Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
A strong argument can be made that this 2010 Volkswagen GTI burns with the flame of the original GTI, the spark that ignited the hot-hatch explosion and led to cars like the Mazdaspeed 3, Mini Clubman S and Subaru Impreza WRX STI.
This sixth-generation GTI follows its predecessor's formula and its Golf-derived hardware will be familiar, but now it receives VW's new turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter inline-4 (PZEV compliant, no less), new bodywork, a new interior and a couple of new options. We've already offered you an early impression of the Euro-tuned GTI from a European point of view, but now we have one stateside at last.
When the Golf GTi first came down the road in 1976, back when the Golf was new, Americans were eager for this 100-mph small car (100 mph was a big deal then), but it didn't make it to America until 1983, when the Rabbit-derived GTI began to be assembled in Mexico. The advertising tag line began as Ausgezeichnet ("excellent," or literally, "outstanding"). That same year, some new Irish band called U2 topped the charts with its song "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Yeah, they might have a future, too.
At $7,995, the '83 GTI featured a fuel-injected 90-hp DOHC 1.8-liter inline-4, a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission and upgraded brakes. Its better-than-Rabbit features also included a revamped interior with aggressively bolstered seats and full instrumentation. A revised suspension worked 14-inch snowflake-style aluminum wheels and Pirelli P6 tires capable of 0.78g loads in corners ("Dude, it's got Pirellis!").
And who doesn't remember the Ronnie and the Daytonas-inspired television ad, Kleine GTI with two flying GTIs on a track? A generation of car enthusiasts owes its love of driving to this European-bred performance hatch.
Flash forward 27 years: U2 has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the kids who once mowed lawns to buy a used GTI (as we once did) are now putting their money into 401(k) accounts. How has the primordial performance hatch fared in the meantime?
Back to the Future
Euro-built Golf begat U.S.-built Rabbit, then Rabbit begat Golf, Golf begat Rabbit and back again to Golf, and admittedly, there were a couple duds, styling was hit-and-miss and there was a bout or two with quality issues. Overall, however, the GTI has upheld VW's original promise of a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Along the way, it has added a four-door model, found a V6 and in one related and particularly pricey iteration, the R32 even sprouted all-wheel drive and VW's dual-clutch automated manual gearbox (DSG). The biggest problem for the 2010 Volkswagen GTI is that there are now more choices than ever before to satisfy hot-hatch buyers, and some are quicker and cost less.
This time around, the changes to the 2010 Mk VI GTI (both two- and four-door models) are useful, although perhaps a little subtle. Starting with the engine, VW finally gets hold of the sophisticated 2.0-liter inline-4 with turbocharging and direct fuel injection (EA888) that was developed by Audi. While output remains at 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque — the same as the Mk V GTI's engine (EA113) — this new engine's broader torque plateau produces greater willingness to push a tall gear at extremely low engine speeds, a trait we appreciate.
Excellent fuel economy is possible, as we recorded 31 mpg when we let the idiot light on the dash determine our shifting habits. Our overall average over the course of this test was 23 mpg. The automated manual DSG is a $1,100 option and it's rated to earn 1 mpg better fuel economy by the EPA, so we'd pick the manual every time.
We often praise manual transmissions for short throws, precise action and intuitive clutch uptake, but the GTI's goes one better. It's virtually impossible to induce shift-shock by short-shifting or dumping the clutch too quickly in any gear. Of course, the downside of all this isolation is, well, isolation.
Thrown in haste for quicker performance, the shifter and clutch can feel frustratingly over-damped, but this doesn't hurt acceleration times, as we recorded acceleration to 60 mph from a standstill in 6.9 seconds (or 6.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout). The 2010 Volkswagen GTI stopped the quarter-mile clock at 14.9 seconds with a trap speed of 95.6 mph.
While our colleague Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says he's not impressed (see his Second Opinion), we should point out that this performance puts the GTI in lockstep with the last Mini Cooper S we tested. In fact, it is but a half-second behind Jacquot's beloved, torque-steering, 263-hp Mazdaspeed 3, plus the GTI doesn't try to twist the steering wheel out of your hands and point the car toward the curb.
Two Buttons Missing
The 2010 Volkswagen GTI's suspension tuning proves to be very comfortable and adept on a variety of surface changes. Drive it every day or take a 300-mile trip (as we did), and you're happy. Yet the GTI can still get through the slalom at 67.1 mph, not what you'd call slow.
