During a recent visit to Houston’s Johnson Space Center, I stood at the business end of the mighty Saturn V lunar rocket and contemplated many things. On the surface, I found myself excited and awestruck at the spectacle of the raw power represented by this engineering landmark, but introspectively, I also felt a twinge of sadness, realizing that I was now an adult and quite obviously not the astronaut I one day hoped to be.
It’s funny how reality sometimes smacks you like that. My youthful (space) flights of fancy also included plans to own a daily driver capable of an 11-second quarter mile, but today I drive a car capable of pulling a trailer and carrying six adults. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s never accelerated to sixty in under nine seconds. Time, along with an inconvenient concept called “real life,” end up teaching us that raw power isn’t really everything. In the end, we often find ourselves settling for many things that would have sorely disappointed our younger expectations.
However, before I blast off into a fit of nostalgic anomie, I should mention a fabulous little coping mechanism called the 2010 Volkswagen GTI. Yes, the original hot hatch and its segment-founding “you-can-be-responsible-and-still-have-fun” formula remain thankfully intact—when you get behind the wheel, your life will almost assuredly suck less. Unless you are an astronaut. Who owns a Ferrari.
The new-for-2010 “Mark VI” version of the GTI continues the evolution of Volkswagen’s original concept by injecting a smidge more visual excitement into the rowdy runabout. Slightly more aggressive than its immediate predecessor, the Mark VI version doesn’t return to the sharp, boxy edges of the original, but instead hides those edges under a virtual sheet of cleverly contoured plastic and sheet metal. Visually, it’s a little more captivating than the Mark V, and the prominence of sculpted sides, the trademark red line framing the grille, and an altogether less Audi-like headlight treatment all help transfer more rhetorical weight back to the left side of the term “sport compact.”
The aesthetic satisfaction continues inside, with an interior that belongs in an [insert Audi of your choice here]. Top-tier materials and buttery smooth switchgear complement an open, airy cabin that forgoes the popular claustrophobia-inducing, massive center consoles that make newer/taller/heavier cars look and feel less spacious than older/lower/lighter cars ever did. Retro-plaid seats look and feel great with bolsters that provide butt and torso-stabilizing lateral support without making ingress and egress too difficult. And the rear seat is pretty roomy, too. An excellent 600-watt stereo (a separate unit from the climate control system) sounds great when you’re blaring Queen’s greatest hits, though the GTI’s fabulous tiller will have you singing about a “Flat-Bottomed Steering Wheel” that makes your rockin’ world go ‘round. “Bottom” line: this GTI’s cockpit is so sporty that you’ll never again want to get on your bikes and ride.
But what about the “raw power” your youthful memories long for?
Uh, did I mention how great the interior is?
No, you won’t find F-1 rocket engine-levels of power (or even Mazdaspeed3-levels) emanating from the Mark VI’s holdover TSI four-banger, but as a consolation, you get what power there is in a fun, unique way. Who needs a big Hog and its loud V-Twin to remind them of their coolness when they can have the same flat torque curve in a practical, thrifty (and weatherproof!) little hatchback? At 30 MPH, I dropped the GTI’s excellent 6-speed manual into sixth gear at the bottom of a long incline and floored it. To my surprise, the little turbocharged VW gathered steam smartly and never once lugged. No, 207 pound-feet doesn’t sound like that much torque (and it’s not), but when you have it continuously from 1,800 to 5,000 RPM, it can be a real hoot. Turbo lag doesn’t exist here, and neither does any perceptible driveline shudder. Turns out, Finesse + Power X Refinement > Just Raw Power, after all.
Speaking of finesse and refinement, the driving dynamics of the Mark VI are what really make you forget about all that power and the 911 Turbo you’ll never own. All the ingredients are present in this recipe, and in just the right amounts. Although the electric power steering is a bit numb, it sidesteps the oft-related sin of being rubbery and still manages to do a terrific job of communicating with the H-rated (yes, H-rated) 225/40R18s. Credit the tires’ mild speed rating with a beautifully compliant ride that feels less like a hot hatch and more like a 5-Series Bimmer. Although steering response could be faster with rock-ribbed, Z-rated rubber, the car still handles stupendously due to well-chosen springs and dampers that are perfectly suited to the GTI’s balanced persona. The brakes, like the tires, are much less aggressive than you might expect (especially given their substantial through-the-wheels appearance); even though they might not coax you to rush-hour hoonery, front-to-rear bias is so neatly worked out that front-end dive simply doesn’t exist (not even under “soil-your-underwear” braking).
When I was a kid and fantasized about limitless power beneath my feet and had career aspirations involving NASA—while piloting my darty go-kart around our property—I was generally frustrated with the constraints of being 10 years old; I figured that everything would be better, more exciting, and more fun when I was older. Now I realize that I should have lived in the moment more back then.
Trust me, downhill four-wheel drifts on dirt in a five-horsepower go-kart are a lot more fun than most cars you’ll ever own, especially if “real life” dictates that your daily driver possess even a modicum of utility. Volkswagen gets this. And instead of trying to recreate youthful speed lust in a compromised package where power overwhelms finesse and refinement, the company has done a great job of including all “the right stuff” in the 2010 GTI.