All told, the GTI is markedly improved where it matters most: out on the street, where its greatly improved engine is perfect for a sporty car confined to stop-and-go driving. While it's based as before on the Golf, the GTI is the first updated version to hit U.S. shores. Also hitting dealerships is the new-generation Golf (sold in Europe since 2003) — which is now called the Rabbit, a name last used in 1984.
Exterior & Styling
The GTI is incrementally larger and more rounded than its previous generation, but the overall look is very much the same. Despite the bolder black grille that plunges down into the bumper, and a spoiler around back, the GTI looks a little too cute in a class that includes a slick new Honda Civic Si and the upcoming Dodge Caliber SRT4.
The GTI also has special red brake calipers — or perhaps I should say the calipers are special because they're red? To elaborate, brake specialists such as Brembo have popularized colored calipers. The difference is that Brembo's — both the aftermarket add-ons and the original equipment that come with some new cars — start out looking smooth and presentable even before they're painted. It looks like VW dipped the textured factory calipers in paint and called it a day, which serves only to call attention to what are rather unappealing, not-ready-for-prime-time pieces. This is an unfortunate half-step of which other automakers are also guilty.
Ride & Handling
For a sporty compact, the previous-generation GTI was heavy, and tended to feel that way. The new GTI, at a curb weight of 3,308 pounds (manual), is 374 pounds heavier. It feels weightier than some competitors, but the increased engine output and revised independent suspension improve matters. The main change is in body roll. It was hard to ignore the older model's weight when it seemed to be shifting from side to side with every flick of the steering wheel. The new GTI has better body control and lessens the sensation that it is throwing its heft around.
Better weight distribution also helps: 59/41 percent (front/rear) with the manual gearbox and 60/40 percent for the automatic. This might not seem like much of a change from the previous generation's 60/40 and 62/38 percent, respectively, but the new model feels more balanced when pushed to its limits. Naturally, there's the understeer bias that's characteristic of front-drive cars, but it felt more surmountable in my test vehicles. Steering feedback was never VW's forté, but the GTI's is decent when the thick steering wheel is cocked in either direction.
My manual GTI was equipped with the optional Hufeisen 18-inch alloy wheels with Continental SportContact 2 tires rated P225/40YR18, which come only as summer performance tires. (Hufeisen might sound like a brand of stout, but it's actually German for horseshoe, the shape of the holes.) The standard 17-inch alloy wheels also come with summer tires, but all-season versions are available as a no-cost option. If you intend to drive the GTI in cold or snow, using summer tires would be asking for trouble.
On Road America's 4-mile racetrack, I found the manual GTI to be manageable but not quite as confidence-inspiring as the Civic Si. That said, this track is for true racecars. In normal driving, the GTI has fewer shortcomings than the Si, thanks to its new and improved drivetrain.
Going & Stopping
A turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder used broadly across the Audi and VW lines for years was an excellent engine. However, it had some of the pitfalls of small turbocharged engines — namely, turbo lag and a high-rpm torque peak. New to the fifth-generation GTI is VW's 2.0-liter FSI four-cylinder. FSI stands for Fuel Stratified Injection, which I'll get to in a bit, but it generally stands for more output than would result from the 0.2-liter displacement increase alone, as well as efficiency comparable to the earlier engine's and lower pollution levels.
|2.8-Liter Staggered Inline-6|
|Torque (lbs.-ft.)||173 @|
|EPA-Estimated Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)||24/31 (manual);|
|22/29 (manual only)||23/32 (manual);|
|EPA Air Pollution Score|
(0-10, 10 is best)
|Source: Manufacturer data|
It's a great, great engine, and a great driving experience. If you didn't know it was a turbo, you might not guess. The torque, as reflected in the table, is not only plentiful but available at low engine speeds. This is its main advantage over the Civic Si. When you tap the accelerator from a standing start, the GTI really moves out. It responds to slight changes in accelerator input. It scrambles its way out of a turn. This is why the GTI is so fun in regular driving. If a car is only sporty at high speeds, how sporty is it? If it's enjoyable only when pushed to its limits, how enjoyable is it?
As shown above, the 2005 GTI VR6 offered a 2.8-liter six-cylinder that didn't match the current engine's output and, even worse, resulted in an unwieldy 64/36 weight distribution. The main reason that the new, smaller four-cylinder kicks the six-cylinder's butt is direct injection. Rather than drawing a fuel-air mixture into the combustion chambers, the FSI engine's turbo forces air alone into the cylinders, and the fuel is sprayed directly into each cylinder. This helps to get precisely the right amount of fuel in there, which cuts down on pollution, but the main benefit is that it allows fuel to be injected during the piston's compression stroke, not simply before.
Shooting the fuel in later allows for a higher compression ratio because there's less opportunity for the fuel to combust prematurely and cause knocking. Higher compression ratios mean more fuel per cycle, which means a bigger bang, which means more power. Injecting into a compression stroke requires almost 1,600 psi of pressure. Common fuel injectors operate at around 45 psi.
As for the stratified bit, stratified-charge, or lean-burn, injection is where the ratio of fuel to air is perfect near the spark plug but lean for the cylinder as a whole. The direct injection facilitates this precise fuel targeting. The stratified mode is strictly for fuel savings under light to moderate loads. Here's the thing about FSI: It doesn't actually do this, at least not in the American versions.
Running lean increases emissions of NOx, oxides of nitrogen. A supplemental catalytic converter in the car can capture this pollutant during lean burn and then catalyze it into harmless nitrogen during regular engine operation. The problem is that sulfur levels in U.S. fuel interfere with the process, so FSI will be FI here until the fuel is cleaner. If the S were in the equation, the GTI would get even better gas mileage.
