2015 Volkswagen GTI: Preview Drive Page 3

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The interior is hands-down the best of any small hatchback anywhere close to this price, with nicely coordinated materials, matched surfaces, and consistent button faces and lighting. All the details are right, in a way that few other sub-$30k performance cars get. We also appreciated the wide footwells, good-size dead-pedal area, and pedals that don't require narrow Pilotis to enjoy. The driving position is a bit low (the consequence of dropping the overall height yet preserving headroom) yet upright, and you look out over a bulbous hood that now disappears to vague vehicle corners. C-pillars are thick and can cut visibility when changing lanes but, well, that's a Golf-family trait we've known for ages. Tartan pattern upholstery is another carryover. And other upgrades include red ambience lighting, a stainless steel doorsill, plus brushed stainless steel pedals.

In back, there's just a bit more space than you might remember if you've been in other Golfs or GTIs; a fold-down center armrest (with cupholders and a ski pass-through) and decent headroom make it doable for two adults, provided they're not behind lanky ones in front. And of course the seats flip forward. Up front, an under-seat tray, for odds and ends (we’d put soft things like gloves and a hat down there) is a cool touch.

Conservative look, but a big step up in features

As for the exterior? The look is still understated (just think if VW *could* have combined this chassis with the Scirocco's look), and while VW in the U.S. sells the GTI as a separate model, it’s every bit a performance variant of the Golf. We’ll let you be the judge, but the new GTI (and Golf) are evolutionary—a little more chiseled in front, with hoods a little lower in front but curved outward, yet a familiar profile altogether. The GTI's fanned-spoke 'Austin' wheels and red calipers are the two most daring attributes, and GTI continuity is achieved with that little red line that runs through the grille and headlight area. One big advantage over other performance-hatch models is that with the GTI you have a choice between two- or four-door body styles; that's slated to remain the same in the U.S.

According to VW's home offices, the engine improvements have boosted fuel-efficiency by 18 percent in the new GTI; U.S. cars are projected to get ratings of 24 mpg city, 34 highway (subject to change).

Here's where it gets a little hazier. U.S. cars will get the same interface and eight-inch touch screen, essentially, but audio will be a continuation of the current (and well-received, VW says) high-end Fender setup rather than the European market’s Dynaudio system. The new gen-7 GTI gets upgraded infotainment, with Car-Net, and available navigation with Google Earth and Street View maps, and live traffic data, and all that is supposed to arrive on these shores. Adaptive Cruise Control, City Adaptive Braking, Emergency Braking, and Lane Assist are all possibilities; so is stop-start (which was very smooth in our Euro-spec cars).

The 2015 GTI, as it will arrive to the U.S., is still nearly a year away (think March or April 2014 for first deliveries), and the U.S. GTI will be built in Mexico, but these versions we drove are in most respects on par with what we'll get, VW assured us.

Versus Focus ST, it's a matter of personalities—theirs and yours

With the arrival of the Ford Focus ST this past year, there's fresh competition in North America at last, among hatches. It's a lot of fun; just with its predictable slingshot cornering, it's dynamically a different beast than the Focus ST, which seems to invite you to provoke it in corners, just to get the rotation that its setup allows. We dare say that the setup in the 2015 Volkswagen GTI will be more rewarding to those who drive with finesse—and we look forward to testing it out on any road course, where we think that the Performance Pack model might turn out better times, despite the lower power rating than the ST.

It's also refreshing to see Volkswagen give the GTI a little more attitude than the outgoing Mk6 version. Even if it looks conservative, the new car is deft, athletic, and it really does make you feel like the hero. Step right into almost anything else and that parkour you just performed will seem unfathomable.

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