2010 Volkswagen GTIEnlarge Photo
The front-wheel-drive Volkswagen GTI is a blast to drive. It’s fun slow, it’s fun fast. It’s a lot like a MINI Cooper in that regard, but less cute, way more practical, and many of its attributes are quite nuanced and subtle — unlike a MINI.
More on subtleties below. Fireworks come first. And you experience the latter at all times behind the wheel of the sixth-gen, five-door, $23,890 GTI, where this otherwise reserved VW lets its hair down. There’s the marvelous, clutchless manual six-speed DSG transmission that up/downshifts faster than an eyeblink, perhaps the steadiest and most imperturbable suspension in the segment, and very communicative and properly hefted steering that, thanks to a system called XDS (which brakes the inside front tire in turns) is less easily upset by throttle-induced understeer. And, as has long been the case from VW/Audi, its small four cylinder engines—here, a highly flexible and fuel-efficient in-line 2.0-liter—are some of the best engines on the planet. You can use the GTI’s 200 hp to rocket to 60mph in about 6.5 seconds but this is no high-strung doberman; you can just as happily lope and cruise your way to a fairly impressive 32 EPA highway mileage, too.
The needle just skipped off the turntable back there while I was celebrating the joys of raucously driving a “hot hatch”—think Mazdaspeed3 (18 City/25 Hwy), the MINI Cooper Clubman S (26 City/34 Hwy) and the Subaru WRX (25 City/18 Hwy)—rather than first opining on the VW’s low C/D numbers or its (relatively) tee-totaling drinking habits.
Yes, that’s counter-intuitive for this niche on the vast High Gear Network, but think about how important it is that cars that are thought of as fun first are finally also being marketed as fuel efficient. Vehicles that are sold in huge volume getting just slightly better fuel economy (say the Ford F-150) will have more impact on U.S. gasoline consumption than narrower-segment sellers like the Prius. Yep, when there are my hybrid, electric and otherwise choices the planet will be a better place, no question, but until there’s much wider distribution (and sporting spec as well as utility) for cars like the Mini E buyers shopping for fun cars need options that are at least mildly more eco.
Which brings us back, longwindedly, to why I’d argue that the GTI is a little bit green. For the utility it affords (better cargo space and headroom than the Mazda and the Mini) weighed against nearly identical cargo/passenger space of the Subaru but with far superior fuel economy to either the Subaru or Mazda it’s easily the greenest and most useful “hot hatch” you can buy. You might choose to parse the segment more broadly, to include merely “fun” hatches that would get Ford’s forthcoming Fiesta (30 City /38 Hwy) and the Honda Fit Sport (27 City/33 Hwy) into the conversation, but that’s not exactly VW’s competition for the GTI, either in price or buyer profile. Think of the GTI as an alternative model that gets a prospective buyer fantastic fun and decent mileage and maybe forces Subaru to find a way to build more economy into its cars—which for years haven’t exactly been the greenest on earth, despite the crunchy demo that buys ’em.
As for the GTI vs. the WRX? The VW is better in many ways, mostly because it can go hoodlum or uptown—or to the grocery store—and in all cases is perfectly suited to the task. Driven mildly it’s quiet on the Interstate and its suspension doesn’t jostle passengers over every bridge expansion joint. This Volkswagen is still a people’s car, meaning it’s even comfy for those people not behind the wheel.