Look no further. The modern compact sports car was invented by Volkswagen more than thirty years ago by a handful of engineers who were determined to create a sports version of the first Golf. After several very impressive prototypes with wide tires and modified suspensions, it was decided that the “Golf Sport’” was going to remain civilized, regardless of performance.
The first GTI was launched in 1976 and powered by a 1.6-litre, 108 hp, four-cylinder engine. It earned the name GTI (for “Grand Touring Injection”) because of its fuel injection. It quickly became a bestseller in Europe and its three letters quickly became famous, but we had to wait until 1983 for the arrival of the first GTI in Québec while it was being equipped with an engine that met North American emissions standards. The pioneer came with a 1.8-litre, 90 hp four-cylinder engine.
Volkswagen has sold a total of more than 1.7 million units of the first five generations of the GTI and is now introducing the sixth. It will make its European debut in May and will be launched here in October in two- and four-door version…plus a rear hatch, of course.
Modern and traditional
Its size and shape are familiar, but practically all of the body panels have changed. The goal was to be reminiscent of the first GTI without adding what Marc Lichte, Volkswagen’s head of exterior design in Germany, calls “what is unusual for the category” to the body. The one exception is the rear spoiler attached to the top of the hatch that is essential for aerodynamics.
The most striking feature compared to the previous GTI is the return of the horizontal front grille trimmed with red lines like that of its infamous granddaddy. The tail end has also been redesigned. A black “extractor” under the bumper has been added with a chrome exhaust tip at each edge rather than a traditional twin exhaust.
The rocker panels are also more sculpted and there’s a clearer and more pronounced ridge on the sides of the whole car, above the wheel wells. These changes give the new GTI a sturdier look, especially with the optional 18-inch alloy rims that can be fitted with sport tires or 225/40R18 size three-season tires. It comes standard with 17-inch rims.
The options package
The Canadian importer will offer a luxury version of the GTI with leather upholstery, sun roof, Bluetooth hands-free capability, a Dynaudio loudspeakers and the efficient navigation system that was installed in the European models that we drove during the launch, with a clear screen and an 80-Go hard drive. The main option will be the DSG automated dual-clutch sequential transmission that should cost $1,400.
There is no cruise control, sonar, rearview parking camera, headlight washers or a photo-sensitive rearview mirror. And forget about the second generation of the Park Assist system that helps the car park itself. These options would have driven up the price and the GTI had to remain competitive with its closest rivals, the Honda Si coupe, the new Mazdaspeed3 and the Mini Cooper S (modestly equipped).
If there is one option that we’d like to see, it’s the Dynamic Chassis Control system that offers three driving modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport. Each modifies the shock absorption setting and the Sport mode makes the power steering more firm. The cars driven during the launch in France had it and the system was very impressive. We’re told that the GTI that we’ll see has a suspension that is somewhere between Normal and Sport modes in terms of firmness and cushioning, and that may just be fine, especially since the car is now 22 mm lower at the front and 15 mm lower at the back.
It’s harder to understand why, for the Canadian market, VW won’t be offering the XDS system, which is a virtual limited slip differential that is no more than an extension of the ESP anti-skid control included on the most recent version of the GTI. The XDS applies the inside wheel’s brake as needed when you begin to turn to allow the GTI to pivot better. And does it ever work. There is practically no understeer, even at high speed. It must be said however that the GTI already features impressive basic agility and stability for all of the twists and turns of the road or the bumps and cracks of the surface.
A turbocharged virtuoso
The new GTI’s brilliant turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder is new for Europeans but it’s the same one that was featured in the previous model for us. It was simply made to meet the more strict North American emissions standards earlier on, and made more frugal at the same time. It averages 7.3 L of fuel per 100 km with the standard manual transmission and 7.4 L with the twin-clutch sequential gearbox on the European model.
This multiple award-winning engine is a dream. Its power is still 200 hp at 5,300 rpm and it delivers a maximum torque of 207 lbs-ft over an exceptional gear range of 1,700 to 5,300 rpm. Accelerations are straightforward in any gear and the rpm needle readily climbs, along with the delightful sound of the exhaust. There’s even a tone generator to add to the fun in the cockpit.
When accelerating outright every shift from one gear to another with the DSG sequential transmission causes a “blap” that is typical of a race car or rally car. This sound can be eliminated by adjusting the closure of the gas to each cylinder by a few milliseconds, but true GTI die-hards are very fond of their soundtrack, and we couldn’t agree more. As for performance itself, the manufacturer is claiming that both transmissions are clocked at 6.9 seconds from 0-100 km. However, at 240 km/h, the version with the manual gearbox has a top speed a tad faster than that of the DSG (238 km/h).
The designers had two goals for the passenger compartment of the new GTI: to emphasize that it belongs to this illustrious lineage and to again become the standard by which other cars in the category are judged for finish and quality. They have met these objectives quite well. The soft feel of the dashboard’s fine mat surface is among the best of its kind, as are the narrow mouldings that cut across it horizontally, trimmed with thin silver lines on a jet black background and brilliantly lacquered. There’s a lot of trim in aluminum or other metals, including on the edge of the windshield washer buttons and around the stick shift, the larger air vents, the dials and other controls. The aluminum surface pedals from the old model are back.
There is also aluminum on the three spokes of the sport steering wheel whose redesigned hub is larger and has more character. As for its leather-covered rim, the shape and ease of handling couldn’t be closer to perfect. The red seems on the inside of the rim, the stick shift cover, hand brake lever and on the padding and the sport seat’s head rests are typical of the GTI tradition, just like the plaid fabric of the seats, nicknamed Interlagos after the famed Brazilian circuit.
The seats themselves are impeccably sculpted and offer an excellent combination of comfort and support. However, we would have liked separate settings for the angle and the height of the cushion in place of VW’s typical diagonal lever. The ergonomics are nonetheless very good and the same can be said for the most of the controls, with the exception of the small buttons of the new manual climate control and the archaic cruise control on the turn signal lever.
The new GTI has also inherited the superb cargo area of its predecessor whose capacity goes from 350 to 1,300 litres by lowering both sections of the rear seatbacks and features a large enough passage for a few pairs of skis or two snowboards, which is quite uncommon.
The sound of silence
Manufacturers have a habit of bragging about how quiet their sports cars are, but this was made a priority for the GTI’s makeover and it does not disappoint. In fact, it’s the most impressive thing about the sixth generation GTI when you first get in. The manufacturer asserts that the wind noise has fallen 3 decibels (dB) at 120 km/h, which means half as much as before. You hear only the slightest rustling at this speed, and barely more than that when you accelerate a little more. The engine noise has also been reduced by 3 dB at idle speed and by 5 dB in general. If you’re looking for pleasant sounds, you’re going to have to rely on the pedal on the right.
Steering is precise and effort is controlled, with an excellent auto-centering feature. As for the transmissions, they are equally good. The DSG puts together perfect shifting in acceleration with that delightful “blap” and perfectly balances the gear when downshifting with controllers on the wheel or the stick shift course on the console. The manual stick shift is short, precise and quick, and the pedals are ideal for the heel-toe method. It adds a direct sensation that will please driving aficionados who don’t simply look at the numbers when judging a sports car.
That’s the key with the new GTI. It’s balanced and competent like few others, and it’s a practical and refined touring car that can turn into a formidable and beautiful sports car at a push of the accelerator. If it’s the numbers that are important to you, you can always wait for the, rumour has it, more powerful all-wheel drive Golf R20, but you’d be missing out on a real gem in the meantime.