Everybody agrees that the Volkswagen GTI is a great car. Except for the US-market MkI, which was underpowered. And the Mk2, which was really underpowered. Don’t the forget the Mk2 16V, which was wayyy overpriced and over-complicated. And the MkIII, which had no business calling itself a GTI, not with that chunky VR6 under the hood and the super-soft factory suspension. The Mk4? I heard it was a bit of a wallowing pig, and everything fell off it. That Mk5 seemed to be a hell of a car, except it was down on power compared to everything else in the segment and it had a large magnet in the front bumper which inexorably dragged it to the nearest VW service department.
If I understand the conventional wisdom, the only GTI which everyone seems to like is the original round-light German-market MkI GTI. And since almost nobody in North America has driven one, it’s possible they are just fooling themselves.
When exactly was the GTI great, anyway?
Five minutes in this MkVI GTI will show you the answer to that question, so come along with me as I enter the fast portion of VW’s Virginia press loop. This is from memory, not from video, so I apologize if I leave anything out.
We’ll start with a 150-degree off-camber right-hander. Too hot! The GTI plows for a moment until we remove all brake input and let the outside edge of the tire catch. Now it’s full-throttle along a long sweeping downhill left-hander. The end of the turn is blind but keep your foot in it. At the bottom of the hill there’s an odd dip that completely upset the Beetle and caused the Golf R to compute ferociously as the four driven wheels argued amongst themselves.
The GTI, on the other hand, just doesn’t care. Whomp down just before the bumpstops. This feels like a world-class shock tune, the steering stays straight, and we stay compressed up a short, steep, full-throttle hill before cresting and heading downhill right, then left. Rebound damping is outstanding, so much so that I want to find the people who engineered the CTS-V and make them drive THIS Volkswagen on THIS route. Turns out you can beat computer shocks with plain ones…
…except these are computer shocks, too, as this GTI has some kind of three-way adjustment and I have it set to “Sport”. We’ll make a mental note to drive one without the fancy stuff. (Note: This is the result of me misreading my post-drive notes. The Golf R had the adjustable shocks, the GTI and GLI did not. However, I’m not a fan of post-release editing so I am leaving the mistake in. – JB)
Speaking of fancy stuff, note that the DSG has been flawless so far, holding the right gear when needed and seamlessly helping the engine along despite just being left in “S”. Why waste time paddling the wheel shifters when the transmission is so smart on its own? The exhaust note is multi-dimensional and it stutters almost like a boxer engine before blipping, F1-style, into the next gear without a whiff of flywheel effect. It may be one of the first dual-clutch transmissions, but it’s still perhaps the most appealing one.
Now we have a series of fast switchbacks down a hill. The guys from Bigtime Magazine who were tailgating us on the state highway a few minutes ago aren’t even visible in the mirror. This is an excellent place to try going flat in third, and we’re on the way to doing it ARRRGGGHHH THERE IS AN ELDERLY WOMAN PLANTING FLOWERS BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD well the brakes, honestly, could stand a little more pad area or a more aggressive compound. The calipers from the Golf R would be nice to have.
Now there’s some soft, heat-related travel in the left pedal but it doesn’t matter. Stomp the ABS a bit for a sharp 120-degree left. Too hot again. Would be nice to have just a slightly more aggressive tire on this thing. Unless we make a change here we will hit a mailbox at about fifty mph, so brush the brake left-footed and roootate just a touch. The computer allows for a second or so of left-foot braking before entering Sudden Acceleration Mode and cutting spark/fuel/whatever. That’s nice to have, and remember that the real advantage of DSG isn’t the shift speed but rather the ability to balance the car on both pedals.
Now we have a long straight followed by a wide-radius blind right-hander and sharper left-hander running beneath an overpass. In the R and Beetle this wasn’t really flat-out, but in the GTI you can hold your throttle/breath/nuts all the way to a late entry of the second turn. Doing so requires that you grind the outside tire to the squealing semi-limit very close to gravel. There’s plenty of feedback through the steering, and the level of effort involved is an accurate reflection of the number of small stones beneath the tread block closest to the shoulder. It inspires confidence. We could pick up 1 or 2 mph next time.
Now it’s time to hustle up and down a narrow road before hanging it out for a third-gear downhill leftie. All the way down, the GTI responds to mild throttle adjustments by pointing the nose in or out just a touch. If we get a bit ham-handed with the wheel, the DSC light will come on but it’s not inclined to get involved until we do.
The Golf R didn’t really feel fast enough on this road, since the binary stop/turn/go technique demanded by its weight and drivetrain showed up the engine’s deficiencies. The GTI, on the other hand, is more than fast enough. If anything, it’s brakes that we need back here; the 2.0T can push the little car just a bit faster than it can stop. On a racetrack, the problem would be even more pronounced.
Take a look around the interior. It’s standard VW fare, available with a few extras if you so desire. The cloth seats are, to many people, an indispensible part of the GTI experience, but some people will insist on leather. Your humble author is not qualified to judge the minute distinctions between different Volkswagen plastics the way that many Euro-fans are. I had two Phaetons and compared to them the GTI sucks. I also had a 1990 Fox, and compared to that it seems quite nice. In between, I had a 2000 Golf GLS 1.8T four-door, which I bought for invoice and sold with 23,000 miles for a grand under invoice, and that seems about the same as the GTI, interior-wise. So there you go.
Let’s return to the drive. The GTI can do what the Beetle and Golf R can’t. It can make you want to go faster. It can involve you. It can be steered, braked, and accelerated in a linear, predictable, but still joyful fashion. The controls are properly weighted, the rest of the car doesn’t distract from the mission, and it feels like a high-quality piece. These cars are no longer exactly cheap, but they are a good value.
Most importantly, the obvious speed gap between this GTI and some of the competition doesn’t matter so much when the experience of driving the car is so delightful. Yes, a Mazdaspeed 3 is faster; no, I wouldn’t dream of buying an MS3 instead. It would be nice if the GTI were five hundred pounds lighter, but we live in a world where something like that simply isn’t going to happen. No time soon, anyway.
If the GTI is so wonderful — and it is, it truly is — why doesn’t it win first place in the Intramural League? The obvious answer is that the GLI ended up being more satisfying for me, and we will discuss the reasons for it in the final article. In the meantime, however, at least we have the answer to “When, exactly, was the GTI so great?” That answer is: Right now.
This article is dedicated to my friend Kathy, a fast and furious little Mk5 GTI street racer from Houston who fearlessly reaches for top gear on downtown freeways and then reads Ross Bentley in bed, or so I’m told, anyway.