VWVortex

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13 January 2011

When Volkswagen launched its sixth-generation GTI last year, it promised that the latest version of this iconic hatchback would be the closest yet in spirit to the original. Naturally we were curious to see how the VW crew would achieve this, since the fifth-generation GTI — on which the sixth-gen is quite closely related — made essentially the same promise five years earlier. We’ve had a little over a year and nearly 15,000 miles to make that assessment, and here is what we’ve found.

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As it rolled off the delivery truck, we instantly fell in love with the looks of the car. The new face, crisper lines and more focused detailing give it a visual edginess the last version lacked. Even the updated plaid pattern on the cloth upholstery seems to like a greater exclamation point than the first time it was reintroduced. The basic visuals were so right with this car right out of the box that we performed only minor editing to its appearance over the course of the year. We added back the factory front lip spoiler that the rest of the world gets standard, and installed a set of smoked LED taillights from the European-market Golf R, both simple bolt-ons not offered to American buyers. The only genuine aesthetic addition we made to the exterior was a set of 19-inch VMR 710 wheels, as we feel the standard Hufmeister wheel design has run its course. Inside, we covered the standard aluminum trim with a faux-carbon fiber kit from VW’s accessories division — though in hindsight we actually prefer the look of real aluminum to fake fibers — and replaced the Premium 8 touchscreen radio with an upgraded RNS-510 navigation unit.

True to its roots, the GTI quickly became the de facto road trip vehicle around the office. Within a month of showing up, it made its first trip from Chicago to Detroit and back, a route the car would become quite familiar with. And this particular editor made two round trips to the East Coast in the course of two months, one of which involved toting 500 t-shirts that took up the entire cargo area. The GTI proved its mettle as a fun daily runabout that was always up for some grand touring, even if it occasionally meant using it like a minivan.

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A lot of that can be attributed to the interior, and what a comfortable space it is to live in. The tall cabin and four-door configuration offered plenty of space and versatility, and the overall design weathered our use quite well. The excellent sport seats covered in the funky plaid “Jacky” cloth (hey, we didn’t name it that) not only offer great support and an ideal driving position, they also proved rather durable after a year’s worth of abuse; keep in mind that numerous asses of various shapes and sizes slid in and out of the them, a show tent was transported cross-country on their backs, or numerous toddler seats were installed and removed by staffers of the parental persuasion.

Since its birth, the GTI has fueled a vibrant demand in the aftermarket, and six generations in nothing has changed. Volkswagen’s 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, which in stock form produces 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of surprisingly lag-free torque, is exactly the kind of hardware the marketplace loves to improve upon. Power was easily boosted with the usual suspects: freer-flowing intake, performance software and less restrictive exhaust. In our case, the components were, respectively, a TWINtake system from Forge Motorsports, an ECU upgrade from GIAC and a cat-back system from Borla. With all of these changes in place the GTI turned from a sprite cruiser to an all-out animal, acoustically enhanced with a deep growl from the intake and exhaust systems. Unfortunately, the changes also turned it from mild-mannered to out of control whenever any sort of moisture made its way to the pavement. The touchy throttle response and instant power delivery overwhelmed the tires in all but ideal conditions, even if it was wickedly fast when such conditions actually existed.

Thankfully, none of these additions seemed to diminish the reliability of the 2.0-liter, as the car never required service outside of its regular maintenance schedule. In fact the only technical annoyance we noticed was self inflicted: a persistent warning light in the dash told us of a rear light failure, but that was solely due to our fitting European-spec taillamps onto our North American car. They looked so good on the car that we decided to live with the minor annoyance.

We resisted the urge to tamper with the suspension on this one, as we’ve done in the past. We like the look of a lowered car as much as anyone else, but felt the factory setup struck a decent chord between ride quality and handling while managing not to look ridiculously high like other models in the VW lineup. As a result, the GTI still handled family life as well as the back roads.

Some of the more senior staff here grew up in early GTIs and remember with fondness the free-spirited fun of those early cars. The 2010 GTI managed to recall the Good Ol’ Days in terms of its lithesome looks, nimble nature, eager engine and pack-it-up-and-go practicality. We’ll gladly forgo the old car’s (few) shortcomings for this thoroughly modern and highly refined modern interpretation.

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