Volkswagen Golf GTI Review: World’s Best Transmission Technology

Volkswagen Golf GTI Review: World’s Best Transmission Technology

Bill Howard

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the car the Mini Cooper would like to be, if only it had a real backseat. If you buy the GTI, you forfeit the Mini’s cachet: Instead, you get the world’s best transmission technology, a fire-breathing 200-hp turbo engine, and space for four or five plus luggage. I’d call that a fair trade.

VW’s successes seem to come and go every 20 years or so; this is one of the up periods, after a mostly down time running from around 1975 through 2000—the lifespan to date of many of VW’s potential customers. The GTI is on magazine ten-best lists, the VW nameplate ranks in the top five on resale value, and the less exciting cousin from which the GTI hatched, the VW Rabbit, has the highest resale value among compact cars, according to Automotive Lease Guide .

Awesome DSG Transmission

The optional direct shift gearbox (DSG) is an auto-shifting manual transmission. Though the GTI has no clutch pedal for the driver, its gearbox has two automated clutches; when it’s time to upshift, the next gear is already online. You can shift yourself with the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, or let the car choose for you.

This front-driver is a hoot to pilot, but if you’re a good citizen and don’t punch the throttle, you’ll get 30-plus mpg. Trouble is, with 200 hp on tap from the four-cylinder turbocharged engine, you might find it hard to be good.

The biggest drawback to the otherwise excellent drivetrain is VW’s drive-by-wire throttle system, which eliminates jackrabbit starts by modulating the throttle. As with other VWs, the GTI can be slow to respond when you really want to get through the intersection in a hurry. Try leaving the DSG in Sport mode at stop signs for a more responsive throttle, even if that means burning a little more gasoline. It’s still cheaper than the insurance deductible if you get T-boned. Anyway, while we may be short on $1.50-a-gallon gasoline, there’s plenty of undiscovered $4 gas, for the near term at least.

Acceptable Console Electronics

The GTI has several audio options and an average Blaupunkt DVD navigation system. The base audio system includes 10 speakers and a CD/MP3 six-disc in-dash changer. The audio display is a monochrome LCD that looks like a 10-year-old laptop display (before color arrived). And because it’s small, when you choose one command, such as volume, something else, such as the station presets, is hidden. On the other hand, the base audio system also includes an electric guitar, part of a currently ongoing VW promotion called VDubRocks .

VW has been offering both Sirius and XM satellite radio, but for 2007 decided to put the customer second (though that’s a term you’re unlikely to see in VW marketing collateral) and now offers Sirius only. Why? Because when an automaker offers just one choice in satellite radio, it typically collects a bigger chunk of royalties.

On VW’s build-your-own site, Sirius Satellite Radio can be had for $375, or in a pair of options packages with a moonroof ($1,370) or moonroof, dual-zone air conditioning, and cold weather package ($3,160). You may be better off with the dashboard line-in jack and optional iPod adapter, priced at a relatively reasonable $199. Continued…

Small Gauges, Small Buttons

In addition to a big tachometer and speedometer, VW uses a pair of small gauges to indicate the fuel level and water temperature. Research shows they are plenty big enough to be seen and understood quickly (more so when the gauges sweeps nearly full circles, which these don’t). However, the thick glass coverings in our test car were a bit distorted and hard to read in daytime.

The steering wheel has the usual complement of audio and cruise-control buttons that are small, but we’ve seen worse. What you’ll really notice and appreciate are the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which you can flick up or down if you want to shift for yourself.

The cockpit generally provides good fit and finish, decent materials, red lighting with blue accents (same as corporate sibling Audi), and nice touches such as a center armrest that adjusts for taller and shorter drivers. (Larger drivers may want try out the sport seats before taking the GTI home. This is not Shaq’s car.)

VW Online

VW’s Web site is fun to browse, so long as you don’t mind guitar music: Click on the VDubRocks promo, and it loops endlessly. The build-your-own site is only fair, however, despite a limited list of options. Here’s why: Not every option has popup help explaining what it includes, how it differs from a similar option, or what else is required. The Leather Seating Surfaces option is priced as “PKG,” but has no information on which package to select. Click on some options, and you get popups saying you have to remove other options.

Also, no matter which of the five body colors you choose, the larger of the two BYO images that stays with you from step to step is a Black Magic (that’s a color choice) GTI, while the color you selected is a smaller image above the running price tally. Continued…

Buying Recommendations

To keep the price under $25,000, I’d choose just a handful of key options, starting with four doors ($500 extra, for a $23,230 base price) If, say, you’re a young married couple, having four doors means you don’t have to dump the GTI for “something more practical, honey,” when the baby arrives. And until then, it allows for easier access for all your drinking buddies, including the designated driver.

The DSG automatic manual ($1,075) is the other must-have. All-season performance tires are a no-cost option, as are performance tires, but they will require you to own a second set of tires, snow or all-season, if you live in the Frost Belt. Add premium audio ($325) and the iPod adapter, and you’re still under $25K ($24,829 list). If you like a more light-filled interior, consider the sunroof/Sirius package, and if you live in a cold climate, consider the sunroof/cold weather/Sirius package.

Boy racers may want to consider the ground effects kit ($1,650), but I doubt it has much effect at speeds you can drive legally in the U.S. Stick with cloth seats (the leather seats are part of the $3,150 package), and you may not need the package’s bun warmers (seat heaters). Since VWs rank slightly below average on the most recent J.D. Power survey of navigation systems, you should probably stick with a portable navigation device or cell-phone-based nav.

Should You Buy?

Right now, the GTI provides the most fun you can have with a sporty, roomy compact sedan that’s priced in the low-20s. The Mini Cooper S isn’t as quick and has zero backseat room to speak of.

Half a dozen Japanese cars come factory-equipped as hot rods or can be tuned to run like a GTI, especially the Mazda Speed3. But they may not have the VW cachet. To me, the car that’s most like the GTI in terms of practical fun to drive, with room for four, is the Honda Fit (the sport version), which comes with a comparatively wimpy motor but with $7,500 worth of performance mods; you’d still be well under the top price of a GTI.

For the same money, you could also buy a three-year-old BMW 3 Series or Audi A4. But you’d get less performance and less room in back. The GTI’s technology lives mostly under the hood rather than in the center console. But for a car built in Germany, that’s what driving is all about.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in TechnoRide.