The last VW I drove was the Polo and you can read the review here. It is small, underpowered, but still a blast to thrash around. The VW Polo is the proper car for Greek roads where city streets are cramped and congested, and the highways are typically deserted. A 60 hp 3-cylinder engine is appropriate as acceleration is not required. Going fast is wasteful as the price of gas is outrageous and the economy is in the dumps. Why get somewhere on time? The VW Polo has the same Greek attitude. Take your time, relax, and maybe go to the beach. The VW GTI is quite the opposite. The GTI is the Polo that studied abroad in the States, got itself a white collar job, and have been flipping tire trucks for a workout.
Power & Handling
At 210 horsepower (220 if equipped with Performance Package), 258 lb-ft of torque, and a curb weight under 3300 lbs, the GTI is a lean machine that can easily handle american roads. Short highway merges and quick lane changes are simple tasks as long as you’re in the boost range. The torque curve feels fairly flat as the butt dyno suggests a healthy amount of pull between the normal operating engine speeds (2500-4500 RPM). The thought of all that power going to the front wheels prepared me for a dance with the steering wheel, but torque steer never presented itself as the electric steering seemed to have numbed it. Unfortunately, the Front Wheel Drive configuration still makes understeer an issue under hard corner acceleration. However, there are simple tweaks that you can make (e.g. upgraded front and rear sway bars) that can minimize this FWD curse.
The optional 6-speed dual clutch transmission is a wizard. The labor of love that is manual shifting have been replaced by a heartless electro-hydraulically assisted shifter that switches between two distinct transmissions, one for the odd gears and another for the even gears. The result is a pro-driver quality shifting with minimal loss in torque between gear changes. Mash the pedal under any of the available driving modes and you can hear the transmission play you a beautiful melody with the 2.0 liter turbo. Try that with the 6-speed manual transmission and you’ll hear a staccato laden scream supplemented by the percussion section that is your passengers heads bouncing off the headrest.
This clever transmission mated to the small but very powerful engine is a wonderful union that would make even the most love-filled marriages envious. The combination works well, making the whole package greater than the sum of its parts. The vehicle becomes more agile compared to its manual brethren. Less time and effort is required to prepare for quick overtakes. Heavy braking in preparation for a low-speed turn, which would require heel-and-toe operation, is an effortless press of the shift paddle.
Another benefit of the DSG (Dual Clutch Transmission) is the availability of multiple driving modes. This GTI comes equipped with Normal, Sport, and Individual. Each driving profile changes the steering damping and shift schedules, while the Individual mode lets you customize a combination between the two steering styles and two shift profiles.
The steering damping profiles are purely a matter of preference as there is little to differentiate between the Normal and Sport options. The latter being only a touch heavier, as if a tiny hamster was hanging on to the wheel opposing your steering actions. However, the Sport steering mode is preferred when you’re in a spirited mood because higher damping in the steering will give you more stability at higher speeds. Still you shouldn’t expect a BMW-like steering feel, which feels like an upper-body workout compared to the GTI.
The shift profiles between the Normal and Sport modes are worlds apart. Normal mode is perfectly suited for everyday, economic driving. The DSG eagerly shifts with expedience but does so very early in the rev range. A typical lazy morning acceleration from a dead stop, with coffee in hand, you’ll often find numerous gear changes before hitting 40 mph. It’s pretty easy to achieve advertised mileage figures while in this mode. Under mixed city and highway driving conditions and with various modes toggled on and off I was achieving a decent average of 31.3 MPG.
Switch on the Sport mode and the GTI becomes a howling beast. The howling is pretty apparent thanks to the Soundaktor, a speaker mounted in the engine bay that plays back a recorded audio file as you press on the accelerator. It’s quite cheesy but this practice is fairly commonplace. Sound fakery aside, the shift profile of the Sport mode puts the GTI in an anticipatory mode, much like an athlete standing on the balls of their feet, ready to react. The engine speeds are always pegged in the boost range where any pedal mashing would negate boost lag. Go under hard acceleration and the needle will happily slingshot near the redline prior to changing gears.
