Volkswagen GTI — The 'hot hatch' benchmark

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Volkswagen's sales in North America have been struggling. We think that's because the German automaker has been slow to bring its new and improved vehicles, vehicles that Europeans get months and even years before we do.

After driving the all-new 2015 GTI (which have been cruising German highways since November 2012) we’re thrilled that the new Golf lineup is finally here because the newest version of the iconic hatchback is among the best in the compact car ranks.

The performance-oriented GTI really stands out as a stunning example of how far the "hot hatch" segment has evolved. Today’s GTI proved more compliant, livelier and a bit quicker than its immediate predecessors. The 2.0-liter turbo motor pumps out 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, a gain of 10 horsepower and 51 pound-feet of torque compared to the outgoing model. And ordering the Performance Package adds an additional 10 horsepower, larger brakes and an electronically actuated, torque-sensing limited slip differential. Adaptive damping is also available.

The GTI's hot hatch heritage is displayed best on tight and twisting roads where its sharp handling and steering comes to the fore. On straight stretches of asphalt the GTI exhibits brisk acceleration enhanced by a very muscular engine note.

The GTI can be equipped with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual clutch automated manual transmission. Throws are short and accurate with the six-speed, making it a delight to run through the gears. But the automatic proved a hoot to drive hard with quick and smooth up-shifts and rev-matched downshifts.

This all adds up to mood-elevating performance measured at 0-to-60 in less than six seconds and a quarter mile in 14.4 seconds at 100 mph. The frosting on this superb handling and go-fast beast is gas mileage measured at 25 mpg city, 33-highway with the automatic and 25/34 with the manual.

The GTI (two door or four door) as well as other Golf variants are slightly longer and wider than the outgoing Golf. VW has endowed the popular compact with subtle styling changes including reshaped headlights and taillights and sharper side creases. Perhaps the biggest change is a new sloping hood design that gives the car a more dynamic look.

The GTI can be ordered in one of three trim levels (S, SE, Autobahn), and each of those can be fitted with the aforementioned optional Performance Package. Prices start at $25,093 including destination charge for the S two-door with manual transmission ($25,693 for the four-door) and rise through the styles to the Autobahn four-door with automatic at $31,362. For this review, we tested a SE trim four-door with automatic and the Performance Package carrying a bottom line of $31,265.

Standard equipment for the GTI includes 18-inch alloy wheels, sport-tuned suspension, cruise control, air conditioning, heated front seats, a 5.8-inch touchscreen interface, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, satellite radio and VW Car-net telematics.

And there are other styles and engine choices beyond the range-topping GTI to tempt buyers who like the spaciousness of the Golf. For those drivers who want the look of the GTI, but not its stiffer ride and heavily bolstered front seats, there’s the new Golf Sport, an SEL with a tasteful body kit. For us the clear choice in an overall family car — other than the GTI — is the diesel-powered Golf TDI. In addition to exemplary fuel mileage (31 city/42 highway/35 combined on the EPA’s dynamometer), the Golf TDI retains a fun-to-drive character, and its new 2.0-liter diesel engine is exceptionally quiet, and relatively quick with an abundance of torque (236 pound-feet) and a low redline.

The remainder of the Golf lineup comes in S, SE and SEL trims with one available engine, a 1.8-liter turbocharged four making 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. It's a solid performer with fuel economy measured at 26 mpg city and 36-highway with the automatic transmission.

Safety in all Golf models includes a standard feature usually reserved for higher-priced vehicles; automatic post-collision braking that uses the airbag sensors to detect a primary impact, and applies the brakes to prevent the car from rolling forward and hitting other vehicles and objects after the initial impact. And SE and SEL models come standard with a Driver Assistance Package that adds Forward Collision Warning, and front and rear Park Distance Control. Missing from the safety tech are the Blind Spot Information and Cross-traffic Alert systems becoming increasingly popular one segment above.

The new GTI is a giant step forward for Volkswagen, the embodiment of what a hot hatch should be as we speed toward the third decade of the 21st Century.

Base price: $25,093; as tested, $31,265
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four
Horsepower: 210 @ 4,500 rpm
Torque: 258 foot-pounds @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.6 inches
Length: 168 inches
Curb weight: 3,086 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 22.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 52.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 25 city
0-60: 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Focus ST, Nissan Juke NISMO

The Good
• Lusty turbocharged engine
• Sporty handling
• High-quality interior

The Bad
• Premium price point

The Ugly
• Backup camera not standard across lineup