Less power than many rivals, electric power steering could be sharper and livelier, stability control can't be defeated, a couple ergonomic quirks.
The most mature sport compact on the market, 2010 Volkswagen GTI is so different from other sport-tuned compacts that it almost belongs in its own class. Its sharpened suspension doesn't compromise its ride quality, which remains supple and sophisticated. Its turbocharged motor trumpets a sweet song when called upon, but is barely audible during normal cruising. And unlike its competitors, the GTI looks and feels more like a Lilliputian luxury car than a boy racer. This is the sport compact that you bring home to meet the family.
Not much has changed on the new-for-2010 "Mk VI" (sixth-generation) GTI, but little tweaks go a long way here. Whereas the previous GTI's styling was a bit bloated, this one has crisper lines and tighter proportions. The interior has been reworked, too, providing even more of an entry-level-luxury ambience than before. The "wasn't broke, didn't fix it" category includes the amazingly roomy backseat and practical breadboxlike hatchback body style. The only flaw VW chose not to correct was the GTI's power deficit relative to its steroidal peers.
Yes, that sweet-sounding 2.0-liter turbo-4 turns out to be the GTI's Achilles' heel — if speed is a top priority, that is. Rated at the same 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque as the Mk V GTI's engine, this well-mannered mill gets waxed at the drag strip by big-turboed bruisers like the Mazdaspeed 3's 2.3-liter four (263 hp, 280 lb-ft) and the Subaru WRX's 2.5-liter boxer-4 (265 hp, 244 lb-ft). The GTI's engine is less prone to turbo lag and more refined and fuel-efficient, but there's no denying its disadvantage in brute force.
So the GTI isn't the fastest sport compact on the block. No matter; it's still the one that will likely hold the most appeal for consumers who want a true all-in-one performance car. With its engaging personality, remarkable functionality and Audi-like polish, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI is in a class of one, and incidentally one of the best automotive values under $25,000.
The front-wheel-drive 2010 Volkswagen GTI is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. Our test car had the standard six-speed manual transmission; VW's dual-clutch automated manual (DSG) is optional. EPA fuel economy estimates are a laudable 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined (and the DSG is even better at 24/32/27).
At the test track, the GTI hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. That's marginally quicker than the last Civic Si we tested, but 0.5 second off the Mazdaspeed 3's pace and a whopping 1.7 seconds off the WRX's. The GTI negotiated our slalom course at a back-of-the-pack 67.1-mph pace, and skid-pad testing yielded a similarly indifferent 0.84g.
In the real world, the GTI's chassis feels a lot more capable than those numbers suggest, which tells us that the standard 17-inch all-season tires aren't doing it any favors. But we're not sure we'd spring for the optional 18-inch performance tires, as they might compromise the GTI's refined ride. A better bet would be to wear out the standard all-season tires and then replace them with performance rubber.
In any case, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI is a pleasure at anything less than 8/10ths. From behind the wheel, it feels tiny and tossable, and the supple suspension soaks up midcorner bumps that other sport compacts would find unsettling. Beyond better tires, we'd only wish for livelier responses from the electric power steering and a stability control "off" button that actually worked as advertised.
As for that supposedly underpowered engine, it certainly doesn't act the part. There's ample midrange torque, along with a linear high-rpm surge that's a rarity in the world of turbocharging; moreover, the GTI-specific intake design sends a glorious sound through the firewall under full throttle. The manual shifter has VW's traditional rubbery quality, but the transmission as a whole seems set up to ensure that you'll never miss a shift — it's extraordinarily user-friendly. Add it all up and you've got a thoroughly entertaining sport compact, regardless of those middling test results.
The 2010 Volkswagen GTI cruises like a pint-size BMW. It's quiet and composed at all speeds, and the ride is firm but never punishing. The extensively contoured flat-bottom steering wheel feels great and wouldn't look out of place in the Audi R8 supercar. Decked out in the GTI's trademark tartan fabric, the standard front sport seats provide an excellent combination of lateral support and long-distance comfort. Unlike many cars in this class, the GTI offers well-padded armrests all around.
The backseat is just as impressive given the GTI's diminutive dimensions (the Mazdaspeed 3 looks and feels almost like a midsize wagon by comparison). The fact that two 6-foot-plus adults can comfortably ride in back — with the front seats configured for their physiques, no less — is simply astounding. With accommodations like these, the GTI might even merit consideration alongside workaday $25,000 family sedans for consumers in search of extra spice.
The GTI's primary gauges are clear and have a restrained, premium look that sets them apart in this sometimes juvenile segment. The standard touchscreen radio interface is a nice idea but could use a few tweaks — for example, the iPod interface (also standard) makes scrolling through your playlists unnecessarily time-consuming, and navigating through the menus is sometimes less than intuitive. On the bright side, the base stereo is above average, delivering crisp highs and tight lows.
A more notable misstep is the climate control system's airflow knob, which has markings that are almost illegible without the benefit of nighttime illumination. In our real-world usability tests, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI's compact-looking cargo area somehow gulped down our standard golf bag and suitcase without issue. Given the generous rear passenger space, it came as no surprise that a rear-facing child safety seat fit easily behind the front seats.
Design/Fit and Finish
The new GTI's styling seems to have been poked and prodded in all the right ways. Gone is the Mk V's slightly overgrown look, replaced by tight sheet metal, sleeker headlights and a clipped front overhang. The standard 17-inch horseshoe-pattern alloy wheels look great, too.
Inside, the GTI is a couple four-ring badges short of Audi status. Materials are top-notch and the overall look is more entry-level luxury than hot hatch. Build quality has been a question mark for Volkswagen over the long term, but our test car was squeak- and rattle-free. The doors deserve specific praise for their classic Germanic closing thunk.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Volkswagen GTI merits consideration by everyone from the sport-compact crowd to those looking for a reasonably priced and practical alternative to the Audi A3/A4 or BMW 3 Series. For people who like to drive, the GTI might be the ultimate affordable family car.