2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI. Click image to enlarge
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Volkswagen of Canada

Review and photos by Haney Louka

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2008 Volkswagen GTI

Winnipeg, Manitoba – When I was 18, my oldest sister went shopping for her first new car. Back in 1992 I wasn’t in the fortunate position to be driving a new car every week, so I was understandably pumped about the whole process of test driving cars on her behalf.

The two at the top of my list of cars that she should look at were the Nissan NX2000 and VW GTI. The NX was a high-strung sleeper: not particularly pleasing to the eyes, but powered by the same high-revving four banger that propelled the Sentra SE-R sold south of the 49th parallel. It also attacked corners with a vengeance and had a slick-shifting stick to make day-to-day driving a pleasure.

The GTI, in contrast, wasn’t quite as capable in the corners and didn’t have as much power (this was the 8-valve version). But it was still fun to drive, funky to look at with its round headlights, and a good value, and she ended up buying the Vee-Dub. It stayed with her until last fall when she sold it, and while it became quite expensive at times during its fifteen-year tenure, the car overall proved very dependable and fun to the last day.

2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI; top photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge

Today we find ourselves looking at a much more potent GTI, but its spirit is still intact: it’s an extension of the driver in a way that only the Germans manage to accomplish, and a surprisingly good value to boot: the ’08 GTI two-door carries a base price of $27,975 thanks to a recent price reduction aimed at addressing the strength of the Canadian dollar.

Standard equipment puts that early-nineties car to shame: a 200-hp turbocharged four; six-speed manual; xenon headlights; 17-inch alloys; dual-zone climate control; ten-speaker, six-disc audio; airbags galore; heated front seats; and electronic stability control. It actually makes me wish for a de-contented version with the same engine but a $25K price tag. But I digress.

My tester also wore the aggressive 18-inch alloys and power moonroof for a total as-tested price of $31,685 including destination.

It’s rare for a car to come along and appeal to me on so many levels. First, it’s a looker. Our tester was the perfect shade of Tornado Red and those spiffy 18s appeared to be wrapped in just a thin layer of rubber (the tires are, in fact, low-profile 40-series skins). The car’s skin is tightly wrapped around its chassis, and despite its tall profile, a GTI tradition, it manages to look at the same time sleek and aggressive. The blacked-out centre bumper area (it’s chromed on lesser Rabbits) gives it an aggressive Audi-like gaping grille presence, but with a subtle red stripe to pay homage to GTIs gone by: very effective.

There’s a typically Teutonic business environment inside, with a touch of fun (and yet another nod to the past) with plaid-patterned cloth upholstery that, by the way, covers some of the best seats in the business. I’ve always preferred good cloth to the substandard leather found in more affordable cars and the GTI proves why.

2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI. Click image to enlarge

It appears durable, it’s stylish and grippy, and buyers don’t have to give up the heat with this cloth: VW shows all others how it’s done with their five-stage heated seats. The best part, though, is how well bolstered yet accommodating the GTI’s buckets are.

Rear seat access is not bad as far as two-door cars go thanks to the car’s height and how far forward the seatbacks move as they pivot to let people in. And since there’s now a four-door version available, rear seat access is a non-issue.

Okay, so it’s a stylish, accommodating car that’s easy to get into. I must be going soft. Or have I just saved the best for last?

One drive in the GTI is all it takes to know that this is a car conceived to make driving an experience to cherish. I’ve been a fan of the German automaker’s small-displacement turbocharged engines since I started writing about cars in 2000. One of my first car review subjects was a Jetta 1.8T. Less than twelve months later there was one sitting in my driveway, and not just for the usual one-week fling: this one was here to stay.

One might expect that the GTI’s two-litre turbo four would be high-strung, but that’s not the case at all. As long as engine revs are north of 1,500 rpm, turbo lag simply isn’t in the car’s vocabulary. Torque steer is kept commendably in check, too, making this a tractable, yet precise, driving tool.

2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI
2008 Volkswagen GTI. Click image to enlarge

There’s a thick-rimmed wheel (flat along the bottom to stay out of the way) ready to accept input and deliver uncanny feedback about the goings on at the front tire patches. Steering response is typically Teutonic as well: progressive and intuitive turn-in just off centre is a difficult feat to accomplish but here it’s simply one item on the long list of the GTI’s favourable driving traits.

And that’s part of what makes the GTI more than the sum of its parts in how slick the entire operation is: quick and intuitive throttle response, a slick-shifting stick, good braking feel, and responsive steering: a little like that GTI I drove back in 1992.

To top it all off, the GTI consumed a little more than 11 litres per 100 km (26 mpg) during its stay. My typical driving route doesn’t include highways or freeways, so that figure was achieved in pretty heavy city stop-and-go driving. And believe me: I was having fun with it. Unlike when I drive a diesel or hybrid vehicle, I was paying no attention to the GTI’s fuel consumption. I drove it the way it was meant to be driven.

It’s cars like this that can keep an enthusiast’s passion for driving alive, proving that the light, affordable, fun car still exists. And it’s at your VW dealer.

Pricing: 2008 VW GTI

Base price: $27,975
Options: $2,375 (18-inch wheels, $975; sunroof, $1,400)

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,335
Price as tested: $31,785
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

  • Specifications: 2008 Volkswagen GTI

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