Volkswagen Golf VI GTI First Drive

“We always had a GTI in the family, from the first to the fifth,” says racing legend, Hans Stuck. “There were no gaps here. Even when I was under contract with BMW, I preferred to drive to the Nürburgring in a GTI. It was in a GTI that I drove 911 drivers to distraction on the North Loop. That was the genius of this car and it has stayed that way right up to today.”

The GTI is one of the few cars that transcend both social and economic barriers in Europe, where it can be found in the garages of both the most wealthy and the less fortunate. More importantly, it has remained true to its roots as an economical, fun-to-drive hot hatch. So does the new sixth generation model still capture that spirit? After a full day tearing the car up and down the mountain roads in southern France we were left with big perma-grins and felt like we could breath a sigh of relief that the newest GTI is still a GTI.

Volkswagen is calling this GTI the “new” sixth-generation car and that needs a little clarification. As most of the people reading this website know, this new model is essentially an improved version of the already brilliant fifth-generation model. Whereas the fifth-generation car was a completely new platform, the 2010 model is more of a significant facelift. Volkswagen’s engineers are quick to point out that there are more than 1,500 change points on the new car that range from additional laser seam welding, more tailored blanks and reduced assembly pieces to a newly revised 2.0T engine, better interior materials and revised suspension geometries. So while it may appear that just the exterior sheet metal changed, there were a lot of changes made to the overall platform to improve, as much as possible, the strong fifth-generation platform.

We have to say that the new Golf VI GTI looks good in the metal. If you like it in pictures, you’ll like it more in person. I honestly never warmed up to the design of the Golf V and to me the Golf VI looks more like a proper transition from the popular Golf IV design. The large, pulled-back headlamps have given way to thinner, more angular units and a new flat face devoid of the large “shield” grill that was the hallmark of the fifth-generation Golf/Jetta cars. The taillamps look like VW raided the Touareg parts bin; at first glance in photos, that isn’t a good thing. In person, however, the look is better integrated than it appears in photos with the lamps sculpting into the rear and side flanks. By removing all the tall design elements in the front and rear end, the Golf VI has a visually lower, wider stance that makes you think the new model is physically wider (it isn’t). Major measurements are nearly identical to the outgoing Golf V version.

So thinking about our readers a bit (this means you) and how they modify their cars and mix and match parts, I took a closer look at the differences between the standard Golf VI and the Golf VI GTI model and noticed a few interesting things. Whereas the Golf V had the dimpled/textured lower sills under the doors, the new car has smooth sills. On the GTI, what appear to be side skirts are actually ABS plastic pieces that are adhered to the sills themselves – an easy modification for those opt for the less expensive Golf VI. The entire front bumper is unique to the GTI model, but can be interchanged with the standard Golf – not cheap but it can be done. At the rear however, the diffuser panel on the GTI is an insert into the lower part of the bumper (as opposed to an entirely new rear bumper). So the good news is that if you want to add the diffuser to your regular Golf you can do so without replacing the entire rear bumper. However, you’ll need to find a dual exhaust (which should be easy in the aftermarket) as the dual exhaust cutouts are built into the lower part of the diffuser.

Moving to the interior you’ll find a number of other significant changes. First off is the overall feeling that the interior materials got a major upgrade. The cabin feels more upscale thanks to more soft-touch plastics, more attention to detail and an overall simplified design of the door panels and other interior surfaces. The dashboard itself is padded heavily enough that you can push your finger into the material a good half an inch. The seats are similar to the last generation car, with nearly identical bolsters on the sides but revised center sections with different rib patterns. The “Interlagos” plaid cloth that was popular in the Mk V has been revised and is now called “Jacky” (yes, really) and looks even more old-school retro. Like the previous model, the cloth upholstery comes with the base sport seats and upgrading to leather gets you the top sport seats with bigger bolsters. Neither seat is bad, but given a choice, we’ll take the top sport seats.

