2010 VW GTI: The hottest hatch

CNET Car Tech gets a preview drive in the 2010 Volkswagen GTI.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

We took the VW GTI out to a former Naval Air station, which had plenty or room to test out the car's handling. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

2010 Volkswagen GTI preview photos

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The fact that Volkswagen didn't change the turbocharged 2-liter engine from the 2009 to the 2010 GTI might make you think this model update is all cosmetic, but you would be wrong. With a direct injected four-cylinder engine and the optional Direct Shift Gearbox, a dual-clutch automated manual, there just wasn't much room for improvement in the power train. So Volkswagen took on the handling tech, putting an electronic power steering in the GTI and adding an electronic limited slip.

And sure, the body presents smooth sides, a style very much in vogue now among automotive designers, and a new, wide front grille look. But the GTI also gets greatly improved cabin tech, taking on Volkswagen's new hard drive-based navigation system and a Dynaudio sound system. And even without the navigation option present, the car still gets a touch-screen LCD for the stereo.

Through the cones
We spent some time with the 2010 Volkswagen GTI, getting the opportunity to run it through a couple of autocross courses, a track marked out by cones with sharp turns that really test the car's handling. We also put the car through its paces on some public roads, and dug through the cabin electronics.

This cone slalom let the GTI show its speed. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The GTI's ride is reasonably comfortable, which is actually impressive considering how it performed on the autocross course. As we threw it into hairpin turns and guided it through S curves, all the action was at the front wheels.

The power was a little iffy--when the engine speed dropped too far, for example coasting through a turn, it took a moment to come back on when we mashed the gas pedal to get power down a straight. That behavior is what we expect from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. But keeping some throttle on at all times helped combat that power loss.

The engine produces 200 horsepower at 5,100rpm, an engine speed difficult to come near during the tight maneuvering of autocross. The torque is a more accessible 207 pound-feet, peaking from 1,800rpm to 5,000rpm, but sometimes the engine speed dropped too low for the twist to come on right away. We also had a higher speed course to drive, and on that we were able to make better use of the available power, and experienced no lag. When we got the engine speed high during some fast starts, it produced a high-pitched growl.

This cone course proved a good challenge for the GTI, and our own driving skills. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

In those tight corners, the GTI's new electronic limited slip paid off. The front wheels held grip well, up to a point. Trying to carry too much speed through a turn resulted in some chattering from the tires, slowing down our speed. But that cornering capability felt good, and was controllable when we weren't being stupid. On the higher speed course, the car's handling showed more stability, even on one particularly tight kink, and we were better able to maintain speed.

The unpowered wheels at the back of the car did a good job of helping the whole car rotate for the particularly tight hairpins. There was a little body lean at the speeds we were forcing on the GTI, but it never felt tippy, and consistently gave us confidence to push it harder and harder in these turns.

We drove both the six-speed manual and the six-speed DSG transmissions. On the freeway, we noticed that at 50 mph in sixth gear, the tachometer showed 2,000rpm, suggesting that Volkswagen gave the GTI particularly low gear ratios. At higher speeds, the engine was running at 3,000rpm to 3,500rpm, which isn't going to help fuel economy much, but will lead to sprightly performance on winding roads. But at an EPA rated 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, the GTI's power plant is already getting good fuel economy, so can afford the lower gear ratios. The electric power steering unit also adds to the fuel economy, as there is one less hydraulic pump to leech power from the engine.

On the higher speed course, we had an initial straightaway where we got to try out the GTI's launch control. This feature is only available with the DSG. Using it involved putting the DSG into manual mode and turning off the electronic stability program by pressing a button. With one foot on the brake, and the other on the gas, the engine speed held at about 3,500rpm. Letting go the brake sent the car forward with minimal wheel spin, maximizing its launch speed. According to Volkswagen, the DSG-equipped car will make it to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds.

We've used the DSG before, and are fans of the technology. Referred to as an automated manual, the transmission has six forward gears and two clutches. A computer controls servos that engage the clutches. When you press a paddle or move the shifter for an up or down shift, the computer moves the clutches appropriately, making the gear shift much more quickly than you could do with a traditional foot-operated clutch. The computer also includes an automatic drive and sport program, where it will shift for you at set engine speeds. Sport mode kept the engine speed moderately high.

Modernized cabin
This new performance tech works well, but the most welcome update to the GTI is the inclusion of Volkswagen's latest cabin electronics. We previously saw this new navigation and music system in the CC sedan. Although not perfect, it is a huge improvement over the flawed navigation and stereo systems of the past.

Media interface
The GTI gets the same audio device interface used by Audi. Josh Miller/CNET

Looking under the console hatch, we find the same kind of port used for digital audio hook-ups in Audis. The port itself is proprietary, but Volkswagen includes a number of pigtail connectors for iPods, USB sticks, any device with a Mini-USB port, and a basic one-eighth inch audio plug. Having all these cables hanging around is a little goofy, but most people will just use the iPod hookup.

We like the onscreen interface for browsing music on an iPod. The touch-screen presents the expected choices for album, artist, genre, playlists, and more. As the navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive, Volkswagen makes almost 20 gigabytes of space available for music storage. Unlike other cars with onboard music storage that rip CDs, this Volkswagen system lets you copy MP3 files from various sources, such as an MP3 CD or SD card. Strangely, the interface for the hard drive doesn't index the MP3 files ID3 tags, only letting you select music by folder and file.

Bluetooth audio is also an available music source, and there is also a Bluetooth phone system. However, none of the cars we tested had the phone system available.

Another welcome sight in the GTI were Dynaudio labels on the speakers. This premium audio upgrade brings in a 300-watt amp and Dynaudio speakers. We didn't have a lot of time to listen to this system, but we were able to coax some heavy bass beats out of it.

In a very interesting move, Volkswagen includes a touch-screen LCD in the GTI even if you don't get the navigation system. This screen makes it easy to select music from an iPod or use the other audio sources.

With maps stored on a hard drive, the resolution is better than in older DVD-based navigation systems from Volkswagen, and this system actually keeps up with the physical location of the car. And while we like this new system's speed, and features such as onscreen traffic conditions and text-to-speech route guidance, it also has some odd quirks.

VW navigation system
This cursor moves erratically when you try to drag it around the map. Josh Miller/CNET

You can view four different map styles on it: 3D, 2D, topographic, and traffic, but it would have made more sense to show traffic conditions on both the 2D and 3D maps, and include the topographic information on the 3D maps as well. And when entering a destination directly onto the map, or just browsing around with the map to see your surroundings, you have to enter interactive map mode. In this mode, a ring-shaped cursor appears on the screen that you are supposed to drag around with your fingertip. But we have had a heck of a time getting that cursor to move easily. Sometimes it is sluggish, and at other times it jumps across the screen.

But these criticisms aside, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI is a definite improvement over the old model. In fact, the new cabin tech puts the GTI ahead of its traditional competition, the Honda Civic Si and Mazdaspeed3. Considering the DSG gearbox in the bargain, and you have the hottest hatchback currently available. The new limited slip differential and electronic power steering unit is just icing on the cake.