Blasting through the mountains on a sprint toward the Northern California coast, the Tornado Red compact merrily jaunts from left to right along a serpentine decline with the agility of a mogul skier. The lush redwoods whiz by in a green blur and I silence the pounding stereo soundtrack and enjoy the sensation of the drive, the weight of the steering and the noise of the turbocharged engine. I imagine, just for a moment, that I'm instead in Germany's Black Forest or the Nurburgring. I haven't had this much fun in a very long time.
Yes, the car that many say started the hot hatchback class in 1975 is still one of the best in that class some 40 years -- and six generations -- later. The 2015 Volkswagen GTI Mk.7 may be bigger, more powerful and more technologically sophisticated than the Mk.1, but the character, the style and the simple core of driving joy that has made this one of the most popular sport compacts on the planet is still at the heart of the hatch.
The GTI is powered by a revised version of the automaker's direct injected EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. For 2015, that means a jump to 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The red-hot hatch not only produces a good amount of power and torque for sporty driving, but it also does an excellent job delivering that power. Much of the available torque comes on early in the tachometer's swing, which makes the car feel quick off of the line and responsive around town.
While turbo lag is no longer an issue for the GTI, it would seem that VW has left a bit of the characteristic nonlinear forced induction power delivery in there for longtime fans of small turbocharged engines. Squeeze the throttle for a pass and you'll feel a noticeable surge of power that is both surprising and delightful.
The GTI puts its power to the front wheels via either an available six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox. The DSG (a $1,100 upgrade) is plainly the faster option with its lightning quick shifts and launch control, while the manual transmission is more engaging. Both are excellent choices. In a previous test, CNET's Wayne Cunningham found the DSG's chosen ratios to be a bit oddly spaced, which somewhat colored his take on the GTI's responsiveness. My week behind the wheel was with the splendid manual transmission, which featured slightly closer ratios and a rewarding, tactile feel when rowing through the gears.
The GTI's EPA numbers are also better for 2015, at 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway for the six-speed manual version and 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for the DSG.
Standard equipment for the GTI is Volkswagen's Cross Differential System (XDS+) which uses bias braking to enhance handling and to coax the hatchback's open differential to behave like a limited slip setup. The system is able to judiciously brake the inside wheel during cornering to reduce understeer and to apply braking pressure to a slipping drive wheel to transfer torque to the opposite end of the axle. It does all of this fairly transparently -- only once during my testing did I notice the system in action tugging the nose back into line.
A true torque-sensing limited slip differential is available as part of a Performance package, which also includes a slight retune to the engine's program that bumps maximum power up to 220 horsepower and the ability to further spec the GTI's first-ever (for the North American market) adaptive suspension (DCC). Our example was not equipped with this $1,495 package or the $800 suspension upgrade, but was still an absolute hoot to drive.
All GTI models also now feature a drive mode selector system that toggles among Normal, Sport and Individual modes, the last of which is customizable. Sport mode adjusts the throttle map for maximum responsiveness and sharpens the electric power steering system. If equipped with either the DSG or the DCC, the transmission program and suspension setup are also altered for driving enjoyment. With our manual gearbox, I struggled to notice much difference between the Sport and Normal programs.