The GTI is a hoot to drive, whether ferrying kids about or resorting to hooliganism. The synergy makes it balanced, capable and a great blend, even if other cars have more speed or higher handling limits.
With a small turbocharger on the 2-liter four-cylinder, response is immediate and the power is gratifying at any speed. Peak horsepower is 200 hp and maximum torque 207 lb-ft, both inferior to the MazdaSpeed3, Mitusbishi Ralliart and the Subaru Impreza WRX. Those cars are quicker but rate about 20-percent lower fuel economy, and the all-wheel drive Ralliart and WRX are heavier. Honda's Civic Si non-turbo matches horsepower but falls behind on torque and economy. Hyundai's rear-drive Genesis coupe 2-liter turbo is slightly more powerful and less economical, and not quite as refined as the GTI.
Underway, that refinement counts for a lot. All 207 lb-ft is available from 1800 rpm to 5000, and max power from 5100-6000, so there is virtually nowhere on the rev band without plenty of urge. Officially, the engine goes to 6500 rpm, smoothly and with a pleasant snarl from the tailpipes, but on more than one occasion the tach needle on a DSG car sailed right off to 7000 rpm under full throttle. The abundant torque and flexibility make it easy to drive, the willingness and lack of torque steer makes you enjoy it.
A 6-speed manual is standard and properly setup for the car's use and broad powerband. The double-clutch DSG, essentially a 6-speed automated manual (no clutch pedal, shift only if you wish) is available, cracks off gear-changes faster than humans, dropping the 0-60 time by 1/10 of a second. It even has the ubiquitous launch control but you don't want to make a habit of using it. We tend to prefer manual gearboxes with small turbocharged engines.
Fuel economy for the GTI is an EPA-estimated 21/31 mpg City/Highway with manual gearbox, 24/32 mpg with the DSG transmission.
There are few drawbacks to either gearbox. The manual might give up one real-world mpg. The DSG requires a sensitive right foot: the combination of electronic throttle, boost and gearbox control means a fine line between asking for a little more power and instead the car downshifting, going on boost and delivering substantially more power than you wanted.
MacPherson-strut front and coil/link rear suspension, both with hollow antiroll bars and sticky summer tires ensure the GTI sticks to the ground. In this respect, the GTI gives up nothing in performance to the competition and generally delivers a more civilized, compliant ride, in part because it's lighter than anything but the Civic Si. You can make it louder, make it stiffer, or add your own 19-inch wheels (an option in Europe where road surfaces are better) but you risk giving up some civility that makes the GTI an everyday driver or interstate cruiser.
Although the GTI is front-wheel drive, it does not suffer from torque-steer like the MazdaSpeed3. The GTI seems able to put down full power under almost any circumstances. The steering is direct, nicely weighted and transmits a good idea what the front tires are doing, and the brakes are responsive and stable. Some of the competition may post higher cornering limits or braking distances but the margins won't be substantial and they all cost more.
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