Volkswagen GTI: The king of kicks

Have you ever contemplated a river rock? Meditated on its perfect smoothness – the legacy of eons of buffing and polishing? Pondered the varying degrees of hardness of the minerals within?

Perfection may be unattainable, but the wizards of Wolfsburg have deftly applied their grit to polish the GTI.

The result is a smoothed echo of the jagged original, as lovely to the eye as to the hand. So it is with the Volkswagen GTI, after 38 years of relentless improvement on the crisply creased 1976 original. The sharp edges are gone now, both literally and figuratively.

VW offered an early peek at the European-spec GTI in a drive from Nice to St Tropez that underscored the remarkable execution of the new edition.

In the manner of monarchs, Volkswagen delineates Golf generations with Roman numerals. The silhouette of the first-gen car, penned by superstar designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, remains nearly intact, but changes to the grille, headlights and taillights underscore the GTI’s evolution. And the new car, known in series as the MkVII, is lower, longer and wider than its predecessors.

The MkVII’s turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine produces a nominally higher amount of horsepower – 210 versus 200 – than it did in the MkVI, but fortifies its torque band by 25% for a total of 258 pound-feet. That kind of uptick earns the attention even of drivers without visible VW tattoos. And despite the additional oomph, the engine delivers an 18% improvement in fuel economy over the MkVI, VW claims. The optional Performance package adds 10 horsepower through a variety of tweaks to engine tuning, though torque is unchanged.

What will slake the thirst of enthusiasts, however – the road-carvers who have lionised the GTI over the decades – is a football-size assembly of gears buried deep within the GTI's drivetrain when the Performance pack is specified.

It is a locking Haldex differential, a relatively simple mechanical device that helps prevent wheel spin. On its own, a locking differential is a primitive bit of hardware, especially ill-suited to a front-wheel-drive car like the GTI because the vehicle’s front wheels must rotate at different speeds as the car tracks around turns.

When modern computer controls are applied to this simple device, though, it can apply its locking function only to the degree needed to prevent wheel spin while still allowing the car to move nimbly through curves. It is in such moments that the driving experience of the GTI is singularly transformed. 

Slicing through apexes on the narrow mountain goat trails that pass for roads in the Alpes Maritimes above Nice, a front-driver like the GTI would normally be plagued with steering response dulled by the power coursing through the front tires. That would make the car’s front end prone to sliding toward the oncoming lane. And in the Alpes Maritimes, that would be a bad thing, considering the sheer drops just beyond the opposite lane's shoulder. None of this happens in the GTI.

The improvements are further borne out by the eight seconds that the differential, combined with the extra 10hp, slice off the GTI’s lap time at Germany’s Nürburgring circuit. In this case those eight seconds quantify what the driver already feels: this diff is a transformative piece of hardware.

The Ford Focus ST and Mazdaspeed3, two front-drive hatches that have done much to wrest some glory from the GTI, both produce bigger horsepower, but neither car matches the MkVII’s ability to make use of what power it has. (VW will nevertheless struggle with the difference in the horsepower ratings as ill-informed internet trolls bash the GTI for its perceived shortfall.)

The MkVII GTI has a variable-rate steering rack, the kind of thing that has caused other cars to suffer from disagreeably unexpected jerkiness. The wheel needs only 2.1 turns from full-right to full-left, compared to 2.6 turns previously, and road feel through the column is unimpeachable as the car unerringly sticks to the driver’s intended course. With the GTI’s gadgetry switched to “sport” mode, the electric power assist fades into the background, giving the car the raw, direct feel of the original’s non-power-assisted steering, but without any parking-lot forearm fatigue.

The transmissions are carried over intact from the MkVI, but with a slightly taller final drive ratio for better fuel economy. The new engine’s huge torque prevents the tall final gear from making the GTI feel sluggish; with so much grunt, the car surges forward at any speed. Meanwhile, the six-speed manual shifter might have a smidge more slop than, say, the Mazda Miata’s perfect stick, but this is splitting hairs. As has been the case for a decade, however, the dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission (DSG) is pure magic – matching revs, banging off stunningly fast shifts and eliciting race-grade burps from the exhaust during the brief interregnum between gears. Sublime.

Speaking of the exhaust, if there is a letdown, it is that the engine note does not incite the driver to riot in the manner of the class benchmark in this regard, the Honda Civic Si. The GTI has a pleasant growl that builds with speed, but the sound does not inspire a driver to delay shifts until redline.

The new GTI comes to North America in about a year, with production of US-market cars starting at the company’s plant in Puebla, Mexico, early in 2014. The company will not say whether the MkVII will be marketed as a 2014 or 2015 model, nor will it divulge pricing for a car that goes on sale a year from now. But Volkswagen of America spokesman Scott Vazin advises that the car’s base price will remain in line with the current model’s – around $25,000.

Perfection may be unattainable, but the wizards of Wolfsburg have deftly applied their grit to polish the GTI to the nearest possible result.  This GTI again secures for VW the title of best front-drive hot hatch.

Vital stats: Volkswagen MkVII GTI

  • Base price: N/A
  • EPA fuel economy: N/A
  • Drivetrain: 210hp turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine; six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: variable-rate power steering, sport seats, red-painted brake calipers, 18in aluminium wheels
  • Major options: Performance Pack, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, adaptive Xenon headlights