The six-speed manual has a solid gearshift lever, topped with a newly shaped knob that has a nice feel to it — for reasons that are not evident by looking at it. I don't claim mastery over the issue of gear ratios, but I never felt like the one I needed wasn't there when I needed it.
The optional transmission is a unique type of six-speed automatic, the Direct Shift Gearbox, which is also available in some Audis. What's special about DSG is its use of separate clutches for the odd and even gears, so it can upshift from one gear to another in fractions of a second. One input shaft with its own clutch meshes with the odd gears, and another shaft with its clutch drives the even gears. See the pop-up DSG diagram.
DSG's theoretical advantages include efficiency due to lighter weight and the lack of a torque converter, an inefficient fluidic component of automatic transmissions that allows slippage so the car can be stationary without killing the engine. The DSG is more like an automated manual transmission in that it uses computer-controlled clutches not unlike the kind you engage with a clutch pedal. The effect here is better than in Audi's CVTs, but the engagement is still a tad unpredictable upon initial launch. DSG has many auto reviewers raving. I acknowledge that its straight-line acceleration is impressive, and I'm plenty dorky enough to drool over the engineering and technology, but the system has a significant flaw: Its downshifts are as slow as its upshifts are fast. To keep clutch friction within reason, the trans uses rev matching to get the engine's speed close to that of the transmission. In effect, the computer blips the throttle as you might when downshifting a manual transmission. The problem is that it's slow — slower than many conventional automatics. Even when using the sequential-shifting paddles on the steering wheel, it's slower than what we term clutchless-manual mode in regular cars.
Say you're at highway speed and you downshift one gear. It takes a whole second. The lower gear gives you engine braking. Downshift again, and the whole drivetrain seems to let go. The engine braking ceases and you coast, as if you've stepped on the clutch pedal and are taking way too long letting it out again. The delays aren't as dramatic when slowing in the automatic Drive or Sport modes, but kickdown lag is pretty poor.
Sport enthusiasts might like the hard-charging acceleration, and any efficiency gains that come with the system are welcome, but in terms of the driving experience, I think the average driver would see DSG as a step backward.
Their appearance notwithstanding, the four-wheel disc brakes with ABS inspire as much confidence as I've come to expect from a German car. The standard electronic stability system provides traction control. If you prefer the surefootedness of all-wheel drive, you might want to wait for the Golf's R32 variant, scheduled to hit the U.S. in mid-2007.
Considering the previous generation's vaultlike solidity, the new one's 15 percent dynamic and 35 percent torsional rigidity increases only add to the feeling of quality. While the rest of the auto industry is just getting around to including ergonomic/safety features such as driver's seat height adjustment and tilt/telescoping steering wheels, Volkswagens have had them for years. The GTI also proves that sport bucket seats can have adjustable rather than fixed head restraints. Both front seats are comfortable and supportive and include lumbar adjustments.
With the exception of front-seat legroom, which came down 0.3 inch, the fifth generation GTI is larger inside, with 94.2 cubic feet of passenger volume, up from 88.0 cubic feet. All the backseat dimensions have increased 1 to 2 inches, and it makes a big difference. Between the added space and front seats that fold and lurch forward with little effort (both of them) to ease entry, the GTI has one of the most livable backseats of any compact sport coupe.
Volkswagen is the longtime standard bearer for interior quality — or "perceived quality," to use the industry term, which means it looks and feels great, but a trim piece might come off in your hand. The new generation doesn't improve too much on the old one, and the cloth seats aren't VW's best work, but I think the GTI is still ahead of the competition overall. Check the photos for more interior details.
While the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the current Golf as Good in a frontal crash test, the organization hasn't tested the new GTI and Rabbit. In the government's frontal crash test — the only one of some value (see Crash Tests: What You Need to Know) — the Rabbit scores four out of five stars.
In terms of safety features, the car is jam-packed, with side-impact and curtain airbags and active head restraints for the front-seats. As mentioned, antilock brakes and stability control are standard. If you intend to drive in snow, you must get winter or at least all-season tires. The standard rubber is a summer tire — disastrous in snow.
Cargo & Towing
The increased backseat dimensions have knocked the cargo volume behind them to 15.1 cubic feet from the previous generation's 18.0 cubic feet. It's a tradeoff worth making, especially because you get all the space back when you fold the 60/40-split rear seats down. The GTI is not rated for trailer towing.
Overall, the German brands' GPS-based navigation systems are less useful than others, with more cumbersome controls and typically less street labeling on the maps. The GTI's shows some progress, but it still uses keys alongside the display rather than a touch-screen. At least the six-CD changer has found its way out of the trunk and into the in-dash stereo, except for when the standard unit is displaced by the navigation option, in which case a separate changer sits under the center armrest. That's not great placement, but at least it's inside.
GTI in the Market
Despite its cutesy looks, the GTI is probably my favorite sport compact for real driving, thanks to the engine advancements. The car has gained popularity among hobbyists once devoted to the Honda Civic. In my opinion, the Civic has lost ground among tuners not simply because it went bland-looking for a generation but because it's not turbocharged. It's relatively inexpensive for a GTI owner to get more power out of the car by adding an aftermarket engine-control module. Turbos also allow for a cool-sounding blow-off valve. (Both violate the warranty, mind you.)
There's only so much you can do to boost output in a normally aspirated engine like the Civic's, unless you have a lot of cash to burn. The type of buyer who's drawn to a sport compact is more likely than most to want to customize it — beyond the basic wheel and exhaust upgrades. Here, turbos offer a lot of flexibility, and the new GTI gives you plenty to work with.
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