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VW GTI Mk7 adds handling tech to hot-hatch formula

With its new Drive Modes feature, the new GTI goes from comfortable urban runabout to canyon carver at the push of a button.

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
5 min read

I'm in a bright red Volkswagen, driving a road with "canyon" in its name. Scrubby brush and trees conceal steep drop-offs and some of the sharp turns ahead. Inevitably, I go into a turn that was sharper than I reckoned, but the car offers enough handling overhead to hold grip as I pin it around the apex.

I'm in the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI, and its numerous tech tricks let me get away with behavior that leans toward reckless. Given that hot hatches are accessible everyday sport cars favored by youngish male gearheads, Volkswagen gave the GTI what it needs to help its likely owners preserve life and limb.

Volkswagen refines new GTI with handling tech (pictures)

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The all-new GTI, based on the Golf Mark 7, takes the hot-hatch formula that Volkswagen pretty much invented with the 1974 GTI and refines it, adding handling and drivetrain tech that makes for a fun and satisfying driver. The car remains a hatchback with front-wheel drive and a 2-liter turbocharged engine, elements that have come to define a "hot hatch."

For the 2015 GTI, Volkswagen increased the length by 2.1 inches and the width by 0.5 inch, not necessarily improving the performance character but contributing to general usability. Fortunately, the height has been lowered by 1.1 inches and the track increased about 0.5 inch.

The GTI comes in two-door and four-door body styles, and I found the wide C-pillar a particularly attractive part of the design. Much of the GTI look at the front comes from the previous generation, such as the louvered foglight ports and the honeycomb air intakes.

Volkswagen carries over the EA888 2-liter four-cylinder engine from the previous-generation GTI, but refines it to produce 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, only a small increase in horsepower but a huge torque jump. At the same time, the GTI's EPA numbers are better, 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 (direct-shift gearbox) automated manual version. Chalk up those improved numbers partially to a 0.29 coefficient of drag.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Volkswagen knows what made its GTI great, so refines and adds to the formula for the 2015 model. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Enthusiasts will likely prefer the six-speed manual, but the six-speed DSG offers faster shifts and launch control, an extremely fun party trick. In the aforementioned canyon drive, I was in a DSG-equipped GTI, but despite all the fun I was having with the handling, I wasn't quite as taken with the gear ratios. In second I was pushing redline, but third jumped down to 3,000rpm, which lacked the kind of response I wanted from the gas pedal.

Going over the specs, the GTI's manual transmission looks preferable for its closer ratios, with only sixth gear in overdrive. The DSG is in overdrive from fourth gear on up.

Not to say that the DSG's gear changes weren't satisfying. A flick of the steering-wheel-mounted paddle led to a seemingly instant up- or downshift, with no loss of power between. Letting its sport program do the shifting, it held gears right up to redline and downshifted aggressively when I braked for turns.

All of that will be a bit familiar from the previous-generation GTI, but the Mark 7 adds drive modes to its toolbox. Pushing the Drive Mode button on the console brought up a box on the car's 5.8-inch touchscreen offering me the choice of Normal, Sport, or Individual. These modes affected not only drivetrain behavior, but also the steering program. Credit electric power steering for this adjustable behavior. Oddly, Volkswagen included a special lighting program for Sport mode.

Engaging the GTI's Sport mode automatically put the DSG into Sport, as well.

With the Individual option, I could set the steering, drivetrain, and lighting each between Normal and Sport. I was pleased to see Volkswagen did not add an Eco mode to the GTI. Optionally, the GTI can also be had with an adaptive suspension, what Volkswagen calls DCC. This simple system, relying on an electromechanical valve that stiffens the hydraulic dampers, was in the European-model Scirocco I tested last year.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI
XDS Plus uses the braking system to help the GTI negotiate turns. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Standard on the new GTI is an electronic limited-slip differential on the front axle, which Volkswagen calls XDS Plus. Unlike a mechanical limited slip, this system applies a little braking to the inside wheel in a turn. During my canyon carving, I could occasionally feel the slight stutter from this system as it engaged and helped the car rotate.

To really hot up this hatch, Volkswagen will offer a Performance package for the GTI, with a few significant enhancements. First of all, the Performance package adds 10 horsepower to the engine output, although no gain in torque. The XDS Plus system gets a total makeover, eschewing corner braking for active torque vectoring. With the Performance package, a hydraulic actuator pushes more torque to the outside front wheel in a turn.

Looking back at the hot hatch that started it all (photos)

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Dashboard electronics mirror those of the 2015 Golf, highlighted by Volkswagen's new MIB head unit. At any trim level, the GTI will come with a 5.8-inch touchscreen for audio, phone, and car settings. Navigation adds to this system as an option.

In my all-too-brief drive of the GTI, I was impressed by the responsiveness of this system. Pressing the Menu button brought up an icon ribbon with the various available functions. The maps looked good, with a refined color scheme, but they only displayed in a top-down, or plan, view.

During a product presentation, I was a little disappointed to hear that Volkswagen was sticking to its proprietary digital music interface for the car. Instead of including a simple USB port in their cars as most automakers do, Volkswagen and sister brand Audi insist on using a proprietary port that requires a set of adapter cables to plug in iOS devices or USB drives. On the plus side, I was happy to see that Volkswagen actually had an adapter cable for Apple's Lightning connector, making it possible to plug in an iPhone 5 without a secondary adapter. It's only been about a year and a half.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI
The navigation option uses the same 5.8 inch touchscreen that comes standard in the GTI. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Also pleasing were the Fender badges on the A-pillar speakers, signifying the Fender premium audio system in this GTI. This system delivers excellent audio quality, and is among the best I've heard for cars in this price range.

The 2015 Volkswagen GTI feels like a worthy successor to the line, with excellent handling and a decent power boost from the engine. I especially like the addition of the drive modes and the availability of the adaptive dampers for the suspension. The Performance package is a must-have option here.

As much as I appreciate quick shifts of the DSG, and the fun of launch control, the manual transmission is likely to be more satisfying. The clutch work will be more engaging, but even more importantly, the gear ratios from the spec sheet make it look easier to keep power up.

CNET will offer a more comprehensive review of the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI when we get one in for a full test.