The flat-bottom steering wheel that was a trademark piece in the Golf V GTI returns in the Golf VI GTI, but this time the stitching is red and there is a large, solid, aluminum-looking piece anchoring the bottom with new controls at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions for the MFA and radio/nav system. The center stack in the dash houses VW’s newer RCD510 standard touch-screen radio or the optional RNS510 touch-screen navigation system. Either headunit is a huge improvement over its respective predecessor with clearer graphics, a vastly improved user interface and better map data. Also available optionally is VW’s very good Dynaudio 300W audio system. The system is extremely clear with decent staging, good mid-range and very smooth bottom end response. If you are used to aftermarket systems with separate subwoofers you’ll still likely be looking for a little more, but the Dynaudio system is far better than anything previously offered from VW.

Under the hood, Volkswagen has massaged the familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct injection, four-cylinder engine to help increase economy, lower emissions and provide a minor bump in power – at least for the European market. This 2.0T engine is internally known at the EA888 and VW says this is a “newer” version of the engine that was first used in the German 30th Anniversary Edition model. Changes include modified pistons and rings, a new regulated oil pump system, different vacuum and fuel pumps, and new mass airflow sensor. This version of the 2.0T was quietly rolled out during 2008 as a running change to the existing Golf V and Jetta V models so it isn’t completely new. In the European market, the new 2.0T will be marketed with 210 hp and 206 lb-ft of torque at a low 1,700 rpm. The change in pistons and rings reduced frictional rotation and the fueling system changes have helped optimize fuel delivery. This results in a European cycle fuel economy rating of 32 mpg versus 29 mpg for the old engine. Fuel economy figures for the North American market haven’t been finalized yet but given that the European numbers are achieved with higher octane fuels, we expect EPA ratings will remain the same as or slightly better than the existing car.

While the European version of the GTI will be marketed with 210 hp, the U.S. version will continue with 200 hp. A lot has already been discussed and written about this, but we’ll offer some food for thought. Throughout our drive with the new GTI, never once did the extra 10 hp feel any different. The newer engine feels smoother, but if there was an additional 10 hp there, we didn’t notice. We’ve had a few 2.0T GTI and GLI models on the dyno and they pretty consistently put around 190 hp to the wheels (there is always driveline loss between the engine and the wheels). That 190 hp to the wheels suggests that the 2.0T is already making more power than the 200 hp that VW claims, and it isn’t uncommon for German manufacturers to underrate their engines. So it all begs the question of whether the 2.0T was always making closer to 210 hp and why VW isn’t calling it 210 hp for our market? The official answer is that the poorer quality of our fuels dictates the lower overall rating. Either way, we don’t think the new engine feels any different than the outgoing model from a power perspective.

Like the Golf V GTI, power is routed through a choice of either a six-speed manual or six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG). Depending on your needs and preferences, either transmission is a good one. According to VW about 30 percent of all GTI owners will order their cars with DSG. We only wish VW would offer the same programming that comes with the European-spec cars. The cars we drove feel like they click off the shifts even quicker and make a great exhaust “brap” right at the shift point. Apparently the U.S. cars get slightly different programming thanks to J.D. Power’s recommendations (and their steady conquest to homogenize the car market) as they feel consumers don’t like the extra noise and demand a smoother shift (as opposed to a quicker one). So while the U.S. DSG programming isn’t bad and is still quicker than any other automatic transmission, it is diluted a bit for our market – which is a shame. This DSG programming is the same as the previous Mk5 generation cars, so if you like the DSG in the past, you’ll still like it in the new cars as well.

Getting that power to the ground has always been an issue with a front-wheel-drive car and VW has a new electronic limited-slip differential called XDS that, unlike a mechanical diff, relies on an all-new version of the EDL (electronic differential lock) system that uses the brakes to manage slip. Whereas EDL would sense wheelspin and apply brakes and dial back throttle to the front wheels to stop it, XDS can now much more accurately control a single wheel spinning (like the inside front wheel under hard acceleration in a turn). What this means is that the electronics can sense even the smallest amount of slippage on that inside wheel and apply just enough braking (at hundreds of pulses per second) to control it.

The system also looks at the degree of steering angle and direction of steering angle to determine how much braking is necessary. If the ESP detects understeer starting to creep in, it will brake that inside front wheel, which in turn causes the front push condition to slow down or stop while the outside wheel continues to apply power. In the real world, we drove the wheels off of the new GTI on some of the most demanding roads in southern France and the system works very seamlessly and doesn’t dial back power or intrude to the frustrating degree that the old EDL system would. You’ll find far less wheelspin on tight turns (although you can still make it happen for brief moments) and the new GTI feels like it pulls better out of the corners. Is it as effective as a mechanical locking differential like a Quaife? No. However, you also don’t get the loss of steering feel or torque steer common with mechanical diffs. Plus all the existing components for XDS are already on the car, so the additional costs were minimal.