But we might have enjoyed the thrill a bit more if the idiot light for stability control engagement didn't flash at us incessantly while we made our runs. You can't turn it off, and we suspect the stability control might be a Band-Aid for the U.S. GTI's softly sprung chassis calibration. Behold the first missing button.
Even with the minimal interference from the stability control, it's fair to say that the GTI doesn't make cornering transitions with the confidence and outright control of, say, the Mazdaspeed 3. For us, we'd like the suspension a little tauter, more like the R32, to enable the car to shift its weight more quickly.
There's a second button we'd gladly have paid $1,000 for, just like the Europeans — the Euro-spec three-mode adaptive damping. Would this have changed the dynamics of the GTI for the better? We think so, because being able to sharpen the GTI's responses at the touch of a button might have solved the persistent complaints from those of our editors (a minority, to be sure) more tuned in to the Mazdaspeed 3 or Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart.
Even so, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI feels sporty on a twisty road, and it pulls 0.84g on the skid pad. The brakes are there for you, and the best stop from 60 mph of 129 feet has more to do with the all-season tires under the fenders.
The GTI Cabin
Volkswagen has been putting a lot of work into the apparent quality of its cabins for some time and it shows in this car's presentation. The GTI's dash and door skins are attractive, while the plaid upholstery of the seats is a cool nod to Golf GTi heritage. The leather-trimmed flat-bottom steering wheel might be a little pretentious, but it fits your hands nicely and transmits just enough road info, plus the controls for the audio system are nicely designed.
While opting for the $1,750 hard-drive-based navigation system and music server would seem a natural choice for many, the standard eight-speaker touchscreen/hard-button audio unit with satellite radio, CD and aux/iPod input took only a short time to learn. Ample luggage space of 12.4 cubic feet doesn't come at the expense of rear-seat spaciousness. The 60/40-split fold rears offer more cargo space when needed, but fail to stow completely flat. Above all, the comfort and fit and finish were to expectedly high levels.
You Followin' Me?
Has Volkswagen maintained some sort of covert 27-year surveillance program on original GTI drivers? You're freakin' us out over here. We've put on a few pounds since 1983, and so has the GTI. We've developed a need to comfortably accommodate a larger group of others, and so has the GTI. Our ability to comprehend the full meaning of "situational awareness" and "predicted outcome" has increased many-fold, and so has the GTI's. We're more powerful and we've become more frugal, and so is the GTI. Hey GTI, it looks like we're all grow'd up and stuff.
But whether as a grown-up or as a kid mowing lawns, we appreciate that the GTI is well equipped for less than $25,000. At this base price, the GTI is about $11,000 less than a Subaru Impreza WRX STI, a hundred bucks less than the Mini Clubman S and $800 more than the Mazdaspeed 3.
For all its just-shy-of-class-leading performances, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI is still a very attractive, comfortable and competitive hot hatch. That it is not the hot hatch of the hour only shows a sense of maturity that comes from age and experience. If you want something with a sharper edge, you'll surely be giving up some comfort, some space, or some more money. Or you could wait a bit for the GTI-R, a replacement for the R32 that we think is on the horizon.
As it stands, the GTI is just two buttons from greatness. C'mon, Vee-Dub. Like you and the GTI, we've been around the block a few times and we're old enough and wise enough to know how and when to operate the fun buttons.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
All you have to do is make one click on Volkswagen's Web site to find the real reason I'm annoyed by the 2010 GTI. It says it right there. Really, it does, take a look. Big, bold letters proclaim it proudly: "The original hot hatch, fine-tuned to its essence."
Nonsense. Utter nonsense. And I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid. Never before has the blubbering hot air of the marketing spin machine been heard with such perfect clarity. The 2010 GTI is not, in any way, the original hot hatch. And it sure as hell isn't fine-tuned for enthusiast driving. Don't even try it, pal, cause I'm not drinking.
This car is in no way the lightweight, back-to-basics, fun-to-drive machine that won the original its reputation. No, it isn't. Instead, it's an overweight, underdamped, slow-steering, not-very-quick wanna-be version of the original.
Seriously, when was the last time you drove a rewarding enthusiast car that slammed its bump stops or wouldn't allow its stability control to be fully disabled? And since when is a 14.9-second quarter-mile time acceptable? And 129 feet from 60 to zero? Come on, that's large SUV territory.
And here's the thing — it's not an awful car. There's certainly room for a car like this. Its ride quality and build quality are more than acceptable. It's not bad-looking and its engine makes adequate power. Just don't try to sell it to me as a performance car, because it's not. Not when, for the same money, one could have a focused driving machine like the Mazdaspeed 3.
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