Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Test Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE 4-Door

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is one of those cars that I have always wanted to like, but find difficulty in doing so because there always seems to be some kind of major flaw that is difficult to overlook. When I had heard that an all new GTI was ready to make its debut, I was hesitant to get excited about it. After reading about the car though, I began to get more excited about it. Apparently, this is a car that is so good, Motor Trend magazine had named the latest generation of the Golf its "Car of the Year." As soon as my local Volkswagen dealer got a stock of manual equipped GTIs in its inventory, I headed over to see why Motor Trend enjoyed this car so much.

The Mk. VII GTI shares the same basic shape as the Mk. V and Mk. VI, but is an evolution of the
Mk. VI GTI's exterior design. This is not really a bad thing as the Mk. VI was a pretty good looking car. The changes between the current generation and last generation are quite small, amounting to mostly minor face-lifts in the front and rear bumper and lights. Even the wheels almost look exactly the same. Parked next to a Mk. V Golf R32, you can definitely tell the car is still using the same shape even after all these years. I suppose if it is not broken, there is no reason to fix it, but should not the car be called version 6.5 instead of 7?

The inside of the car does have some noticeable changes. There is definitely a lot more shiny plastic than in the Mk. VI, as well as some additional buttons. But aside from the cosmetic changes, the interior of the latest GTI feels pretty much the same as the previous model. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing as I did feel that the previous GTI had the best interior in my "hot hatch" comparison from a while back. I do feel that Volkswagen has been stretching the basic interior and exterior design of the Golf for too long now and it could really use a new look.

My main concern over the GTI though was how it drove. This was the area where I could never truly get myself to enjoy the car. My dislike had nothing to do with the way the car handled though. My dislike always stemmed from the car's 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four. As most people know, the Volkswagen group uses this engine a lot. It exists in various tunes throughout Volkswagen's own lineup as well as in an assortment of Audi's vehicles as well. For whatever reason, each time I have experienced this engine outside of the GTI, it has always been fine. When I get into the GTI though, there is always such a noticeable amount of turbo lag that it bothers me to no end. At first I thought it had to do with the six-speed dual clutch transmission, but later found I had the same experience even with the six-speed manual. Luckily, this time around, it would seem Volkswagen has finally fixed the lag problem, even though it took them two vehicle generations to do so.

Whatever Volkswagen did, the engine actually feels really good this time around. Power delivery feels quite smooth and there is plenty of grunt down low. While there is still a small amount of lag (a problem that most turbocharged cars face), it is actually manageable. Unlike the previous incarnations of the engine, where I found myself impatiently waiting for the car to pick up steam, the latest GTI's engine feels like power delivery is almost instantaneous. Still though, I wonder why it took Volkswagen so long to fix this problem. Is this another one of those cases where not enough complained about it until more recently? Who knows. I am just glad they did. I am also glad the transmission actually works well with the engine now as opposed to constantly feeling like the engine is doing one thing while the transmission is doing another. Some shorter throws and a slightly heavier clutch would make things perfect.

When it comes to handling, the GTI still pretty much drives the same as the last two generations under normal conditions, which is not a complaint from me. I have always liked how the GTI handles in that it corners relatively flat without much roll, but still manages to soak up bumps and crap roads quite well. There does seem to be much less understeer than the previous models though, which can be attributed to the car's newer suspension design and set up. Overall, I felt a lot more comfortable tackling corners at a higher than normal speed than I did with the older models.  I do wish the car came with some slightly stickier tires, but I can understand why Volkswagen chose the tire they did if they were going for a balance of grip and fuel economy.

The brakes on the GTI are probably some of the best I have experience in a sub $30k vehicle. Great initial bite and a nice progressive feeling pedal. While I cannot exactly comment on how the brakes would handle under extreme conditions, I do feel confident in saying that these brakes should hold up quite well under normal and harder driving conditions. Now if the steering were as good as the brakes, this car would almost be perfect.

These days, everyone has electric power steering, and everyone seems to want to make it so that the steering has little to no feel at low speeds and gradually gets better as speed goes up. Frankly, I hate that. I should be able to tell what the front wheels are doing from the steering wheel regardless of whether I am driving five miles per hour, or 50. Thankfully, the low speed dead feeling can be somewhat mitigated by switching the car's drive mode into "sport" mode. In this mode, steering becomes more weighted and does give a bit more feed back, throttle inputs becomes more immediate, and it sounds like more intake noise is pumped into the cabin. While setting the car in "sport" mode does fix the steering problem a little, it is not really all that much to make a great impact.

So Motor Trend picked the Volkswagen Golf as its 2015 car of the year, and after testing driving the GTI, I can see why. There really are not a lot of sub $30k cars on the market that offer the performance and refinement that the GTI has. Sure, you could get a Subaru WRX or Ford Focus ST for less and get better performance, but neither of those cars has the interior quality, suspension tuning, or fuel economy of the GTI. You could also spend even less and get a fully loaded Honda Civic Si, but would not even get close to the performance of the GTI. In short, the GTI feels like driving an Audi A3 for much less money (both cars are built on the same platform and have the same engine after all). It may have taken Volkswagen a while, but the Mk. VII GTI is finally one I can get behind.

A special thanks to Pacific Volkswagen for allowing me time in one of their few manual equipped, 4-door GTI