Our very first drive of the new GTI was limited to about six hours of driving at the press introduction in Europe – enough for a first impression, but not really adequate to get a full sense of the new model. We were grateful this past spring for the opportunity to actually live with a new GTI for several thousand miles on a variety of roads from mountain curves to board-flat highways, over a wide range of surfaces and conditions.
Our first long-term stint in the new GTI coincided with our travels to Geneva, Switzerland for the annual auto show there. We lined up a five-door model, which along with the new Audi A3 Sportback and BMW 120i formed the basis of our “Hatch Trick” article. Four staff members lived in and out of these three cars for seven days, driving from Munich to Geneva, then on to Nice, France, through Monte Carlo and Genoa, Italy and on into Innsbruck, Austria before returning to Munich. This journey took us through some of the most challenging and breathtaking roads we’ve ever experienced. It also exposed us to some of the most frustrating city driving ever (Geneva, Switzerland), horrendous traffic jams and weather (Genoa, Italy) and “interesting” back country paths that barely qualify as roads (somewhere off the nav in the Austrian alps). In the course of that week we really got to know these cars inside and out.
Our goal in putting the three cars together was never to flush out direct comparisons, as all of these cars were equipped very differently and, more notably, possess rather unique personalities. The Audi A3 and BMW 120i were the closest in specification, each with 150hp naturally aspirated 2.0-liter powerplants under the hood, the Audi driving the front wheels and the BMW driving the rears. The GTI had the upper hand with 200hp, a difference readily apparent from the second any of us hopped into it after driving the others. But does that make it the best in this group? That depends…
The GTI for our European tour was a red five-door with leather, navigation, sunroof, HIDs and Volkswagen’s unique dual-clutch direct shift gearbox (DSG). The standard 17″ GTI wheels were shod with Dunlop Wintersport snow tires, as the March weather can (and did) vary quite a bit. The 1 Series had the same snow treads as the GTI, while the Audi A3 was fitted with Bridgestone Blizzaks.
Though the five-door GTI is common throughout the rest of the world, North America has only ever known the three-door GTI. This time around though North America will be getting both the 3-door and the 5-door models. The 5-door sports a unique look compared to the 3-door variant, a look that some of our staff seem to favor more. Essentially a hatchback Jetta, the 5-door GTI is a great alternative for those that need to occasionally haul extra friends or family around.
With three inches of additional leg room over the last generation GTI, there is quite a bit of space in the back seat now. Our six-foot tall staffers can sit up front comfortably while another six footer can sit in the back and not even touch knees to the seat in front of them. Even a rear-facing baby seat will fit in back now without needing to move the front seat all the way forward.
Our excursion started in Munich under less than ideal conditions – snow, sleet, cold and dark. This however gave us an opportunity to sample the latest iteration of Electronic Stability Program (ESP) in the GTI. Truth be told you’d have to mess up in a big way or be outright screwing around to get the car out of shape in the snow. The Dunlop Wintersport tires gave us sure-footed grip through the slop and the electromechanical steering provides decent feedback, feeling neither over-assisted nor too heavy. The 2.0T with 200hp can be provoked easily to spin a wheel in these kinds of wet conditions, but ESP will rein it in quickly without the hard cut off of power that was common in the Golf IV. Driving the GTI in the sleet and snow was not the white-knuckled experience we expected, even on the Autobahn, and we were able to set a decent pace quickly and safely.
Our next stop was Geneva, Switerland for the Geneva Auto Show. If you’ve ever been to Geneva, you’ve no doubt experienced first-hand the pure frustration of getting around by car. Traffic signals seem to have nano-second green light intervals in one direction (usually the one you are traveling in) and red light intervals that would give the line at the DMV a run for its money. Parking in Geneva? Forget it; you may as well pack it in and go park in nearby France – you’ll do enough laps around and down side streets that you’ll need Dramamine and a sedative just to calm yourself down from the frustration.
The GTI takes it all in stride though, especially with the optional DSG transmission that you can leave in “D” like an automatic and just forget about it- nice! The 2.0T makes tons of low-end torque and will squirt its way through traffic without even breathing hard. Interestingly, most of our staff mentioned numerous times that even though the dimensions of the new GTI are bigger than the last generation model, it somehow doesn’t feel bigger. Maneuvering it through the streets and in and out of parking spots was a breeze, and visibility is very good in the 5-door model. Ruts and potholes were well absorbed with little in the way of thumps, shakes and squeaks- for that we can thank the extremely rigid chassis and revised suspension setup. Imagine that… a GTI that both rides decently *and* handles extremely well.
