- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

You can buy a lot of nice new cars for about $25,000.

Safe, reliable and built to last for many years, these average-price automobiles generally come equipped with most of the amenities that American motorists have come to consider essential — automatic transmission, air conditioning, multispeaker audio system, power assists for steering and brakes, and even remote locking doors.

What many of them don’t have, however, is the ability to excite and delight. They tend to be antiseptic, soulless devices designed primarily for buyers who see the automobile not as an instrument of pleasure, but as a necessary annoyance that gets them from Point A to Point B. No muss. No fuss. No fun. If there were an easier, equally economical way to travel, these folks would leave their vehicles behind without a second thought.

But what about those other buyers, the ones who want something that is more involving? I’m talking about the people whose left brain demands a sedate sedan while the right brain is shouting “sports car.”

For them, there is the Volkswagen GTI, now available in the United States as a family-friendly four-door sedan as well as the traditional two-door model.

Volkswagen created the hot hatchback 30 years ago and brought it to the United States in 1983. Enthusiasts immediately fell in love with it, but over the years the Volkswagen decision makers let the GTI’s youthful exuberance slip into a more relaxed, middle-age demeanor.

No longer. The heart and soul of the original are back. The GTI has been hammered back into shape and once again is ready for some serious roadwork.

It’s not the fastest car in its price sector, nor is it the roomiest. But it offers a combination of everyday practicality and pure driving enjoyment that is hard to beat.

The GTI can hold four adults or two adults and three young children and enough luggage for that annual vacation. Its hatchback configuration, combined with fold-down rear seats, even gives it an edge over similar-sized cars with a conventional trunk.

And, when its playtime, the GTI will gladly show off its renewed athleticism to a driver who enjoys sharpening his driving skills on a favorite back road.

While major competitors rely on smooth V-6 engines for their sportiest models, Volkswagen uses a turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder powerplant that features direct fuel injection and four valves per cylinder. The engine has found its way into other Volkswagen and Audi vehicles.

The engine produces a seemingly modest 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque. But, with turbo lag nearly nonexistent, it can propel the GTI from a stop to 60 mph in seven seconds.

And, with maximum torque on board at a mere 1,800 rpm, the engine pulls strongly even at slow speeds. Ease into a sharp turn and there’s plenty of power to get the GTI ‘round the bend and back to speed smoothly and strongly.

Don’t feel like shifting all the time? The engine will provides stutter-free acceleration in fourth, fifth and even sixth gears when you’re stuck in those slow-moving, heavy-traffic situations.

Of course, the six-speed manual transmission is an excellent teammate. Its properly spaced, close-ratio gearing, combined with smooth, short shifts and an easy-to-operate clutch, makes it possible to keep the engine in the heart of its power curve at all times.

While the traditional manual transmission may always be the choice of purists, Volkswagen has an optional, $1,075 six-speed auto/manual transmission known as DSG that does the job even better. It will cut a tenth of a second off 0-to-60 mph times and return improved fuel mileage around town.

The EPA claims 23 miles per gallon (manual) and 25 mpg (DSG) in city driving and 31 (DSG) and 32 (manual) on the highway. In a week of sometimes aggressive driving, my fuel mileage varied from 18 to 28 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended, but regular gasoline can be used with a slight performance penalty.

Understeer, the tendency of a front-wheel-drive vehicle to resist a change in direction, is missing from the GTI. The electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering mechanism simply follows orders, pulling the car around curves without complaint and accurately signaling road conditions back through the steering wheel.

In addition, there is no more than a hint of torque steer, that tug on the steering wheel a driver feels when a front-drive car is under heavy acceleration.

Of course, a set of strong, four-wheel antilock disc brakes stands ready to rescue those who overestimate their driving skills.

The excellent combination of sharp handling and a compliant ride is largely the result of rigid body construction and an independent, sport-tuned suspension with struts up front and a multilink setup at the rear wheels. The GTI is truly as comfortable on the highway as it is capable in tight turns.

On the outside, the hot hatchback is distinguished from its lesser brethren mostly by a black mesh grille and its prominent GTI badging. Its boxy design can hardly be called graceful, but it’s a classic example of form following function.

Inside, the bolstered front bucket seats offer plenty of support on the twisty back roads. Yet, they still manage to provide fatigue-fighting comfort for those long highway stretches.

Tasteful plaid cloth upholstery combined with aluminum and brushed metal accents give the GTI cabin a sporty, youthful appearance.

For the driver, there is a three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, clear instrumentation and conveniently placed switchgear.

Standard safety features on the GTI include stability and traction control, driver and front-passenger front and side air bags, front and rear side curtains, xenon headlights, side-impact door beams and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Base price of the four-door GTI is $22,600, and that includes air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and door locks, heatable power outside mirrors, multifunction trip computer and a 10-speaker audio system with in-dash six-CD player and MP3 and satellite radio capability.

The only options on the car I drove were rear side-impact air bags ($350) and a package that included a power sunroof and satellite radio service ($1,370). Add the $630 delivery charge, and the total comes to $24,950.

From this enthusiast’s point of view, the GTI pretty much has it all. It’s equally adept at hauling groceries and hauling. …

I’m sure you get the point.


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