As it's a GTI, and not a Rabbit, the car has a few performance touches around the cabin, such as a flat-bottom steering wheel and alloy-look pedals. The steering wheel includes stereo volume controls and up/down buttons that scroll the center display or choose radio presets. It also includes a star button that mutes the stereo, and a telephone button, which does nothing. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't offered as an option here, so this button is most likely a legacy from the European market. As part of our GTI's option package, we had dual climate control.
As we found on the Audi A3, the inclusion of the navigation option on the GTI moves the six-disc changer from an in-dash unit to the center console. This center-console-mounted unit suffers from its lack of capability to read MP3 or WMA CDs. This configuration also deletes the auxiliary audio input, which Volkswagen touted so highly in its commercials. Besides AM/FM radio and standard CDs, the stereo is prepped for Sirius satellite radio.
Although we weren't satisfied with the lack of MP3 compatibility, we did like the sound this stereo system put out. The standard stereo system comes with 10 speakers, two in each door, a center fill in the dash, and a subwoofer. The audio quality is good, with decent separation, although its highs aren't as distinct as we would like. The bass also isn't particularly deep. The GTI won't be setting off car alarms.
The navigation system suffers from an extremely slow processor, and we found it frequently frustrating to use. It takes a while to draw its maps and, much worse, doesn't show an accurate position of the car during speeds more than 30mph. This latter issue is due to the graphics not keeping up with the position of the car, and often led us to miss a turn on our route. For these reasons, we don't think losing out on MP3 capability is a good trade-off for this navigation system.
Otherwise, the navigation worked reasonably well. It is fairly easy to use and includes a decent points-of-interest database. It's not a touch screen, so you have to rely on soft buttons along the sides of the unit. These buttons change function depending on which screen you have up. Although we weren't sold on this navigation system, it was nice to have some idea where we were, after driving down various mountain roads because they looked fun.
Under the hood
The cabin tech might not have won us over, but the powertrain certainly did. Some people we've talked to remain stuck to the idea of using a clutch, but we just love the DSG. This transmission is not a torque-converter automatic slushbox--in most respects, it's a real manual transmission. It just works the clutch for you. And it feels like a manual, with each gear giving the car a kick.
With the stick, you can put the car in its relatively sedate drive mode, its superaggressive sport mode, or its manual shift mode. In manual shift, you can choose gears sequentially with either the stick or the steering wheel-mounted paddles. You won't get any real fast launches out of drive mode. Sport mode is for serious driving, with upshifts occurring at around 6,000rpm. When terrorizing city streets, we preferred to use the manual shift option, choosing to upshift around 4,000rpm, a more comfortable place between drive and sport.
The GTI uses Volkswagen's turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine, which puts out 200 horsepower at 5,100rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at 1,800rpm. This engine moves the light GTI adroitly and, as mentioned above, makes a delightful growl. The EPA rates the mileage on the GTI at 25 in the city and 32 on the highway, but we couldn't even achieve the city number. Our overall mileage was 21.4mpg, a number which was impacted by our enthusiastic use of the DSG. But we did give the GTI plenty of freeway miles as well, to give it a fair chance for decent mileage. However, the engine does well in environmental terms, getting a ULEV II, or Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle class II, from California's Air Resources Board.
Handling on twisty mountain roads was excellent. The GTI has a fairly rigid suspension, which can make for a rough ride on some surfaces. But it also keeps body roll at a minimum. With its tightly tuned steering, the GTI can be pushed hard through corners.
A 2007 Volkswagen GTI with four doors has a base price of $22,600. Our test car came with Package 2, which brings in a powered sunroof, sport seats, and dual-zone climate control. At $3,160, this package added substantially to the price of the car, and things such as dual-zone climate control seem a waste in such a small cabin. We also had the $18,00 navigation system, which we could have done without, and the must-have $1,075 DSG. With alloy wheels ($750), rear side-impact airbags ($350), and a $630 destination charge, our GTI rang in at $30,365.
In our experience, the GTI and the Honda Civic Si run neck and neck in terms of performance, with the GTI getting a slight edge for the DSG. But in terms of cabin electronics, the Civic Si wins out. For a more practical car with some similar performance characteristics, the Audi A3 is worth a look.