A sweet all-around ride that can move your family and your soul – at the same time.
Did I have sky-high expectations of the 2015 GTI? You bet I did. Being a former GTI owner, I had pre-set ideals and requirements for my week with the new GTI. VW had better be handing over a truly sporty hatchback that doesn’t shy away from practicality or there would be trouble.
Yes, the GTI is a Golf and the 2015’s upright 5-door shape doesn’t stray too far from the beaten path. It gets its own special touches, yes. Badging, a mildly aggressive front end with a snazzy honeycomb grille, bright U-shaped LED running lights and some slick adaptive bi-xenon headlights. And LED fog lights that are set into a pair of overstyled fake air intakes. The rear end gets two nicely-spread-out meaty exhaust tips and a slick-looking lower diffuser. The wheel wells are filled with attractive 18-inch rims – they’ve got 5 big swept-back spokes and are shod with 225/40-sized rubber.
The GTI’s cabin is nicely crafted, but nothing special – I’ve seen a lot of talk about a quality interior, but frankly, I think it’s somewhere around the middle of the pack when it comes to the competition in this class and there was nothing substantial about it that made it memorable for me. It has a decent soft-touch-plastic upper dash, but there are plenty of hard plastics everywhere else and even with the cool red accent lighting strips glowing around the interior, it’s a very dark, sombre place to be. No surprise for VW fans.
As expected, the heated plaid fabric seats are firm, beautifully supportive and comfortable. The smallish 5.8-inch touchscreen (surrounded by hard buttons for the main functions) controls media, phone and navigation – it’s not a very sharp screen, but the user interface is pretty intuitive and things work well, with the exception of the voice recognition. The sound system is Fender-branded. I’m not sure why a manufacturer would choose to pair up with a company known for building crunchy-sounding guitar amps in the first place, but thankfully the system in the GTI sounds quite good. There’s also a dual-zone automatic climate control system and a sunroof.
If you need to move people, two of them will be quite comfortable in the back. There is ample head room and generous leg room as well – for the two outboard positions. The centre console goes way back and sits atop a massive middle tunnel, which effectively removes any leg and foot room for the middle seating position.
While the Golf-based GTI comes across as a great family-mobile, and we did get our three kids back there, it was always a fight about who had to sit in the middle because it’s a nearly-useless and highly uncomfortable seat. If you’ve got little ones, there are two sets of excellent, easily-accessible LATCH child-seat anchors. The otherwise spartan rear seating area gets some adjustable air vents, an armrest that folds down out of the centre seatback, and for transporting longer, skinnier items while you’re also moving passengers, a centre pass-through.
You’ll hunt around for a minute to figure out how to get into the trunk. In the end, I figured out that the top of the VW logo on the hatchback can be pushed in – an action that unlocks the hatch and pivots the bottom of the badge out far enough to become a latch to pull up. Nifty. The car automatically makes the same thing happen when you put it into reverse, and the electronically swivelled-up VW badge exposes the rear-view camera. I’m guessing that’s just something else that could go wrong down the road, but for now, it’s a cool little detail.
There is a sizeable 490 litre trunk space under the hard parcel shelf, which is removable. Yank it out of there, and you have 670 litres total behind the rear seats to work with. Fold the back seats down (they split 60/40) and the GTI hands over a solid 1520 litre space to work with.
Under the Hood
That’s enough talk about practicality and such sundries. On to what motivates this thing. A turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder sits side-saddle under the hood, paired with what is a rarity these days – a 6-speed manual transmission. Of course, the GTI remains a front-wheel drive car. The little mill puts up some decent numbers – 210 horsepower at 4300 RPM and 258 lb.ft of torque at a low 1600 RPM.
Fuel economy is middling for a smaller 5-door hatchback. The GTI is rated at 9.4 L/100 km (25 US mpg) in the city and 6.9 L/100 km (34 US mpg) on the highway. Nothing exciting, but not bad either. VW tells us that premium fuel is recommended to wring the most out of the engine, but apparently not required
Firing up the GTI with its push-start ignition button, which VW annoyingly insists on placing on the centre console, nets me a nice snarl. I’m greeted with gauges that do the start-up sweep, which is still a cool trick, and as I depress the clutch pedal, I note that the manual transmission in this car is a relatively friendly one. The pedal requires only moderate effort and the take-up is quite gentle – I could teach someone to drive a stick with this car. Tradition dictates that GTIs should have a golf ball shifter knob, and the 2015 doesn’t deviate. I palm the awesome golf ball shifter, and snick the car into first gear, and find that the shifter is surprisingly clunky and less refined than I had hoped but the action is light enough and positive such that I always know I’ve hit my gear.
The engine has very little turbo lag and it very quickly hits its stride, providing tremendous, linear pull from low RPMs right up to redline. Frankly, I probably could have posted much better fuel economy than the 9.4 L/100 km I averaged, but I found the power band highly addictive and I frequently found myself needing another hit. I drove the GTI with a very heavy foot throughout most of the week. There are three drive modes – regular, sport and individual – which impact the car’s engine mapping and steering.
The 4-cylinder’s start-up snarl continues when you’re on the road, becoming particularly noticeable under load. The first few days, I loved it. After a while, the throatiness got a bit tiring and I found myself wishing it was limited more to aggressive driving, instead of every time I got on the gas. In the end, the GTI is louder than most cars, but let’s not forget that it calls itself a sports car and this trait is more forgivable in that category.
The ride is certainly firm, and while it ends up getting a bit rough over some surfaces, it remains forgiving enough that I wouldn’t describe it as harsh. One thing I couldn’t help but notice is that the rear seats don’t latch in as solidly as they might in other cars, and when you hit a bad patch of pavement (read: every couple of minutes in Edmonton), they rattle around quite a bit. The trade-off in the suspension department is, of course, stellar front-wheel drive handling. Crank that fantastic steering wheel a bit (or a lot), and you’ll be rewarded with a car that doesn’t hesitate. Point it in any direction and it will abide. The steering is decidedly heavy at higher speeds, and requires you to work a bit (which I loved!), turn-in is deliciously quick and the car remains shockingly flat around corners, begging you to thread it into tight spaces any time you want, even when you’re moving at a frightening pace.
With all that said, the GTI has gained a lot of weight over the four decades it’s been with us, as it has added space, luxury and safety equipment, and you can definitely tell it’s no longer a flyweight. The current model tips the scales at 1378 kg (3038 pounds) and as you pick up the pace, you can feel those extra pounds, especially in the corners. The car handles very well, but it’s not as as razor-sharp as it could be.
The GTI was nicely insulated from wind noise on the open highway, but road noise was a different story – it was there, and I felt it was very noticeable, especially over certain surfaces. The 50 litre tank makes it a decent road trip car with a theoretical 725 km range on the highway.
I loved that the GTI was relatively quick, but this isn’t a car meant for the drags trip anyway. It yearns for some quality time on sweeping backroads, where it can zip from one apex to the next. While VW’s DSG dual-clutch does a fine job, the 6-speed manual bundled with my review car felt like it let me wring the most out of the car. And sporty as it is, there are very sensible aspects to the GTI – room for 4-5 people, a spacious trunk and enough luxury, tech and safety to satisfy most buyers out there.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was very high when it came to the car’s practicality and interior. She felt the engine was too loud and she wished for a more gentle ride.
Sure, this model has evolved over the years but dagnammit, the GTI remains an irritatingly good all-around car that provides the buyer with a great driving experience that doesn’t call for compromises and leaves civility on the table.
Pricing: 2015 VW GTI
Base price (base trim): $32,895
Options: $695 Technology package
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $35,085
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Volkswagen Canada.
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