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Volkswagen’s GTI Is Porsche Fan’s Starter Car: Jason H. Harper

2010 Volkswagen GTI
The 2010 Volkswagen GTI rounds a hairpin turn. VW has been building GTI's since the early 1980s and the sixth-generation model won Automobile magazine's car of the year award. Photographer: Jim Smithson/Volkswagen via Bloomberg

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- What’s so special about the Volkswagen GTI? A gussied-up Golf with a special grill on its pug nose, this squat squirt certainly is no Maserati.

Yet among certain car cognoscenti, the spirited, sprightly hatchback is a hallowed thing. The sixth-generation GTI recently won Automobile magazine’s Car of the Year.

The bare facts: It starts under $25,000 and has a scrappy 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. That’s much peppier than the Golf, but is pretty pale in this era of 500-plus-horsepower powerplants.

So what gives?

“The GTI has a direct bloodline to Audis and Porsches,” says Brian Scotto, editorial director of 0-60 magazine and a GTI devotee. “It’s an aspirational vehicle. The guy who wants to grow up and drive a Porsche will probably drive a VW first. It’s the least expensive German sports car you can buy.”

First released in the U.S. in the early 1980s, today the GTI is based on the $18,000 Golf (some versions of which were named the Rabbit in the U.S.), and is available with two or four doors, plus the rear hatch opening. The four-door model only costs an additional $600, though the two-door version looks cleaner.

My test car was a two-door model with an optional sunroof, Xenon headlights and a $27,255 sticker.

While the GTI may have created the segment of economical rockets, the front-wheel-drive hatch has stiff competition from the likes of the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evolution. A similarly equipped WRX Premium has all-wheel-drive and more power (265 hp), yet costs only about $1,000 more.

Frozen Roads

With temperatures hovering around freezing and forest roads flecked with snow, my buddy Josh and I stepped into a steel-gray GTI to find out just what was what. Not having grown up slavering over the car, my vision was maybe a bit clearer than that of some colleagues.

Josh settled into the passenger seat as we set out onto a network of secondary roads. “Nice sport seats,” he commented. They were. My frame was slightly big for them, but they were clingy -- just right for keeping you in place during hard cornering. I was somewhat less sure of their plaid pattern.

I did like the eye-catching cross-stitching which ran along the inside of the perfectly sized steering wheel and down the leather covering of the six-speed stick shift.

Yes, it had a manual transmission, a feature disappearing on cars more quickly than bluefin tuna from the oceans. From Ferraris to Fords, everything I drive these days seems to be equipped with some type of automated transmission.

Smooth Shift

Yet while a six-speed automated double-clutch is available, the manual seemed perfect for the small 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Gear shifts were smooth and, most importantly, fun.

In fact as I swept through a series of off-camber S-turns, I was enjoying myself a lot.

“For a change, it feels really smooth,” said Josh, giving no clue as to whether he was commenting on the suspension or my normal driving style.

The suspension wasn’t spine-jarringly stiff like many small sports cars such as the Mini Cooper S with the John Cooper Works package. Yet the nose easily tucked into turns upon request, like a happy-to-please puppy.

“Smooth is fast,” goes a common racing mantra, and my speeds began to pick up. A series of short undulating hills, a carnival ride, big smiles.

Holding Corners

The biggest problem with front-wheel-drive sports cars is understeer. That is the tendency for the front wheels to lose traction in curves and bends, forcing the car to plow forward rather than turning. The effect is especially pronounced in turns with tight radiuses or when you enter a turn carrying too much speed.

To help counteract the problem, the GTI lightly brakes the inside wheels in a turn, effectively coaxing it to turn in, and reducing understeer.

I might not have been consciously aware of this electronic intervention, but as I dove into sharp twists fast and late, I certainly noticed that the GTI behaved better than most front-wheel drives.

Brakes were sturdy, but I rarely needed them. Power on, shift up; take foot of gas, shift down, turn; power back on. This is uncomplicated motoring fun. The fact is that you can’t use all the horsepower in a Corvette or Viper on tight roads anyhow. While I would have been cursing the GTI on the autobahn, on rising and winding lanes its 200 horsepower is plenty.

Bluetooth Connection

The rear hatch lends the GTI some practicality, the interior has Bluetooth connectivity, power locks and windows and a nice stereo, and it has a full complement of safety features from side airbags to electronic stability controls.

And yet there’s still something about the GTI which is not quite grown up. With its wedge shape, red-striped front grill and rear spoiler, it retains more than a hint of its boy-racer roots.

Whether you regard that as its greatest asset or liability depends on age -- both actual and mental. For me, I might not be a devotee, but I finally understood the appeal.

The 2010 Volkswagen GTI at a Glance

Engine: 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder with 200 horsepower and 207 pound feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automated double clutch.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 21 city; 31 highway.

Price as tested: $27,255.

Best feature: Supple yet sporty suspension.

Worst feature: It looks like a boy’s toy.

Target buyer: The enthusiast looking for an entry-level German sports car.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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