- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

Performance, as demonstrated by the GTI from Volkswagen, doesn’t have to break the bank. It’s possible to have adrenaline-pumping acceleration and handling at a sensible price. In the GTI 1.8T, VW has blended its proven 180-horsepower turbocharged inline four with a sport-tuned suspension and highly responsive steering. The result is a two-door hatchback that moves with blitzkrieg speed, yet is remarkably agile. It may lack some of the sophistication of rivals such as the Acura RSX Type-S, but the GTI provides gobs of driving fun at an affordable price.

The GTI shares its platform and the bulk of its mechanicals with the Jetta and Golf. Its role within this trio is to target the twenty-something crowd looking for a performance edge. While closely related to the more sedate Golf, the GTI is a somewhat sportier interpretation. Because the next-generation GTI is due in 2006, there are basically no changes for 2005.

In addition to the 1.8T, the GTI is offered as the more up-market VR6. It comes with a 200-horsepower 2.8-liter V-6. In addition to the larger engine, it also features 17-inch alloy wheels rather than the 1.8T’s 16-inch offering, and a trip computer.

Both iterations have cruise control and eight-speaker audio system with CD player.

For a hatchback in its price range, the GTI also has a remarkable array of safety features that include seat-mounted side-impact air bags as well as side curtain air bags, antilock disc brakes with Electronic Brake Distribution and traction control.

An electronic stability system is standard on the VR6 and optional on the 1.8T.

While the VR6 has the larger engine with higher horsepower and torque (195 foot-pounds versus 174), the 1.8T is lighter and quicker, according to VW’s stopwatch. It jumps from standing to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, while the heavier VR6 requires 7.7 seconds. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in the 1.8T. The VR6 has a six-speed manual. No automatic transmission is available in the VR6; however, ponying up an additional $1,075 replaces the manual tranny in the 1.8T with a five-speed driver-shiftable automatic.

Opting for the automatic in the 1.8T doesn’t dampen the fun, but it does slow things down a mite as it adds roughly a second to the 0-60 time.

Likewise the automatic adversely affects fuel economy. With the manual, the EPA rates the 1.8T at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway. These numbers fall to 22 city/29 highway with the automatic.

An independent arrangement with MacPherson struts up front joins a track-correcting torsion beam rear axle to provide the GTI’s suspension. Front and rear stabilizer bars stiffen things up for better control.

Although it is obvious the suspension is skewed toward handling, the ride remains civilized enough to qualify the GTI as an everyday hauler.

While the GTI is billed as a five-passenger hatchback, realistically only four adults can ride comfortably. The back seat is just a bit narrow for three unless they are children.

The front seats provide generous side support to hold their occupants upright in the twisties. Thanks to the height adjustable seats and the tilt/telescoping steering wheel, the driver should have no problem finding his optimum driving position. The audio controls are logically situated above the three round knobs controlling the air conditioning/heating system.

This is a well-planned, nicely executed cabin. The fit and finish in the test GTI were flawless.

Considered a compact in size, the GTI has more interior room than might be expected. Even rear-seat passengers have a fair amount of legroom. The 60/40 split rear seat can be flipped down to turn the GTI’s 18 cubic feet of cargo space into nearly 42 cubic feet.

The GTI 1.8T has a base price with destination charge of $20,085 with the VR6 stickering out at $22,905.

Adding 17-inch alloy wheels to the 1.8T boosts the price by $400, while replacing the cloth upholstery with leather and adding heated seats costs an extra $800.

For the price the GTI is big fun on the cheap. It upholds the Germans’ reputation for snappy handling and spot-on steering. Although a competitor or two is quicker, the GTI 1.8T accelerates with prejudice and makes a run to the corner drug store a joy rather than a chore.

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