2010 Volkswagen GTI: Better Than an M3
April 16, 2010
This is some great car. It's not that it's less than half the price as an M3; it's that it's more than twice as good as an M3.
Back when it was new, the newly fuel-injected Golf GTi was the M3 of its time, a useful automobile that could be driven seriously fast. It had taken the place of the BMW 2002, the famous Whispering Bomb (a name that probably has its roots in V-1 rockets of WWII), which itself had just been replaced by the brand-new 3 Series, a car quickly dismissed by enthusiasts as oversize, stodgy and truck-like.
Just like the modern-day BMW M3, the Golf GTi could be hammered down the autobahn in the fast lane and then could spend a day in the mountains for adventures on the alpine passes. In the corners, it would cock one rear wheel in the air at every corner, a side-effect of its torsion beam axle and actually a measure of great handling balance, not its absence. When the car came to the U.S. in 1983 and became newly capitalized as the GTI, its 90-hp engine was big news. As time went on, Volkswagen tried to justify the car's escalating price with the Euro car's package of luxury options, which included the VR6 engine and softer suspension, but the ever-increasing price tag ultimately chased everyone away.
And now the GTI is back, pretty much as we remember it.
As before, the GTI is cheap, with a price that we suspect is actually thousands of dollars less than the real cost, as VW uses it to build showroom traffic. (The Excel spreadsheet is the best thing to ever happen to specialty cars, as now you can compare the cost of building showroom traffic with a car versus conventional marketing and advertising, and the car is frequently cheaper).
As before, the GTI is comfortable, a car spacious and poised enough to help you withstand a cross-country trip. It has the everyday utility that you need if you own only one car, plus the combination of practical packaging and performance-style ergonomic excellence that makes this hatchback easily the equal of far more expensive premium transportation.
And most important of all, the GTI offers the same, honest high-performance dynamics for which Volkswagen has always been noted. When you steer, it goes, and it has the same balance at 50 mph as it does at 100 mph, a kind of dynamic dependability that makes you a better driver. Just like VW engines of old, this new, turbo 2.0-liter inline-4 has a really elastic powerband, while direct injection makes possible a tall compression ratio, so the throttle response is beautifully sharp, so unlike the sluggish, droning, Audi-developed turbo 2.0-liter four we remember. The engine is supported by a gearbox with great shift action, somewhat long throws in order to deliver light effort in the German style, but beautifully slick with positive gate engagement into the gears. You don't even have to poke your front-seat companion in the eye with your elbow in order to get sixth gear.
There are guys who wish this car was some raspy Japanese piece for fanboys, all roll stiffness, limited suspension travel, and torque steer. But the GTI was never like that before, and it makes more sense to be different than the Mazdaspeed 3 or Subaru Impreza WRX rather than the same.
As for me, I'd argue that this car is better than a BMW M3 because it combines the M3-style virtues in a car that is not only affordable but also responsive and nimble. The disappointment we all felt when the BMW 2002 was replaced by the BMW 3 Series had to do with size and weight, and we preferred a nimble, lightweight car. And after more than two decades of cars being developed to break the 300 km/h barrier on the German autobahn (something increasingly impossible because of traffic volume, my German friends say), I'm tired of driving 4,000-pound sedans masquerading as coupes. Most of my disappointment in the BMW 1 Series has to do with its unwillingness to embrace a new personality as a light car rather than simply perpetuate the old 3 Series template.
For me, the Volkswagen GTI is the kind of M3 that I prefer, less like a V8-powered truck and more like the Whispering Bomb. It's a great car.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 4,040 miles