Alistair Weaver, VP of Editorial and Editor-in-Chief
It's the civility you notice first. There is no drama here — no compromises that have to be made in order to enjoy the turbocharged performance. In fact, when VW first developed the 2010 Volkswagen GTI, it proved to be so quiet that the engineers had to develop an electronic "sound generator" to deliver the proper aural stimulation to the driver.
When the 2010 VW GTI debuts alongside the standard 2010 Volkswagen Golf (née Rabbit, as VW has decided to return to this car's traditional model name even for the U.S. market), it will be presented as a sophisticated German alternative to the Honda Civic Si and Mazda 3.
It will debut at the 2009 New York Auto Show and finally reach showrooms in October. The price of the two-door hatchback will start from around $24,000, while the four-door version will cost about $500 more.
The GTI Look
Volkswagen doesn't do revolution. If you're familiar with the six generations of the GTI (introduced in Europe as the GTi in 1976 and then in the U.S. as the GTI in 1983), you'll instantly recognize the latest incarnation. There are no surprises here, just a convincing overhaul of the latest Golf Mk 6 platform with the front valence, rocker sills and rear fenders made more pronounced to visually lower the car's appearance.
The red pinstripe in the front grille is a GTI signature, as are the twin exhaust tips, and now there's an exaggerated body molding at the back that VW is calling an aero diffuser. Cast-aluminum wheels were new in 1983, and these 18-inch examples recall the original design (it's kind of like looking at a telephone from the 1980s, isn't it?). They're a novelty item, and distinguish the GTI from its Golf sibling just as they did in the 1980s.
Based on the Mk 6 version of the Golf, the new 2010 Volkswagen GTI looks more athletic and engaging than the former Mk 5 version. It doesn't have the extroverted aero detailing of the Mazdaspeed 3 — it's too sophisticated for that — but it does have an undoubted presence. It also has an Everyman appeal that its rivals lack, as if it would have credibility at the test track even as it serves as a ride to town for drinks at someplace exclusive.
The interior offers more of the same. The design of the fascia is conservative — perhaps too conservative — but it's difficult to criticize the quality. This German hot rod might cost more than its Japanese rivals, but inside it's easy to see why. The GTI feels like a luxury good, not trashy, disposable fashion.
Indeed, this European obsession with quality has created something of a dilemma for Volkswagen of America. In the United Kingdom, the Golf GTI (as it's known) will sell for the equivalent of $32,000, a price that would be untenable on this side of the pond. To reduce the cost for the U.S., some of the Euro-style trinkets have been removed. The climate control has been replaced with simple air-conditioning and the multifunction steering wheel has been ditched in favor of something more modest. But we do get cupholders.
As a result, the VW GTI that comes to the U.S. will look a little different from what you see here, but the main touch points will remain, such as the brilliant sport seats. So will the practicality, as there's room for five inside and a capacious trunk besides.
Power by EA888
There will be one other key change to enable the 2010 Volkswagen GTI to compete against the price tags of its more affordable competition. In Europe, the GTI will offer a 207-horsepower version of the latest turbocharged 2.0-liter VW inline-4, some 10 hp more than its sister car, the Scirocco coupe. (Even VW admits this is no more than a marketing gimmick to differentiate the two cars.) But since the Scirocco won't be sold in the U.S. because of its rarefied price tag, the U.S.-spec GTI will use the 197-hp lump from the coupe, which is marginally cheaper to produce.
This subtlety will no doubt ignite some controversy on the VW forums, but it won't make much difference in practice. The engine should not be confused with that found in the Mk 5 GTI, as the new EA888 inline-4 has comprehensively revised internals even though it still displaces 1,984cc and carries direct injection. The new engine's core attribute is a ready and willing supply of torque either way, as has always been the case with the turbo 2.0-liter. As a result, this is not a car that you flog down the highway. At the top of the rev range, the power goes a little flat, so it's better to make your gearchange at a slightly lower rpm and ride the crest of the torque curve, which peaks at 206 pound-feet and remains flat from 1,700 rpm to 5,200 rpm.
On both continents, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI will be offered with either a six-speed manual or VW's dual-clutch DSG automated manual transmission (VW expects sales to split 50/50 in the U.S.). Normally, we'd expect the DSG-equipped car to be marginally more efficient than the manual, both in terms of fuel consumption and acceleration. But in the Euro-spec GTI this is not the case. The DSG-equipped car gets to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 6.9 seconds, no quicker than the car with the six-speed manual transmission, and it uses fractionally more fuel on the European driving cycle besides. Even more significant, the DSG car's powertrain feels less responsive, with a more muted throttle response. According to VW's engineers, this has much to do with the need to tune the setup to meet European air-emissions regulations, so perhaps things will be different for the U.S. model.
At the same time, we hope the U.S.-spec engine will sound as good as the Euro one. The test cars we drove had been fitted with a mechanically operated device that permits more sound under hard acceleration. Production cars, however, will have an electronically operated device that selects and amplifies the optimum sound frequencies to create a melodious exhaust note. According to VW's Rolf Trump, one of the project leaders, it's now possible to make a four-cylinder GTI sound like a Chevy V8. Purists might hate it, but the effects should be impressive. Even with the mechanical system, the GTI emits a baritone howl that perfectly complements its sophisticated character. Trump assures us that the electronic version will sound almost identical.
One More Thing We Won't Get
Here's another caveat: All the test cars we drove had Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC). Fitted as standard to the Scirocco and as a $1,000 option on the GTI in Europe, it provides electronic, continuously variable damping. The driver can also manually select Comfort, Standard and Sport settings. It's one of the best systems of its type that we've tried, but for cost reasons it won't be coming to the U.S. Instead, our car will have dampers calibrated like the Euro system's Standard mode, although it's hard to say what the final result will be.
What we can tell you, though, is that the GTI in its Mk 6 guise builds on the success of its accomplished predecessor. At 2,906 pounds, this is not a lightweight car, and there are times you feel its mass, but you also discover a fluency and composure in the way it handles that borders on superb. Torque steer is notable only by its absence (on dry roads, at least) and if the stability control does intervene, it's in a progressive manner that's more of an aid than a hindrance. You can carry big speed into corners with this car, helped by well-weighted, progressive and linear steering. The brakes, criticized on the Mk 5, are now up to the task as well, although we've yet to subject them to the rigors of a test track.
Ausgeseichnet? Fahrvergnügen? Pimp My Ride?
In many ways, this car is more of a GT than a GTI. The 2010 Volkswagen GTI is not as rapacious or responsive as, say, a Mitsubishi Evo, yet it can handle big miles at big speed and do it in exceptionally quiet comfort. The overall refinement — a key focus point of the new Golf Mk 6's engineering development — is peerless.
It would be wrong to think of the new GTI as a cut-price alternative to an Evo or Impreza STI. It's just not that kind of car. The 2010 Volkswagen GTI won't be cheap, but it's a very civilized and very capable sport compact that will be both easy and rewarding to live with. It's happy to play when you're in the mood, but it won't irritate when you're not. Sometimes it's pleasant to be civilized.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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