The first time I drove the current generation of Volkswagen GTI was at the launch of the 2007 model, in Southern California. Loved it. Couldn’t wait to spend more time with it, and, if possible, get it on a track.
A couple of years later, I got my wish, during the launch of the 2010 model at the Mont Tremblant racetrack in Quebec. Halfway through my first lap, however, the engine started making funny noises and blew up in spectacular fashion. VW officials later described this as a catastrophic engine failure (duh!) and the blown engine was sent back to Germany for analysis – I never did find out what really happened to it.
I still liked the GTI, although having the engine let go during a track session was hardly a ringing endorsement. I wasn’t alone in appreciating the car: it was voted 2010 Canadian Car of The Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.
So here we are about a year after that and Volkswagen has a “five-door” version of the GTI on market. Essentially unchanged from 2010 to 2011, this model actually debuted in the fall of 2006, but the GTI remains a hatchback-only model.
And I must digress here. Why do some car makers describe their four-door hatchbacks as “five-doors?” Do people enter and exit the vehicle through the rear hatchback? This is a hatchback configuration with four doors. Period. Enough with the “five-door hatchback” double-talk.
Anyway, power for this GTI is ably provided by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that develops 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are either a six-speed manual or, as was the case with my tester, a six-speed automatic with a DSG/Tiptronic manual shift mode that has steering wheel-mounted paddles. This latter gearbox adds some $1,400 to the price tag.
All things considered, and given the market the GTI is competing in, I say ixnay on the automatic and thumbs-up for the manual transmission. As well as being more expensive, the automatic robs this engine of power and the sporty side of the driving equation suffers as a result. With the manual, the GTI is a nimble, quick, fun-to-drive runabout; with the automatic, it’s just another hatchback, albeit a reasonably lively one. I especially noticed the difference during take-offs and more than once wondered: “Where have the 200 horsepower gone?”
That said, the GTI still has exceptional handling and braking, thanks in large measure to a stiffened and upgraded suspension setup and oversized disc brake front and back.
Among other things, it has anti-roll bars on both ends, which really add to its tossability factor, a traction control system, anti-locking brakes and a stability control system. Few of its competitors can keep up when things get interesting and the GTi will remain flat and stable through most high-speed turns – more than enough for most drivers.
Volkswagen has an excellent motorsport heritage, and over the years, the GTI has been a staple with boy and girl racers across Canada. Even now, older models are campaigned enthusiastically by privateers at various track and rally events. For example, ice racers love ’em.
For its just less-than-$30,000 base price, the four-door GTI comes with a full roster of modcons and standard equipment. Things like heated front seats, one-touch-up/down front windows, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, Sirius satellite radio, fog lights and dual-zone climate control all come standard.
The four-door GTi will seat five adults, but the guys in the back will be up close and personal, with little in the way of elbow room.
A 60/40-folding back seat reveals 413 litres of cargo space, which isn’t huge, but enough to handle modest amounts of cargo, and, anyway, who’s buying this car for its carrying capacity?
My tester also featured the leather package ($2,600), a technology package ($1,990) and power sunroof ($1,400), none of which pushed my buttons. By the time the dust settles, and with taxes and extras, you can find yourself perilously close to 40 large for this car, which kind of takes the fun out of it.
A word about the leather option; normally, I’m a fan of natural seating surfaces, but the GTI comes standard with Jackie Stewart-inspired “Jacky” cloth insert bucket seats, and they’re kind of cool. Were I in the market for this car, I’d give the leather package a miss.
Speaking of fun, the exhaust note of the GTI is priceless – regardless of transmission choice. Every time you shift, the wastegate on the turbocharger closes briefly and it sounds like a muffled Formula One racer – music to the ears of any self-respecting gearhead.
But don’t look for fuel economy; around town especially, this little spud sucks down the premium: 8.7 litres/100 km for the automatic and 10.0 litres/100 km for the manual. And that’s if you drive conservatively, which defeats the purpose.
2011 Volkswagen Golf GTI four-door
Type: Five-passenger sport hatchback
Base Price: $31,275; as tested: $37,705
Engine: 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 200 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/6.3 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Acura RSX, Audi A3, Mini John Cooper Special, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Scion xD, Subaru WRX STi