First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen GTI [Review]

Redesigned for 2015, the GTI is more refined - and more fun - than ever.

In truth, it's only about a year that we've been waiting for Volkswagen to bring its new GTI over from Europe, but that time has seemed to stretch out into an eternity. If patience were really a virtue, we'd be Mahatma Gandhi by now.

VW's hot hatch has long balanced performance, practicality and value better than nearly any other model on the market, so we've naturally been anxious to see the latest, greatest iteration on these shores.

Was it worth the wait? You bet.

Charting the Changes

It's never easy to replace an icon, but that's exactly the task Volkswagen was faced with in redesigning the GTI. While the basic formula and exterior design have changed little, what lies beneath the sheetmetal is new and improved in nearly every way.

Power comes from Volkswagen Group's turbocharged and direct-injected "EA888” 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which produces 210 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque - gains of 10 ponies and a substantial 51 lb-ft of twist over the outgoing GTI. A six-speed manual with short throws and an impressively easy-to-modulate clutch is standard, and a quick-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic is offered as an option.

Despite the extra output, mileage is up to 25 mpg in the city (+4) and 34 mpg on the highway (+3) for the stick, and two-pedal models have also improved to 25 city mpg (+1) and 33 highway mpg (+1). Credit the new motor, a more slippery shape and a lighter structure for the improvements.

Like the 2015 Golf on which it is based, the seventh-generation GTI is underpinned by Volkswagen Group's MQB modular component set, a flexible architecture that trims as much as 82 lbs. from the hatchback's curb weight.

Even as mass has been whittled away, the content level has crept up. A 5.8-inch infotainment touchscreen, VW Car-Net connected services and a Driving Mode Selection system join the torquier turbo four as new standard features of the base model, now known as the GTI S, which also comes with heated front seats and 18-inch wheels.

Pricing starts at $25,215 - on a content-adjusted basis, VW says that's down $700 from last year - while $28,215 SE and $30,415 Autobahn trims tack on goodies like leather upholstery, navigation, a Fender-branded audio system, a rearview camera and a sunroof. Three- and five-door models remain available, although only the latter can be had in range-topping Autobahn form.

Notable (read: fun-boosting) options include an $800 adaptive damping system and a $1,495 Performance Package that ups the horsepower count to 220, brings larger brakes and adds an electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential.

Unlike the previous model, which was assembled in Germany, the new GTI will be built in Mexico for the North American market.

Looking the Part

Subtle evolution is the order of the day outside, where the crisp and conservative lines of the normal Golf are dressed up with an aggressive front valance, a honeycomb grille with a red graphic that extends into the headlights, unique wheel designs and a spoiler atop the hatch. A lowered ride height, special fender badges and twin exhaust pipes provide the finishing touches.

As expected, the interior is an exercise in Germanic refinement and restraint. Though understated, the dashboard is furnished in upscale materials, and all the important controls fall readily at hand. A flat-bottomed-steering wheel, sports seats, aluminum-look pedals and a GTI-specific instrument panel provide a little bit of attitude and differentiation for what is otherwise a very handsome, but standard-issue Golf cabin.

Manual-equipped cars get another model-specific touch in the form of a funky golf ball-style shifter knob, and base models naturally are fitted with the plaid cloth seats that have been a GTI hallmark for decades.

Gripes? We do have a few. For one, the 5.8-inch touchscreen looks slightly low rent, especially with the glossy black plastic surround that makes it seem like a placeholder for a larger display. Things are also somewhat dark and severe inside, especially in cars without the plaid upholstery, although oversized windows do provide a bit of a respite from the darkness within. All in all, those are relatively minor complaints for an interior that noticeably eclipse rivals like the Ford Focus ST and Subaru WRX in terms of material quality and ergonomics.

A welcome surprise, given the weight loss, is that cargo capacity has actually expanded due to incrementally increased exterior dimensions and better packaging. Behind the rear seats, space has climbed to 16.5 cubic feet (+1.2), while maximum acreage with the rear seats folded down is now 52.7 cubes (+ 6.7). Bring on the Costco runs!

On the Road

Should big box stores inspire in you the same feelings of vague apprehension and overwhelming drowsiness that they do for us, at least the GTI can make getting there a memorable experience.

While the outgoing GTI's motor wasn't exactly a slouch, the new mill's 258 lb-ft of torque can only be described as a big step forward. Not only is there copious grunt down low in the rev range, things don't really begin to taper off until you approach the redline. Both the slick stick and surgical-feeling dual-clutch are excellent for extracting the most from the motor - choosing a gearbox here really comes down to personal preference.

Pick Sport from the Drive Mode Selection system, which also includes Normal and Individual settings, and the GTI prepares for extra-spirited backroads romps by sharpening the throttle response and steering. The latter, which has switched from hydraulic- to electric-assist, is precise and responsive no matter the mode, though a modicum of feedback has gone missing in the transition.

Spring for the optional adaptive dampers, and more sedate Comfort and Eco modes are added for commuting or indulging the odd hypermilling impulse. Comfort mode subtly softens up the already livable ride of the standard suspension, which does a commendable job of both limiting body roll while providing occupants with a reasonable degree of protection from poorly maintained roads.

Whether the GTI is thrown into a curve with ham-fisted abandon or methodical precision, the Performance Package's torque-vectoring diff keeps things calm and composed by sending power to the outside front wheel to quell understeer.

Leftlane's bottom line

It may have taken longer to arrive than we'd have liked, but the GTI is otherwise hard to fault. A high-bandwidth car that's even more polished than its capable predecessor, it excels as a family hatch in the daily grind, a sporting machine on a Sunday afternoon, and in a multitude of other roles.

Better late than never, indeed.

2015 Volkswagen GTI base price range, $25,215 to $30,415.

Photos by Nat Shirley.

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