For a pocket rocket, it's all about the engine.
Which is why gearheads everywhere salute the arrival of this engine in the Volkswagen Golf GTI: a 2.0-litre inline-four-cylinder with turbocharging and direct fuel injection. This powerplant was developed by Audi, VW's luxury brand, and it's a gem.
Forget about the raw output, too. It remains at 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque - the same as the four-banger in the fifth-generation GTI. The similarities end there. The new engine's broader torque plateau changes everything about the sixth-generation GTI compared to the vehicle it replaces.
Play hard with this engine and you'll see the torque characteristics deliver the kind of entertainment we all want in a pocket rocket. The new GTI is thrilling. Start driving like a gorilla and wow - things happen. Engine responses are strong and quick and smooth and simply great.
Speaking of great, so is the automated manual DSG transmission, a $1,400 option and worth having. Some purists say they'll pick the manual every time, and this GTI is sold with a very good six-speed gearbox. Me? I think the DSG is excellent for anyone who wants a 24/7 sporty hatchback like the GTI.
For the record, however, the six-speed has short throws, precise action and intuitive clutch uptake. Good luck trying to induce shift-shock by short-shifting or dumping the clutch too quickly in any gear. VW's engineers have beautifully isolated any negatives. Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in about seven seconds.
You'll get about the same raw performance from a Mini Cooper Clubman S and something a little faster from the torque-steering, 263-hp Mazdaspeed3. Neither rival feels quite as complete, as thoroughly well-considered as the GTI, though. And as much as I love the pluckiness of the Mazda, when pushed really hard the car leaps ahead like a race horse out of the gate. The problem is, the Mazda tries to twist the steering wheel out of your hands, pointing the car toward the curb.
The GTI does not suffer that fate. But, then, VW has been at this for a while. The Golf GTI first came down the road in 1976 and it was a 160 km/h car, though we didn't see this one until the 1980s.
Through the 1980s, into the 1900s, and the 2000s, VW pushed and refined the GTI. And today's GTI is certainly the best hot hatch VW has done short of the R32. Experience matters, without question.
Yes, the GTI is a fun little bad boy, though I would like to be able to disable the idiot light for stability control engagement. It flashes incessantly and is unnecessary. That said, I have to say the Mazdaspeed3 is a little tauter on the track, with a tad more control at the limit. It's just hard to live everyday with the 'Speed3.
Not so the GTI. Shockingly, the suspension tuning is comfortable and adept not just on a track, but on almost any road surface. You can drive this car every day, in other words. For the record, the brakes are brilliant.
The cabin isn't too bad, either. Volkswagen has been learning about interior design from Audi, which of course makes perfect sense given both are part of the colossal VW Group. The GTI's dash and door skins are attractive, while the plaid upholstery of the seats is a cool nod to Golf GTI heritage. The leather-trimmed flat-bottom steering wheel fits your hands nicely. The steering itself transmits just enough road info, as well.
Then we have the controls for the audio system. Nicely done. If you opt for the $1,990 hard-drive-based navigation system and music server, you get some kind of sound system and the touch-screen/hard-button audio unit takes very little time to learn.
Ample luggage space at the very rear doesn't come at the expense of rear-seat room and who can argue with that? However, the 60/40-split fold rears should stow completely flat and they don't. Seat comfort is outstanding and fit and finish are first rate.
Another rational consideration is safety; the GTI is a Top Safety Pick from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That's because it does well in crash tests, rollover assessments and whiplash protection.
As for the dollars and cents of this tale, at $29,675 the GTI is not at all overpriced. A Mini Cooper Clubman S starts at $32,450, the 'Speed3 stickers at $29,695 and the Subaru WRX STi comes in at $37,995.
Sure, it's all about the engine, but that sub-$30,000 price tag should not be overlooked, either.
2011 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Type: Compact five-door hatchback
Price: $29,675 ($1,365 freight)
Gas engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.0 city/6.6 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mazdaspeed3, Mini Clubman S, Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart