VW's Hatchback With Hustle
The Good: Great looks, lots of high-class detailing, smoothest turbo this side of the Autobahn
The Bad: None, seriously
The Bottom Line: The original hot hatch is back
At the opening of this year, Volkswagen of America's corporate torpor seemed unshakable. On top of mounting financial problems and boardroom theatrics, conservative new redesigns of the Passat and Jetta had elicited shrugs of indifference from both consumers and industry observers.
But in January the company proved it could still bust a move when it unleashed its turbo-charged, 200-horsepower, two-door GTI. Eleven months later, with an impressive 13,004 GTIs sold and heaps of "best of" type awards from the likes of Car and Driver and Popular Mechanics under its belt, VW is making the GTI even better.
The 2007 GTI, which starts at $22,100, is now available with two more doors. The availability of a four-door model may not seem like a big deal, but that simple option transforms the GTI from a fast-hatch you might want to date for thrills into an all-purpose pocket rocket you could actually settle down with.
That's partly because, at just $500 the four-door option seems like a no-brainer. After all, it costs $2,000 to add another two gates to the less rowdy VW Rabbit (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/23/06, "VW's Rabbit Redux"). Better yet, the four-door is a mere 62 pounds heavier than its two-door sibling, so the driving experience for the two should be nearly identical. In other words, the GTI finally merges its up-market drivability with the Rabbit's practicality.
Volkswagen lent me a modestly equipped, but eminently fun, 2007 GTI with, you guessed it, four doors. On top of the $22,600 base price, the company threw in a $1,370 package that included power sunroof and satellite radio as well as $350 rear side-impact airbags. With the $630 destination charge, it added up to $24,950.
Behind the Wheel
The GTI is a hoot to toss around, reminiscent of the fun, uncomplicated cars that made VW's reputation 30 years ago. The 200-horsepower, turbo-charged inline-4 isn't the bawdiest on the block—the Subaru Impreza (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/30/05, "Impreza: Zip on the Cheap") and the steroidal Mazdaspeed 3 both pack more punch. But, the GTI adds up to more than the sum of its parts, especially with spot-on electric power-steering that feels as if it were lifted from a BMW.
The GTI's 207 lb.-ft. of torque figure isn't enough, in and of itself, to wow. But the grip is available all across the power band, from 2,500 rpm to 6,900 rpm, and the engine loves to howl. The turbo, meanwhile, is so smooth you'd think you were driving a car costing twice as much. Volkswagen famously introduced the GTI with an accompanying mascot the "fast," a representation of that "thing" within us all that enjoys driving, well, fast. That raises the question, then, how fast exactly is the GTI?
While the official 0 to 60 mph time of seven seconds certainly doesn't make it the fastest on the road, the little hatch scores points in my book for getting there with style. The manual transmission is crisp and a thrill to knock around, especially with the delightful whine of the turbo underscoring gear changes.
From afar, the GTI resembles the new Rabbit. The new design has somewhat polarized VW diehards, but I rather like it. The GTI, of course, comes with more aggressive wheels and a sly, smiling red line near the front grill. The subtle changes attracted heaps of envious stares and a few eager questions from passersby—not bad at all for an off-the-lot ride that costs less than $25,000.
Inside, the GTI is comfortable and more than well put together, especially for the price range. It seems as if many of the switches and controls throughout the cabin were directly inherited from sister-brand Audi's vehicles. However, this interior isn't the class-blowing experience of some VWs past. There are some lower-quality cabin materials, but you have to seek them out. It isn't, as I had secretly hoped, a viable alternative to Audi's amazing A3 (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/13/06, "Rowdy Audi").
The dials on the dash glow red to the stereo's blue and every part of the dash oozes quality. Included with the optional equipment in my GTI was a handy LCD between the tachometer and speedometer that displays useful information, from tire pressure to open-door warnings. The GTI's cabin is a pleasant place to be. The Interlagos plaid cloth seats are supportive and manage to pull off plebeian-chic rather well. The back has enough room, and, yes, on a run to Ikea the folding rear seats underlined the cavernous virtuosity of hatchbacks everywhere, the GTI included.
The GTI also scores points for decent fuel economy. The sticker reads between 23 and 32 mpg, an unlikely range for a car like this one that begs to be driven in a way that would make engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blush. But, in my road tests of mostly thrashing highway and city driving, I managed to average above 23 mpg.
Buy It or Bag It?
The GTI has a lot of competition. Honda (HMC), Subaru, Mitsubishi, Toyota's (TM) Scion, and Mazda all have sport-oriented models in the same price range. Many of them are more powerful than the GTI. Many, in various in-depth comparison tests, have managed to edge in front of it.
But at the $20,000 to $25,000 mark, I'm not sure the decision is purely a performance one. The GTI offers an excellent balance of quality, versatility, and—most importantly for the segment—a pricelessly fun driving experience. Sure, the competition may be tougher, but the original hot hatch idol is back—and it's a VW.
Click here to see more of the 2007 VW GTI.