The two modes are very distinct and as a result the Sport mode is more of a setting you use for special occasions, rather than at all times. The artificial boomy sound and higher pitched engine noise can become tiresome when you’re simply just cruising. You wouldn’t really use this mode when you’re in bumper to bumper traffic either, unless you have a penchant for cutting people off. Additionally, you’ll notice a significant hit on your mileage as the engine is constantly singing at a higher octave. Though when the road opens up and the hills and twists present themselves you’ll be glad the Sport option is there.
My personal favorite setting is the ‘Individual’, where I could set the steering to Sport and the engine to Normal. This is the most livable setting as work commutes generally are filled with the dull and dreary. However, when the situation arises, you can always click the paddles and shift as you please. While utilizing the paddles it in turn notifies the DSG that you are shifting at your own leisure, and after a few seconds of no input the transmission resumes the selected shift schedule.
Things become very strange when it comes to slowing down and coming to a complete stop. Braking under an automatic (torque converter) transmission is normally smooth as the hydraulic pressure acting on the impellers is overcome by the increasing braking force from the calipers. The engine can happily spin at a much lower speed while at a stand still. Alternatively, braking under a manual transmission is also smooth as long as the clutch has been depressed and or the transmission is in neutral.
Braking under a dual clutch transmission shows the disconnect between human expectation and software coding. When we are coming to a complete stop the dual clutch transmission is unaware of what our intentions are as it tries to keep one of the gears engaged at all times. Therefore coming from a relatively high speed and to a complete stop, the transmission will try to downshift through every gear, with the expectation that the driver will want to accelerate again. During deceleration this results in very slight shift shock nudges that create a non-linear braking feel. This is easily defeat-able by taking the transmission into neutral as you slow down, but who has time for that?
The interior parts that touch the human hands and feet have been given premium materials and attention. The steering wheel is such a delight to use. The leather and red stitched flat-bottomed wheel adds to the sporty feel of the car. The shifter buttons that flank the steering wheel are tastefully hidden and provide a good firm feedback when pressed. The shift knob has some leather surfaces in the right places to prevent scalding of the palm for those extremely hot days. The elegant look is further matched by the nice thick leathery feel of the shift boot. Finally, the pedals have been accentuated with aluminum finish and gives off a sporty high-end look.
The rest of the interior is straight out of VW’s playbook, nothing to write home about. The flannel cloth seats are quirky but functional, it is the most noticeable part of the interior as it covers a fairly large surface area. It’s a nice design statement for now but may become tacky as it ages. The surfaces of the dash and the doors near the belt-line is made of soft-touch materials that feels a bit like an old cheap basketball, and is accented with plastic trim pieces that has an expanded metal grating look. There’s also a red stripe accent lighting on the door! All of these schizophrenic design themes clash with the aforementioned leather surfaces, and overall feels like it’s haphazardly put together. If you can look past these little design details, you’ll find that it’s still very livable, comfortable, and still far better looking than the competition.
The infotainment system is still something no car company gets right. If it is not Android Auto or Apple Car Play it is going to suck. Let’s face it, the technology we have in our hands have come so far within the past decade. We have been trained to interface with glass capacitive touch screens that anything less than an Android, iOS, or Windows interface is going to be cumbersome to use. The infotainment system found in the GTI is still the ancient way of doing business. The low resolution, clunky resistive touchscreen, and slow processing power, is completely fine by 2010’s standards but painful to use and look at today. Android Auto and Apple Car Play is still very new, and if you don’t have those options available then you might as well skip the $2,000 navigation package and relegate those duties to your already superior smartphones.
Finally, as far as cargo volume and utility’s concern, it’s a hatch… It’s awesome, let’s just leave it at that. Fold the rear seats down and who needs an SUV?
The VW GTI is made for a very specific type of person: the gearhead that doesn’t want to own a Subaru WRX. This person cares a bit more about style and comfort and is willing to exchange that for slightly less performance. At a similar price point of the WRX you get a much more polished and well rounded car. The driving modes address all of your driving needs and will convert the GTI from a numb daily driver to a very athletic track day companion. The optional DSG is brilliant despite the brake stutter and you’ll shift and react faster in everyday situations. If you have the means to get this upgrade, by all means GET IT as it offers a completely different experience. If the dual clutch transmission is the resurrected phoenix then the manual transmission deserves a very fiery death. Combine this with a delightful engine and you get an enjoyable experience as a commuter or an enthusiast.