I don't know about you, but I've been feeling sorry for Volkswagen for a while now. VW didn't so much lose their mojo as strap it to the nose of a Titan IVB and fire it into deep space. No disrespect to the world's fifth most populous country, but was anyone really surprised when a Brazilian Golf turned out like German bobo de camarao? Now that Vee Dub's got THAT out of their system, here comes the new, Wolfsburg-built Golf GTI. It's an Old School hot hatch with a Masters in Engineering. Viva VW!
For reasons best left to The International Museum of Marketing Doublespeak, Volkswagen decided to begin their mission-critical US Golf refresh with a two-door. More's the pity. The fifth-gen four-door is a far more handsome beast than the coupe– if only because the Golf's rear portals soften the enormous disparity between the front windscreen's bottom edge and the side windows' lower boundary. This bizarre asymmetry pisses on the Golf's 32-year history of two-box harmony. The resulting rear end trades brand recognition for something vaguely Japanese– as if the Golf suddenly decided to play the Accordian. And then there's the front end's unresolved echo of Audi's unconscionable house snout…
If you're offended by the new GTI's jarring, over-reaching modernity, open the door and clock the retro-plaid seating surfaces. You can almost hear David Hasselhoff burning-up the German pop charts. The rest of the GTI's interior keeps faith with VW's noble history of crafting car cabins so dark they make Citizen Kane look like a romantic comedy. Thankfully, brushed aluminum accentuation abounds, and the quality of the polymers almost makes up for their dour demeanor. The switchgear's flimsy imprecision and the stereo's ectomorphic timbre are the last remaining vestiges of the Golf's multi-decade mediocrity.
Wrap your mitts around the GTI's squashed crown steering wheel and you'll soon know that beauty is in the right foot of the beholder. Fire-up the uber-Golf's in-line four and the delightful zizz blatting from the modest twin pipes foreshadows the hoonery to come. The GTI's 2.0-liter powerplant is a high-tech handbag, complete with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, inter-cooled turbo, drive-by-wire throttle and FSI direct injection. And here's the kicker: Wolfsburg's de-pimpers have bestowed its Dual Sequential Gearbox (DSG) upon America's mid-market motoring madmen, placing the reins to 200 horses in the GTI driver's fingertips. This, folks, is what the Brits call a serious piece of kit.
Serious as in seamless. With 207 ft-lbs. of torque from the basement (1800 rpm) to the penthouse (5000 rpm), and six gears available for your dining and dancing pleasure, the VW GTI DSG is an express elevator from any speed A to any speed B. We're talking Johnny Bravo quick; zero to sixty in 6.3 seconds and 14.8 seconds for the quarter. Whoa Mama! (OK, that's no better than a MINI Cooper S, but I don't remember anyone calling the other German brand's hot hatch slow.) The Vee Dub's power-on-demand paddles are an electro-mechanical all-areas VIP pass if ever there was one, facilitating the kind of instant-on maniacal acceleration normally reserved for $70k and up thoroughbreds.
The GTI's cornering is equally phenomenal. This time 'round, VW didn't skimp on the fundamentals; laser welding makes the GTI tight, a fully independent four-link rear suspension, coil springs, telescopic shocks and stabilizer bar make it right. While BMW's electro-mechanical steering system has about much feel as a phantom limb, the GTI's similarly-assisted rack-and-pinion helm delivers an endless stream of road info, excellent on-center feedback AND tightens the rack at speed to avoid paddle-disconnecting hand movements. When it's time for the madness to stop, the GTI's brakes are powerful, fade-free retards.
Bottom line: you can blast the new Volkswagen GTI DSG through a tight bend almost twice as quickly as you'd imagine possible– at least at first. Once you get used to the GTI's adhesive tenacity, once you accept the fact that the understeer slide justain'tgonnahappen.com, only the cleanliness of your license, children on board and the stupidity of fellow road users prevent you from endless adrenal indulgence. Although the GTI rides a bit like a proper sports car tied down with rubber bands, it's comfortable enough to enable a daily fast.
A combination of balls-out fun, affordability and everyday practicality made the original GTI a working class hero. In that sense, June's four-door GTI will be the better– and better-looking– bet. And while there's no question that the new GTI represents a welcome return to form for cash-strapped pistonheads, the jury is out on the reliability part of the practicality equation. If that's an issue, I strongly recommend that you do NOT test drive the new Golf GTI DSG until AFTER you've read Consumer Reports.
[VW provided the vehicle tested, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]