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BBC Autos

Joyride

Fast and frugal in the Volkswagen Golf GTD

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

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As befits a global juggernaut, Volkswagen can fill the narrowest of market niches and still find a way to make money.

Want a hatchback with $18,000 more character than its initial-less counterpart? Get in a Golf R. How about a ballistic executive suite hand-built in Germany? There’s a Phaeton for that.

But the Golf GTD, the diesel-burning equivalent to the sporty GTI hatchback, is a sticky case. In Europe, the GTD has commanded a cult since 1982. North American drivers, however, have been slow to recognise the sporting potential of diesel-powered cars, and have consequently never been granted an audience with VW’s oil-burning hot hatch.

VW is warming to the idea of bringing the GTD across the pond, a notion given heft in June when the brand turned a handful of North American journalists loose on German roads with a fleet of GTDs at their command. Roughly 250 miles and a few currywurst later, the GTD had charmed the interlopers to within a breath of their crying out for the car’s export papers. (Contrary to recent reports in US media, VW has yet to commit to selling the GTD in North America.)

The GTD is based on the seventh generation of the Golf, the current standard-bearer for refinement and poise among volume-oriented hatchbacks. But the diesel’s most direct benefactor is the new GTI, which donates its adjustable suspension, wickedly precise transmissions – either semi-automatic DSG or six-speed manual – larger wheels and telltale tartan upholstery scheme. The only visual cues to differentiate the twosome are the GTD’s grey band across the grille – replacing the GTI’s red band – “GTD” badges in lieu of the “GTI” bits and twin exhausts rather than the GTI’s offset pipes. Is there an equivalent German expression for “Irish twins”?

Two-lane blacktop wending through the gothic, deeply wooded Harz mountains of northern Germany presented the GTD’s first challenge. Stringing together apexes, the GTD pitched and sloshed like an Oktoberfest grand marshal – unbecoming behaviour for a GTI relation. A couple taps on the driving-profile selector, positioned to the left of the gear shift, provided the needed course correction, summoning the more taut, responsive character of the Sport setting. The GTD was henceforth the sweet and tender hooligan that GTI drivers know and love, though it did not caterwaul like its high-octane brethren – owing to its 2-litre diesel engine’s comparatively low 5,000rpm redline. The GTD driver gets thrum, not whine.

Descending to the boundless floodplains southwest of Berlin, the GTD stretched its legs, cruising on unrestricted sections of autobahn at a sustained 200kph (125mph). Even at those speeds the engine betrayed no strain, spinning at a remarkably low 3,500rpm in sixth gear. And any time speed limits were imposed, there was 280 pound-feet of torque to squirt the 3,000lb hatchback forward as soon as they were lifted.

This kind of driving would vaporise the fuel economy of comparable gasoline-powered cars, but as the GTD came to rest at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, its trip computer displayed average consumption of 7.6l/km over the 250mi journey, or 31mpg. Driven more prudently, VW estimates that the GTD would achieve 40mpg on the US combined cycle.

Even in Germany, the GTD is a niche proposition, accounting for 4.6% of all Golf sales. It would seem, then, that Volkswagen of America needn’t sell a bucket-load of GTDs to turn a profit. But along with the car’s uncertain appeal, VW of America cites a lengthy, and costly, emissions-certification process as a hurdle to the car’s sale in the US, where particulate-emissions standards are stricter (for now) than in Europe.

And so it is that the fuel-frugal autobahn blaster remains an exotic curio for many of the western hemisphere's inhabitants, reinforcing the lament that Europe reserves its best cars for its own citizens’ use. Here’s hoping Volkswagen plays against type.

Vital stats: Volkswagen Golf GTD

  • Base price, Germany: 29,350 euros ($39,150)
  • As tested: 31,250 euros ($41,675)
  • EPA fuel economy: N/A
  • Powertrain: 2-litre, 184-horsepower, 280lb-ft torque turbodiesel four-cylinder engine, six-speed DSG semi-automatic or six-speed manual transmission
  • Standard equipment: engine stop-start, leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel, tartan seat covers, power windows
  • Major options: park assist, leather seating surfaces, Google Earth satellite navigation
The GTD was the sweet and tender hooligan that GTI drivers know and love.