2010 Volkswagen GTI

2010 Volkswagen GTI

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.

Oh, wait.

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.

And the cockpit is as sexy and buttoned up as any vehicle this side of $35,000; not something you can say about the Subie or the Mazda. VW refuses to let any harsh or crappy feeling polymers near your skin; any button you touch is either rubberized or rimmed in brushed metal, and every switch or dial moves with either a dampened resistance or a firm snap—giving your fingers and brain tactile feedback that are both positive and rich feeling. The seats, too, are as comfortable and sporty (but not hard) as you’d wish for, and both rear- and front-seat head and knee room are quite good, something you cannot claim of, for instance, the Cooper Clubman.

Not everyone loves the look of the GTI. It’s a bit reserved. Then again, that generic quality is an advantage—the guy with the whale tale on his WRX is getting the ticket. And, like we said, rather than play boy racer 24/7 the GTI can go legit, too, no fear showing up with your honey at a restaurant looking like you should be down with the kids ripping apart the high school parking lot.

Maybe you’re still not digging the GTI as “green.” But consider how many far less green sporty options exist on the market and it’s hard not to see this as an especially good option for a buyer needing more utility who heretofore. Cars that can straddle many segments, sufficing with “enough” utility like this Volkswagen, as well as enough sportiness and image savvy, are 1,000 times superior to the far heavier gas-hog SUVs that attracted a generation of young buyers merely a decade ago. Face it, the GTI is just a little bit green, and if all cars get a little bit greener we all benefit.