First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

San Diego, California – GTI. Those three letters carry quite a weight in the sporting world – and a fair bit of expectation.

Way back in 1976, Volkswagen created the “hot hatch” segment when it dropped a 112 hp 1.6-litre engine into the European Golf and called it the GTI. While those figures might not sound like much by today’s standards, the GTI quickly garnered a giant-killer reputation as it cheekily chased down the Mercedes and Bimmers of its day. The legend was born.

North America got its first GTI in 1983, with the 90 hp Pennsylvania-built Rabbit GTI. I bought one of those tinny little tinder-boxes. It was a hoot, and for better or worse, I’ve been a serial VW owner ever since.

Over the years, the GTI (in both 1.8 Turbo and VR6 forms) has grown into a refined and quick hatch, but save for the pricey, limited-edition 2002 337 and 2003 20th Anniversary Editions, no recent specimen has had a chassis worthy of its moniker. The word “flaccid” comes to mind. Even VW head honcho Bernd Pischetsrieder recently referred to the current fourth-generation GTI as “a joke” – ouch. We can only assume he is out to make amends.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

So it was with great anticipation, and a modicum of trepidation, that I approached the new-from-the-ground-up GTI at its North American launch in California. Has Volkswagen infused this fifth-generation GTI with the elemental ingredients that gave the original hatch its iconic status?

After spending a few hours blasting along some seriously sinuous and scenic roads inland from San Diego, I can safely say Volkswagen has delivered on its promise. I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat, and a couple of time I might have laughed out loud, but this car ain’t no joke.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

The new Golf has grown incrementally in all dimensions, and benefits from the de rigueur improvements in chassis stiffness. The more rigid the platform, the better the suspension can keep the tires planted on the tarmac. For the first time, the GTI gets a multilink independent rear suspension, replacing the traditional twist beam setup; the front retains the tried-and-true MacPherson struts.

Standard tire size is 215/45R17, although 18-inchers on lightweight hollow alloys will be a $900 option.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

Visually, the GTI comes at you with a big Audi-esque black honeycomb grill, flanked by large, aggressive bi-Xenon headlight clusters. The upright body shape is immediately recognizable as a Golf, but it is leaner, modern and more aero than its predecessor. Suddenly, the old Golf looks boxy and dated.

Inside, we’re treated to a typical Volkswagen interior – rich plastics, good ergonomics and exceptional build quality. The HVAC controls and radio are now placed higher on the centre console for better access. A six CD/MP3 in-dash changer is standard equipment, as is an auxiliary input for all you iPod junkies.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

VW has always done seats right, and these heated, multi-adjustable sports chairs are comfy and grip you in all the right places. They’re covered in a tartan fabric that, depending on your perspective, is either retro-chic, or perilously close to the curtains from a ’76 Winnebago.

No matter. Once perched, it’s easy to dial up the perfect driving position. The ultra-cool, flat-bottomed, multi-function steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake, and the six-speed shifter falls easily to hand.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

You sit quite upright in this car, and visibility all around is good, although the dash and cowl are high, so there’s zero view of the hood out in front of you. It’s bit odd at first – like watching a movie through the windshield. But on this day, the scenery, willing chassis and gutsy engine made for a pretty interesting flick.

While the previous GTI’s 1.8-litre turbo four was an efficient torque pump, it was a tad course and essentially characterless. In contrast, this 200 hp, 2.0-litre 16-valve FSI Turbo emits a lusty snarl and is happy to run to its redline of 6500 rpm.

Turbo lag is a non-issue, and with a torque peak of 207 lb-ft that arrives at 1800 rpm and sticks around ’til 5500 rpm, this is a very flexible powerplant. It is decidedly un-Japanese in its right-now throttle response and grin-inducing mid-range punch. Torque steer? Fuggedaboudit..

This engine utilizes Audi’s FSI direct injection system that squirts fuel directly into the combustion chamber under high pressure, similar to the TDI diesel technology. Benefits include cleaner combustion, greater efficiency and more power.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

It’s mated to a six-speed manual transmission that has positive short throws and a clutch with smooth and progressive take up. There’s a bonus in the alloy pedals, which are set up perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting.

While the standard six-speed transmission is a joy to operate, the optional twin-clutch six-speed DSG transmission, which will set you back $1,400, is worth a serious look. It offers up lightning-quick F1 style shifts with a flick of the steering wheel-mounted paddles – left for downshift, right for upshift.

Inside this mechanical marvel are two clutches: one for the odd gears and reverse, and one for the even gears. A dedicated computer runs the show, anticipating and pre-selecting the next gear based on whether you’re accelerating or decelerating.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

When it comes time to upshift or downshift, one clutch disengages while the other engages, leading to almost seamless cog-swapping in less than two-tenths of a second.

It’s a brilliant system. The DSG also works in fully automatic mode.

So you’ve heard all about the mechanical bits. How does it all come together on the road? Like a true GTI should.

The electro/mechanical steering is dead accurate and nicely weighted. The car dives into bends with vigor, exhibiting neither the excessive understeer nor squirmy disposition of the previous GTI. It’s solid, planted, refined, damned quick, makes all the right noises, and most importantly, is imbued with a playfulness that recaptures the spirit of the original GTI.

Keeping all this enthusiasm in check are 312 mm vented discs in front, and 286 mm solid discs in back.

First Drive: 2007 Volkswagen GTI  volkswagen first drives
Click image to enlarge

Due to U.S. bumper height regulations, our GTIs ride 15mm higher than the Euro models, which is too bad because the 17-inch tires look a bit lost in the wheel wells. The 18-inch rims are just right.

You can be sure the tuners will be all over this new GTI like stink on a monkey, so a set of lowering springs will just be a credit card swipe away. And for those who like to play chicken with their warranty, aftermarket ECU chip upgrades are readily available. (Upsolute, a German firm, claims 240 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from its chip.)

But ya know what? I wouldn’t mess with this car – it’s just that good.
Utility has always been one of the GTI’s calling cards, and this trait continues with roomy, 60/40 split back seats that fold down to create a cavernous catch-all. And good news for the family guy – a four door GTI is coming in late summer.

Priced at $29,375 in Canada, this Wolfsburg-built GTI is very well equipped. On the safety front are six airbags, ABS, brake assist, anti-slip regulation (ASR), stability control (ESP), heated power mirrors and washer nozzles, fog lights and headlight washers. Along with the expected air-con and power windows, VW adds remote locking, alarm and immobilizer, multi-function trip computer, cruise control, and four-year roadside assistance. All is covered by a four-year/80,000 km warranty, with five-year/100,000 on the powertrain. If you want a sunroof, prepare to shell out $1,400, or go with the luxury package ($2,580) which adds leather seats.

Well Mr. Pischetsrieder, I must confess your new GTI is a whole lot better than I expected. It’s a willing dance partner that is just as happy serenely cruising the freeways as it is carving the canyons. Good on ya, mate. The GTI is back.

Connect with Autos.ca