Reviews and Road Tests
First Drive: North American GTI
By by: Jamie Vondruska
Dec 5, 2005, 15:49

South of France near the city of St. Paul de Vence - Somewhere during a heart-stopping, GTI-pounding romp through roads most people could only dream of, it struck me. We often talk about what makes a European car "feel" different than a vehicle made in Asia or America, particularly in this increasingly homogenized car market where global engineering teams are finding new ways to clone nearly everything. True automotive inspiration isn't found in a sterile lab but out on the road, and Europe arguably has some of the best in the world. Almost nowhere else do roads have the variation, challenge, length and majesty of scenery found in Europe. That is the secret ingredient - cars developed for people that drive these types of roads every day. Roads that require a vehicle to not only glide down the highway but also handle well, transition well, inspire confidence and most important, are fun to drive. The type of roads that most Europeans drive every day not only inspire but dictate this distinctly European character trait that is often lost on other vehicles.

So it seems only fitting that Volkswagen decided up front to squash any idea that the American-bound GTI is significantly watered down offering us a first drive of the North American-spec cars on some of Europe's most famous driving roads, including sections found in the FIA World Rally Championship Monte Carlo Rally route. So how is it you ask? After flogging a U.S. spec GTI for a whole day over these types of roads I'm happy to report that it left me with a huge grin on my face. In fact I went back out a second time to drive the first part of the drive route nearly running out of fuel in the process, returning the car with brakes smoking and my mind thoroughly baked from the experience. If there were such a thing as a Vehicular Therapeutic Spa for car enthusiasts this is it.

We won't go into a ton of details about the Golf V GTI itself since we've covered the car extensively already in both our initial drive and our Hatch Trick articles (consult both for major details). The U.S. version is virtually identical to the German car with the exception of a few details. Cosmetically you'll find orange side marker lights in the sides of the front bumper (U.S. requirement), the 17" wheel from the Jetta GLI (the 18" wheel is the same as the German-market car) and a 15mm higher ride height to ensure a five-star side-impact crash rating here in the States. Otherwise the outside of the car remains true to the European version with that distinctive black snout, standard high intensity discharge (HID)headlamps, honeycomb mesh grill inserts, black bodykit piece, et al. - very little was changed overall. Oh and one other important detail… you'll be able to get four doors on your GTI for the first time ever in the U.S.

Inside you'll also find that VW carried over all the great details found in the German GTI including a meaty flat-bottom Momo-style steering wheel, real brushed aluminum accents, GTI specific gauges, aluminum pedals and more. The only letdown in our minds is that the more aggressive sport seat is only available in leather and not in Volkswagen's retro "Interlagos" plaid cloth. If you want the cool tartan cloth you'll settle for a less bolstered seat which is more of a hinderance cosmetically than anything else. Our drive time in the cloth equipped cars wasn't diminished in the least from a support standpoint and quite frankly we forgot quickly. However we can understand our readers dismay at the disparity in offering two different seats, particularly one that looks quite a bit less "GTI-like". Volkswagen's explanation is that it would have cost an arm and leg to certify two seats due to the side airbag testing necessary when changing the seat covering. Whether you buy that or not, VW is looking into a potential work-around for the future that would keep the leather bolsters (where the airbag is located) but use the plaid cloth on the seating surfaces. Meanwhile GTI models will ship with two different seats, and those of you that want the more aggressively bolstered seat will have to step up to the more costly leather option.

Our bigger concern though was the change in ride height for the U.S. spec cars. While VW claims a 15mm increase, to our eyes the U.S. GTI looks more like 25mm higher which tends to diminish the low aggressive look we favor in cars like the GTI and GLI. To make matters much worse, we just spent a whole summer with not one but two different Golf V GTI's, both German-spec cars with nearly perfect ride height and handling. So we approached this drive with intense skeptism given VW's track record of watering down the U.S. versions of the cars. Luckily our fears diminished quickly with an actual drive behind the wheel which is very good news.

To try and quantify it as a whole we'd say the U.S. version is 95% of what the German version is, with our seat-of-the-pants assessment is that the U.S. version is slightly more compliant in the ride department. Whether this is indicative of the higher center of gravity or any actual suspension changes as well we're not sure. It is however better sorted out than the new GLI which leads us to believe that Germany spent a little more time ensuring the U.S. GTI wasn't compromised too much. The more compliant ride and additional height will probably be welcomed by those that live in snow belt regions with rough roads. But to most the additional ride height isn't particularly flattering in the looks department.

The handling at the limits is still very good, easy to explore and loads of fun on the twisty bits. The electromechanical steering has the same aggressive programming as the German GTI and weights up very nicely and provides decent feedback. Torque steer is nonexistent which is impressive for a car forced to put 200hp through the front wheels. Speaking of 200hp, the new 2.0T FSI engine is a honey with great torque, nice horsepower and loads of tractability throughout the rev range. Preliminary dyno reports of U.S. spec GLI models with the 2.0T are showing the cars are putting close to 200hp to the wheels, which means VW may be underrating the horsepower of the 2.0T for marketing purposes- the cars are likely making closer to 220 crank horsepower. Overall if you liked the 1.8T you're going to love the 2.0T even more.

The revised MQ350 manual six-speed is better than the previous generation car and a bit more direct, but we'd still like to see tighter throws. The optional direct shift gearbox (DSG) with its dual-clutch electronic manual setup is really slick and definitely worth a test drive before making any purchase decisions. We're big fans of the system and love its simplicity and extremely quick response. DSG is a point and shoot system that you can set in sport mode and largely forget. Our only gripe with DSG is that the U.S. cars get a slightly less aggressive sport (S) mode that doesn't hold the revs as long and has a tendency to upshift sooner than the German version. U.S. owners won't likely know the difference since they haven't driven the German car, but we'd prefer to see the full German programming (ahem VW).

The standard electronic stability program (ESP) is less aggressive than it was in the Golf IV generation cars and intervenes much later allowing for a bit more fun while still under its supervision. Turn ESP off and the GTI will spin its wheels easily in tight turns as it copes with a meaty torque band. Modulate things with your right foot though and you'll be rewarded nicely as the GTI can be coaxed to rotate slightly by lifting off mid-turn. Transitions from turn to turn are very neat and tidy with no sloppy swinging from side to side (Golf IV anyone?) thanks largely to a fully independent rear suspension. Body roll, dive and squat are far better controlled than in any GTI built in the last ten years. The brakes are excellent and virtually fade free hauling the car down nicely from high rates of speed. You won't find the hard-core direct nature of the A1 or A2 generation cars, but by modern car standards the GTI is at the top of its class in a package that feels more upscale than the price tag would indicate.

Speaking of price expect the GTI to sticker around $22,350 in two-door form and about $500 more for the four-door model. Standard equipment on the U.S. cars is substantial including high intensity discharge headlamps, in-dash CD-changer with MP3 compatibility, real brushed aluminum trim, sport steering wheel with radio and trip computer controls, power everything and loads more. Sunroof and satellite radio (XM or Sirius) are bundled into Option Package 1 and heated leather top-sport seats, dual-zone electronic climate control, sunroof and satellite radio (XM or Sirius) are part of Option Package 2. DVD-based Navigation system and 18" alloy wheels are both stand-alone options. Expect to see the new GTI two-door arrive in dealers around February with 4-door models due in June.

The new GTI has won numerous awards and accolades throughout Europe including performance car of the year last year. Volkswagen AG even did a full marketing campaign touting, "The GTI Is Back". We're happy to report that the North American version is the best GTI to come out of Wolfsburg since the A2 generation left our scene in 1992. We're glad its finally back.

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