The two best hot hatchbacks, the Volkswagen GTI and the Honda Civic Si, showed up with new designs last year, keeping them firmly at the top of their class. But Volkswagen, not content to hold even with Honda, threw a curveball this year by adding a couple of extra doors to its car, ending up with the four-door 2007 Volkswagen GTI.
Even with four doors, the GTI is a good-looking car. But we have to question Volkswagen's decision to alter a particularly fun car with the practical note of making access to the back seats easy. The rear doors might actually tempt people to use the back seat, which will add weight to the car and lessen its fun factor. Or even worse, imagine a baby seat back there, forcing the driver to temper her or his driving passion.
But even with the extra doors, it's still a GTI. Its engine still makes a satisfying growl and the Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), with which ours was equipped, is still extraordinarily fun to use. We never got over the desire to do fast launches at every opportunity during our week with the car. When forced by deadlines to sit at the desk and write, we dreamed of putting the car through its paces on twisty mountain roads.
While evaluating the GTI, we also concluded that it's time for Volkswagen to upgrade its cabin electronics. On that basis, we would rather have the Honda Civic Si.
Test the tech: Fully loaded zero to 60mph
When we tested the Audi A3, which has the same powertrain as the GTI, we did zero-to-60mph runs with the intention of seeing if the car's automated shifting could go faster than our manual shifting. Because of the extra doors on the GTI, we decided to see how fast it would go from zero to 60mph with four people in it.
Our GTI is ready to rip with all seats occupied.
To run our test, we loaded up the car with Car Tech editors Kevin Massy and Wayne Cunningham, Car Tech contributor Mike Markovich, and Dino Salee, from our photography team. Although none of us would consent to get on a scale, we estimate somewhere between 600 and 700 pounds of people in the car. We found a nice straight, deserted road and hooked up our performance computer. Each driver made two runs, shifting with the steering wheel paddles, and we took the best times.
When we did our runs with the Audi A3, we got lots of initial wheel slip, and the driver had to struggle to keep the car under control. Whether due to the passenger weight or its suspension tuning, the GTI only showed a little wheel slip under our fast launches. Torque steer wasn't felt very strongly, either, making the car pretty easy to keep in line as we mashed the gas pedal. Although we all shifted manually, only Mike Markovich was canny enough to hold the brake and get some revs up before letting the car go, producing our best time.
Mike Markovich is at the wheel while Kevin Massy checks the performance computer.
Here are the results for our four-person zero to 60mph runs-- Kevin Massy: 7.2 seconds, Mike Markovich: 6.8 seconds, Wayne Cunningham: 7.35 seconds, and Dino Salee: 7.88 seconds.
In Volkswagen's technical sheet for the two-door GTI, the company gives the car 7 seconds from zero to 60mph, making our numbers look spectacular. However, Car and Driver wrung 6 seconds out of the two-door GTI from zero to 60mph. The four-door version of the GTI is only 62 pounds heavier than the two door, which should only add a tenth or so to the time. Notably, our rear-seat passengers were fairly comfortable during our timed runs, saying something for the back-seat space of the GTI.
In the cabin
Although the fit and finish of the Volkswagen GTI's cabin is very good, it doesn't have the same strong luxury feel of a car like the BMW 328xi that we tested recently. The cabin of the Volkswagen GTI, and the Audi A3 for that matter, feels like the luxury is only skin deep. As the GTI has a base price in the low $20,000s, this level of luxury is entirely reasonable.
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.
With the navigation option present, the six-disc changer moves from an in-dash unit to this console mount.
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 takes too long to draw its maps, which can be very frustrating.
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.
Use the stick to put the car in normal drive mode, sport mode, or manual shift mode.
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.