Selecting the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI really makes sense for performance lovers on a budget.
It's a car that can compete head to head with BMW 2- and 3-series models as well as similar import-based brands, but the VW takes a lot less cash to acquire while providing greater practicality.
Originally launched for the 1983 model year, the GTI brand quickly became famous as a secret weapon among small-car fanatics for its lively, fun-loving demeanor that could embarrass drivers of luxury-oriented imports, both in straight-line acceleration and on twisty back-roads. Since then, the GTI has been increasingly refined - not to everyone's liking, mind you - and its power increased.
Today, the built-in-Mexico GTI has grown up in size (it uses the same platform as body as the basic Golf) and style. The car is a couple of inches longer than its predecessor and has more distance between the front and rear wheels. It's also slightly wider and lower.
Along with a more steeply raked windshield and what VW calls a "cab backward" seating position, the GTI is a much-different-looking hatchback but one that still manages to retain its traditional design cues. The GTI's larger shape gives passengers slightly more room and up to 15 percent more space for their gear, with the rear seat folded flat.
Despite the larger size, overall weight has been cut by 82 pounds, mostly due to a lighter (by 72 pounds) engine.
In standard trim, both front and rear seats are also covered in traditional plaid material, with leather seat covers being optional. The soft-touch dashboard and control panel also have an upscale-ness commonly reserved for more expensive Germany-based brands. A 5.8-inch touch-screen infotainment system responds to swiping and pinch zooming, just like most smart phones. A flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, aluminum-look pedals and red ambient lighting set the GTI apart from regular Golfs.
An all-new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That's up by a modest 10 horsepower from the 2014 model, but torque has been increased by a significant 51 pound-feet. With the optional performance package that includes limited-slip differential and bigger brakes, horsepower is bumped to 220, with no change in torque.
Power is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission, or six-speed automated manual Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) with paddle shifters.
The GTI comes with Normal, Sport available Comfort settings for the suspension, but the transmission also shifts more aggressively in Sport mode in models equipped with the DSG.
In spite of the added power, fuel economy has improved to an estimated 25 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway with the six-speed manual transmission. DSG models are rated at 25/33. The 2014 GTI was rated at 21/31 with the manual transmission, while DSG models were rated at 24/32.
In base S trim, the GTI comes with a wealth of features including the usual air/cruise/tilt/power accessories, plus heated front seats and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Moving up to the SE adds a power sunroof, leather seats, keyless entry with push-button start, rearview camera, rain-sensing wipers and a Fender-brand premium audio package.
The top-trim GTI Autobahn further notches up the content level with climate control, navigation system and a 12-way power driver's seat.
In addition to the previously mentioned Performance Package, GTI buyers can opt for forward collision warning and high-intensity bi-xenon headlights that pivot in the direction the car is turning.
At a base price of $25,200, including destination charges, (add $600 for four-door versions), the Volkswagen GTI ups the ante only moderately over the basic $20,000 Golf, while providing considerably more performance and the promise of added driving enjoyment. It should also make anyone considering the purchase of pricier domestic- or import-based compacts think twice about going that route.
What you should know: 2015 Volkswagen GTI
Type: Two-four-door, front-wheel-drive compact hatchback
Engine (hp): 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder, turbocharged (210-220)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automated manual (DSG)
Market position: The iconic GTI began the trend of adding significant performance to what started out as more modestly powered (and priced) compact hatchbacks and sedans. A number of automakers are copying this formula.
Points: Completely redesigned, lighter and much roomier, the Golf is an excellent platform for this higher-output offshoot; New four-cylinder engine adds significant torque and improved fuel economy; Top-notch interior quality; This quick and practical and affordable hatch would appear to be a no-brainer.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 25/34 (MT); Base price (incl. destination) $25,200
Ford Focus ST
Base price: $25,000 (est.)
Revised 2015 edition is now more refined, but keeps its 252-hp engine.much respect.
Honda Civic Si
Base price: $23,900
Sedan/coupe use 201-hp four-cylinder and five-speed manual gearbox.
Mini Cooper S
Base price: $24,950
Cute hatch uses 189-hp turbo engine. Upcoming JCW model adds punch.