The GTI comes solely as a hatchback. It sits squat and square, like it wouldn't be easily taken out literally or figuratively, and has a purposeful look void of tacked-on parts or extraneous wallpaper. This sixth-generation version, introduced as a 2010 model is just seven inches longer than the original.
A horizontal theme dominates the front with a wide, level honeycomb-grille aperture along the bottom, a narrower slot above with GTI-trademark red trim stripe, and slats leading to the only vertical element, the very effective fog lamps. The slope of the hood helps both aerodynamics and close-in forward vision.
Four-unit headlamps are standard in black housings, with bi-Xenon turn-following units available that resemble beady little eyes. Turn-signal repeaters in the mirrors help cross-traffic sort your intentions, while wraparound tail lamps do the same for following cars. The rear center stop lamp is mounted in the integral spoiler so it never bathes the rear window in a red glow.
This is a clean shape with enough curve to keep it interesting and minimal creases to show it off. Ornamentation is minimal, with chrome badges and tailpipes lurking below and red brake calipers hiding behind 18-inch alloys and low-profile rubber. The two-door is slightly slicker looking with just two side windows, while the four-door has an extra window pillar in the rear door and the same forward-leaning rear pillar; four-doors look better in dark colors that better hide door openings.
The hatch opens to bumper level by pivoting the top half of the VW logo inwards (also by pushbutton inside) and cargo doesn't require a big lift to clear the painted surfaces. A rear wiper sits at the bottom of the glass out of mirror-view but sweeps almost all the glass one looks through.
Curb weight is approximately 3,050 pounds.
The GTI cabin is businesslike without being austere, a place the driver can appreciate and passengers will find quite accommodating. It's nicely trimmed and well-assembled, the level of fit and finish better than you might expect for the price knowing money also got spent on the engineering. You might argue the instruments and switches benefit from Audi influence, or the other way round since VW owns Audi.
Heated sport seats are standard up front with a fair range of adjustment, long cushions for long-legged support, excellent bolstering that contains you without restricting movement or entry and exit, and comfort for all-day drives. Leather is available yet we find the standard cloth better breathing and a bit less slippery if you're of slender build.
The rear seats are designed for three-across seating, but as usual this is better for slim adults or children; more bolstering might be beneficial for some passengers but would compromise flexibility. There are three adjustable headrests, reading lights, cupholders, and storage bins, but the side windows open only on four-door models (the seats and space are the same). It may not be a long car but it is roomy; we put four 6-plus-footers in a moonroof model with no complaints thanks to the hatchback roofline.
Both front seats slide forward for entry/exit and with big side doors make the two-door a realistic proposition. With the narrow part of the split-folding rear seat behind the driver, a tall driver with the seat well back can still carry longer loads and two rear passengers, or one passenger in back and really long things over a reclined front seat.
A tilt and telescoping column with a flat-bottom, heavily contoured steering wheel, a good dead pedal and nearby brake and shifter allow anyone from 5-foot to 6-foot, 5 inches to find a comfortable driving position. Any option pack adds controls to both wheel spokes and automatics have shift buttons behind, so it's rare to need to remove a hand from the wheel.
Gauges are basic white-on-black analog with large engine and road speed, and 270-degree sweep fuel and temperature inside them. A central display handles trip computer and radio data, exterior temperature, door-open warnings and so forth. The audio and navigation systems are new for 2011, MP3/iPod compatible, most touch-screen and Bluetooth controls are roof mounted. Climate control is three-ring simple and unlike many cars each of the center vents can be closed independent of the other.
Storage is reasonably good. The sides of the bin ahead of the shifter double as places to brace a knee, door pockets have good space and bottle holder contours, but the center-console under-armrest room is good for little more than a smartphone and pack of smokes.
Outward visibility is very good. Outside mirrors are low and the inside high enough that neither blocks any vision even on climbing switchbacks. The bottom of the windshield is unobstructed the full width of the dash and the top is high for an excellent view forward, and the rear pillars are so far away they don't compromise quarter views.
Behind the seats there is 15 cubic feet of trunk space; a bit less below the cargo cover. Folding the rear seats expands that to more than 40 cubic feet bettering some SUVs. The cargo area also has tie-down loops, grocery bag hooks, three baby-seat tethers, a multitude of cubby holes underneath and a surprise below: the spare tire and wheel are identical to the other four so you avoid temporary-spare or run-flat speed limits and wondering where the flat tire will go.