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Small Volkswagen GTI Packs Plenty of Power

To my simple mind, the Volkswagen GTI is the most satisfying aspect of what we might term VW’s back-to-basics strategy. And by basics, we mean wicked compact cars at a reasonable price; German cars that go fast for the kids who work in the mailroom.

The GTI designation was introduced to the United States in 1983 and was the first hopped-up compact that deserved the designation pocket rocket. Now for the first time, the GTI is available as a four-door model in addition to the basic two-door unit.

And the price is still right on the money. The base price for the two-door model is $22,100.

Our four-door test car could be designated the executive model. It adds automatic transmission, satellite navigation, automatic climate control and leather seats that push the price past $30,000 with the $630 destination included.

But if you’re the kid in the mailroom, please understand that the basic unit has the same power and handling potential as our upscale test unit. And that’s the big thing about the diminutive GTI.

While small in size, the GTI is huge on performance driven by an amazing engine. Power is delivered by an advanced turbocharged 4-cylinder unit featuring direct fuel injection for better power delivery (200 horsepower) and fuel economy (25 miles per gallon/city and 32 mpg/highway with the automatic transmission).

Direct injection is one of the important new technologies that increase power, while decreasing fuel consumption and emissions. In fact, the technology is so precise, it can meter fuel injection time to the thousandth of a second range. Mated with turbo technology, the GTI engine pumps out an amazing amount of power for its size.

On the road, the GTI exhibits smooth, responsive acceleration, without turbocharger lag. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of its power delivery is when the driver is cruising along at freeway speeds and wants to pass.

Punch the accelerator and the GTI provides a real power surge. The secret to its performance lies in torque, and lots of it.

The small 4-cylinder engine develops 207 feet-pounds of torque and puts out this power at low engine speeds, 1,800 rpms. This means that you can get a real pop from the engine at slow speeds, making it easy to spot the open space in traffic flow and instantly respond.

While the GTI’s exterior is plain and simple Volkswagen, and sports a profile that really hasn’t changed much in decades, the interior exhibits good ergonomics. And while there are lots of buyers who will want the base GTI, I’ll take the gussied up unit.

The automatic climate works as expected and the navigation system has a nice screen that’s easy to see in varied light conditions, although I did find it hard to use.

For its size, the GTI offers good creature comforts. The driver’s seat fit me like a glove and offered adjustable lumbar support. The ride quality is also quite acceptable for a car with solid performance credentials.

And while we’re on the performance page, what satisfies most about the GTI is the solid handling. The car is so agile that it has to be experienced to be believed.

If you’re driving a big sedan, sport utility vehicle or minivan, you don’t know what you are missing. Just turn the wheel a bit and the car responds immediately. It can move through a series of switchback curves on a mountain road like water going through a coiled garden hose.

And a final thought on the transmission. While I have never purchased a car with an automatic transmission, the unit in the GTI works so well that in many ways it obviates the need for a manual tranny.

These days, most of us spend so much time in heavy traffic that manual shifting is a real drag. I’d be willing to forgo whatever slight performance boost exists in the GTI with the manual transmission as the trade-off for a more pleasant driving experience.


Cordell Koland is an automotive journalist based in California’s central coast. He can be reached at cordellkoland@mac.com.


Volkswagen GTI

Price as tested: $30,365.

Engine:

Type: Turbocharged inline 4.

Horsepower: 200 @ 5,100 rpm.

Torque: 207 foot-pounds @ 1,800 rpm.

Fuel economy, automatic transmission:

City: 25 mpg.

Highway: 32 mpg.

Curb weight: 3,212 pounds.

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