Thursday, May 2, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobhan Edition DSG


See how the Volkswagen GTI performed against its competitors in our Hot Hatch Comparison.

MSRP: $24,795
Price as Tested: $33,100

The Mk. I Volkswagen Golf GTI is widely considered to be the very first hot hatchback in automotive history. Since its introduction in 1974, the Golf GTI has gone on to spawn five more generations. 2013 marks the final year of the current Golf GTI, the Mk. VI. The version I test drove here is the most expensive model available for the GTI, the Autobahn edition, equipped with Volkswagen's six-speed DSG twin clutch transmission. The Autobahn edition comes standard with leather seats, bi-xenon HID headlamps, and basically every available option for the GTI, along with Autobahn exclusive 18" wheels. The Mk. VI GTI has been around for a while, but is it competitive with the new batch of hot hatches on the market? Does it live up to its Mk. I roots?

The Good

I have always thought that German cars are very conservatively designed, and the GTI is no exception. This, however, is not a bad thing. Out of all the currently available hot hatchbacks on the market, I find that the GTI is easily the best looking of the lot. It looks aggressive without looking like a boy racer's car, but still looks normal enough that it will not be noticed by police as much. The Autobahn edition also includes trim specific 18" alloy wheels, which I feel look much better than the standard, fat five-spoke 18" wheels on the GTI. Painted calipers, dual tipped exhaust, and other GTI specific bits and pieces complete the aggressive but subtle look of the car.

Another thing the Germans really know how to do are interiors. The GTI also has one of the best looking and feeling interiors in the hot hatchback class. Leather feels like it is luxury car quality, and all of the trim pieces have a soft and high quality feel to it. Yes, the Autobahn edition I tested has an entry level luxury car price tag, so one would expect the interior to feel upscale and classy. Having driven a base version of the Mk. VI about three years ago, what I can attest to is that even the base model Mk. VI, with its funky plaid clothed seats, maintains the high quality interior of its more expensive trim versions. I do wish those little chrome bits surrounding the air vents were gone, but they are far less gaudy than what some other manufacturers do with chrome (I'm looking at you, Mini!).

But it is not just the quality of the materials that are good. Everything about this car's interior feels ergonomically correct, from the D shaped steering wheel, to its nicely bolstered and comfortable seats. Considering how well made the interior of this car is, I almost wish that all cars in this class had interiors like this one. I also wish that the amount of time and money Volkswagen spent on the interior of the car translated to other parts of this car. More on that later.

The GTI's handling characteristics are pretty decent. The suspension is not too hard, offering a comfortable ride without having too much body roll when cornering. The GTI does not handle quite as sharply as its competition, thanks in part to Volkswagen's decision to equip the vehicle with all-season tires as standard equipment. This problem can be easily fixed by switching the all-season tires for some performance summer tires. Of course, the average GTI driver will most likely never see any track action, so in reality, the all-season tires offer the best compromise of comfort and daily use traction. 

And then there is Volkswagen's DSG dual-clutch transmission. Would I have preferred a manual transmission? Of course. Unfortunately, the Volkswagen dealer, as with most dealerships these days, did not have any manual transmission Golfs at all, save for a Golf R that I had no intention of looking at that day. Fortunately for Volkswagen though, their DSG transmission is top notch. In automatic mode, shifts are smooth and quick. Pop the gear lever over to manual mode, and the transmission will hold a gear until you tell it to shift. In manual mode, the transmission seems to shift quicker than in automatic mode, and also blips the throttle on downshifts to avoid unsettling the suspension. My only real complaint about the DSG are the steering wheel mounted "paddles." The paddles are actually tiny buttons mounted on the back side of the steering wheel and are a bit hard to reach compared to actual paddles. Luckily, shifting in manual mode can also be done via the shift lever.

The Bad

Despite how good the exterior and interior of this car looks, it is pretty clear where Volkswagen decided not to spend their development dollars on this car: the way this machine drives. For starters, the engine is a big disappointment. Sure, it pulls quite hard under hard acceleration, but the average driver is not going to be spending their time doing hard launches and front wheel burnouts. In daily driving, Volkswagen's 2.0 liter turbo four cylinder is a real dog. The problems seems to stem from either massive throttle or turbo lag. It almost feels as if there is a giant dead spot when you get on the throttle, and in order to get the car going, you have to push really hard on the throttle. This becomes a real big problem when attempting to pass someone on the freeway. I found myself constantly needing to downshift to get the turbo spooled up and the engine back in its power band. This motor, which is ubiquitous throughout the VW-Audi line-up in various states of tune, can be better and is in certain instances, but it just is not the way it is set up for the GTI.

Also not helping is the feather light power steering. Volkswagen decided to make the GTI's electric power steering super dull, and super light. I could feel absolutely nothing coming through the wheel, and there was almost zero resistance when turning the wheel. This made harder cornering very sketchy because not only could I not tell what the wheels were doing, I was constantly worried I was over turning. Every other manufacturer's electric power steering has improved somewhat from generation to generation. I simply cannot believe that Volkswagen believes that the target market of the GTI wants this sort of steering feel.


Finally, there is the price. While the MSRP of the GTI puts it roughly mid-pack with other hot hatchbacks, various options and accessories can easily make the price of the GTI sky rocket. For the amount of money you would pay to get this Autobahn edition GTI, you could get a similarly equipped Limited trim Subaru WRX 5-door for almost $5000 less. For another $2000 over the cost of the GTI Autobahn, you could get the superior performing Golf R. Unless you are a really big fan of the GTI and what the Autobahn package includes, it really is not worth the extra money.

Summary

The GTI has gotten a bit soft and flabby, not quite living up to the legend of the Mk. I GTI. From reading comments and publications about the Mk. I GTI, this was a car that was fun, affordable, and practical. With the Mk. VI, the fun factor is nearly stripped clean due to the lag prone tuning of the engine and lifeless steering. Affordable can still be had, but becomes a moot point once you begin to add options. It seems that VW has allowed itself to evolve the GTI away from its core audience and is instead trying to satisfy everyone with a car that compromises on everything, including the fun. However, now that the Mk. VI GTI's time is coming to a close, one can only hope that the Mk. VII GTI due out some time next year will bring the GTI back as a proper successor to the original GTI.

Special thanks to Pacific Volkswagen in Hawthorne, CA!