control, allowing redline to be pulled at will and engine braking to be used to set the car up when heading into a corner.
The DSG also makes the GTI sound the part. On an upshift, it backs out of the gas for a split second before coming back on line with vengeance. The result is a sound that’s a dead ringer for a Formula One car and that characteristic burble that’s heard between shifts. On the way down through the gears DSG blips the gas, which replicates a true heel/toe downshift.
It may sound like heresy, but this transmission is the only way to go. Not only does it allow the driver to focus on the art of driving, it is marginally faster in the 0-100-km/h dash – 6.8 seconds versus the 7 seconds needed by the straight GTI and its clutched manual.
Inside, the GTI is tastefully attired and comes with a ton of kit, especially if you take the up-level package 2. Along with the usual power items and a sunroof (part of P1) comes a better audio package, full leather and a wonderful set of front bucket seats that are form fitting and hug the passengers rather than pinch. Even the rear seat takes a turn for the better – it will now hold two adults in comfort, as there is much better leg- and headroom. On the practical side, the GTI is every inch the regular Golf – 60/40 split/folding seat backs and an ample trunk (15.1 cubic feet with the seats up).
The latest car reincarnates the GTI’s reason for being – it is fast and dynamic fun wrapped in an eminently practical package. The two-door hatch arrives in February 2006, a four-door version the following June. At this point pricing has not been set, however, look for the base GTI coupe to
come in under $30,000 and top out around $34,000. The four-door model will likely add $800 more respectively.