On the suspension end of things, nearly all spring and shock rates were tweaked and refined. New bushings were used and additional toe and camber adjustments were made. Ride height on the European cars was reduced 22mm in front and 15mm in back according to VW, but we don’t see it visually on the new model.

One new piece of technology available on the Euro-spec cars is VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) system. DCC uses hydraulic oil shock absorbers in which the fluid channel can be electronically narrowed or widened to modulate damping forces. When no current is applied, the system has medium- or base-level damping. A button in front of the shifter allows the driver to select between COMFORT, NORMAL and SPORT settings. While many of these systems are often gimmicky, VW’s DCC system works pretty well. The NORMAL mode is an automatic setting that defaults to a comfortable ride in most conditions, but firms up when you pick up the pace based on feedback from yaw, steering and acceleration sensors. In SPORT mode the electromechanical steering also firms up a bit. Like a lot of these systems, you’ll find yourself playing around with the different settings in the beginning, but often just leaving it in SPORT. All of this technology is moot for the North American market though; we won’t be getting this system due to the heavy costs. U.S. spec cars should get the standard GTI sport suspension offered in Germany. All of the cars at the launch event had DCC, so we aren’t able to tell you how the non-DCC setup is. VW engineers claim that the stand non-DCC suspension on the GTI is set up somewhere between the NORMAL and SPORT of the DCC system.

Other improvements made to the car are evident in the reduction in noise, vibration and harshness. The Golf VI incorporates even more laser welded seams, a reduction in the number of pieces (and complexities) required to assemble the car, new insulated window glass and more. To you and I this translates into a car that is very quiet and even more solid going down the road. The Golf V was no slouch already in this department, but the combination of improved interior materials, better insulation and additional chassis rigidity all contribute to the feeling that the Golf VI is a more expensive car than it really is.

In the twisty bits the new XDS system helps prevent that inside wheel from spinning like mad, making the new model feel like it pulls stronger out of turns. Handling is predictable like the previous GTI and it’s easy to drive quickly and confidently with little drama. Body control is tight and while the steering isn’t Mk II GTI communicative, it does what you tell it and understeer is a little less prevalent thanks to the XDS doing what it can to reign it in. You can get the rear end to rotate ever so slightly by lifting off the throttle mid-corner, but like all front-drive cars, the GTI won’t surprise you in its movements.

Part of what makes the GTI so appealing is its ability to do so many things well. We drove some of the most challenging roads in Europe and the GTI put a huge smile on our face the entire time. It hangs in there very well, communicates what it is doing and generally makes it easy to just get in and drive it quickly. When you’re done in the hills, it takes you back home in complete comfort with all the amenities and quality that you expect in cars that cost a little more.

Golf VI GTI models will start to arrive stateside in September. Expect pricing to start under $24,000. The base car offers two two primary option packages: The Autobahn package, which includes a power sunroof and top sport seats in leather and a Tech package consisting of Bluetooth and the 300-watt Dynaudio system. Stand-alone options include the RNS510 Navigation system, the six-speed DSG and bi-xenon headlamps that automatically swivel left and right with steering input. You’ll also be able to get the GTI with a choice of all-season or high-performance summer tires. Launch colors for our market include Red, White, Black, United Grey and Carbon Steel Metallic.

So what does this mean for the average VWvortex reader? If you own a newer Golf V GTI there probably won’t be enough new here performance-wise that you’d feel the need to upgrade to the newer model. If the new styling and overall improvements sound tempting though, you won’t be disappointed. As Ferris Bueller said, “If you have the means, I highly suggest you pick one up.” For all you Golf IV GTI fans that never liked the styling of the Golf V model, your new car may have finally arrived. Overall we’re impressed with everything VW did and look forward to getting one of our own to start digging into. That VW managed to make the new model better than the already good Golf V GTI is a tribute to the people at VW AG that “get it”. Now lets wait and see what the “R” model has to offer…

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