After miles of walking around the show, we headed south into France and towards the Mediterranean coast to the city of Nice, France. Instead of choosing the easy (and boring) motorway route, we decided instead to take the famed Route Napoleon through the French Alps. As legend goes, the current Route Napoléon, first opened in 1932 and follows the route taken by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815 on his march from Elba to Grenoble, France. Porsche is famous for introducing their vehicles to the press on this route and it doesn’t disappoint. From staggeringly beautiful vistas through the French Alps to the kind of twisting, rising and falling tarmac usually found only in video games, Route Nepoleon is a gem. There are segments that will leave your heart pounding and palms sweaty, but grinning ear to ear- it’s those sections we drove over and over, switching cars and laughing like a bunch of frat boys up to no good.
These NC-17 rated segments of extreme driving pleasure gave us the opportunity to push all three cars to the limit and beyond and quickly learn an awful lot about the cars. The GTI approaches tight twisty sections with a point-shoot-correct-shoot-brake attitude. Putting 200hp through the front wheels reveals the limits of its ability to put the power down effectively while also steering precisely, often resulting in understeer at the limits. The limits in the GTI however are very easy to explore, control and correct, making it immediately familiar like a good pair of broken in Nikes.
VW’s electromechanical steering is best in class for this type of system, giving good feedback and loading up nicely at speeds. However, in extreme situations (at a tight autocross course for example) you can find yourself outpacing the steering, the electromechanical assistance fighting to keep up with your inputs. It doesn’t happen very often, but it can certainly be provoked in the right circumstances. The brakes were phenomenal, delivering good feedback, controllable bite and fade-free performance throughout our very demanding mountain stages.
The Audi, on the other hand, surprised us a bit- we assumed it would handle very much like the GTI upon whose platform it is based. That just wasn’t the case. The electromechanical steering features completely different programming with less weighting and less feeling than the GTI. Further, our A3 tester lacked a sport package, so the resulting extra body roll and sloppiness in the corners left each driver feeling less heroic than in the GTI. The A3’s brakes were prone to cooking under pressure and even faded with extreme use much more quickly than the other two vehicles. Pushed hard and given some faith, the A3 will hang pretty well with the other two, but it just isn’t as rewarding and leaves the driver feeling a bit exhausted trying to keep up on the challenging bits.
The 1 Series was the contrast car in everything from seating position to performance. The Volkswagen family genes come through in the A3 and GTI, where the 120i is unmistakably BMW. You sit *in* the 1 Series, set back a bit from the front end of the car to accommodate the longitudinal engine/rear-wheel drive configuration. You also sit very low in comparison to the A3 and GTI which, with the rearward driving position, leaves you feeling like you’re driving inside the heel an over-size Converse All-Star shoe. Sounds funky (and it is), but once you get acquainted, everything seems to fit you just about right.
Steering communication and gearboxes are BMW’s strong suits and the 1 Series delivers in spades with wonderful feedback and slick, exact shifts. Power is sent to the rear wheels like all proper BMWs should, so jumping from one of the front-drive cars to this one on a challenging road takes a bit of adjustment, not only in driving style but in ego. You’re forced to step things down a notch until you safely probe the limits and learn to trust it.
The most noticeable difference is the 120i’s absence of power- particularly against the GTI, but even in comparison to the A3 with identical horsepower. The A3 benefits from FSI technology that endows it with excellent low-end torque delivery while still pulling well in the upper RPMs. The difference in motivation between the 120i and the A3 is night and day.
Once you explore the limits of the 1 Series and start to gather up some courage, you’ll be rewarded with very progressive and gradual breakaway at the limits, fantastic feedback through the steering wheel and an overall sense that the BMW could continue to go further. At the very limits understeer still surfaces, but the rear-wheel-drive setup allows you to correct the problem with the throttle pedal or the brakes, while the GTI and A3 typically need to scrub speed to bring things back in line. Unfortunately, the two-liter engine just isn’t enough for the chassis, and lacks any redeeming qualities that make you want to flog it hard – it just can’t deliver any more. Most of us felt like the 120i was a good car in search of a great engine. BMW obviously agreed, introducing the 130i at Geneva that week, powered by an all-new 265hp inline six-cylinder.
In the evenings we regularly sat around and talked animatedly about our day’s drive and the same conclusions kept popping up – take the A3’s interior, mix it with the GTI’s 2.0T engine and brakes and give the BMW’s rear-wheel drive, gearbox and steering and you’d have the near perfect compact hatch. Of course it doesn’t work that way and overall when we talked about price, standard features and overall ease to drive and have fun the GTI repeatedly came into play as our favorite between the three. We all agree the rear-wheel drive compact idea really, really messes with our minds and hearts, but the wallet squirms at the price tag and lack of power that comes with it in this case.
The new GTI delivers an all-around package that is hard to beat among the hot hatch crowd. From its improved interior space, standard features, material quality, fit and finish to the 2.0T and class-standard performance and handling, the GTI delivers. Our extended drives only serve to make many among our staff pine away further waiting for the GTI to arrive on our shores in February. We’re happy to announce the GTI is finally back.
European Road Test: Hatch Trick theCarLounge.net
European Road Test: Audi A3 2.0 FSI on Fourtitude.com
European Road Test: BMW 120i on Mwerks.com
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