Ever since the Volkswagen Rabbit first came scampering onto U.S. soil back in 1983, Americans have had an undeniable affinity for the little hot hatch, and with each consecutive generation it has become more exhilarating to drive. Now in its seventh iteration, it’s safe to say that the GTI is a rock-solid staple for the Volkswagen brand, and that it’s become even more iconic in ways than the hippie buses and Beetles that our parents drove back in the day. But as time has progressed so has America’s disinterest in the VW badge. So as manual drivers disappear faster than MC Hammer’s musical career, and turbos continue to triumph, Volkswagen offers up a new version in the hopes of showing America why everyone should “fly in a GTI.”
While plaid seats and golf ball-shaped shift knobs may not be everyone’s thing, there’s a lot that can be said for the 2015 Golf GTI. The Tornado Red coupe S model that we got for a week came nicely equipped for $26,280, had a plucky six-speed manual gearbox, a 210 horsepower 2.0-liter TSI engine, 18-inch aluminum “revolver-style” wheels, driving mode selection, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, handbrake, and shifter knob, sporty suspension, and solid brakes. It also came with a ton of tech goods as well, with Bluetooth connectivity, a touchscreen infotainment system, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, a Media Device Interface (MDI) with iPod integration, VW’s connected services, ambient and floorboard lighting with LED reading lights, LED fog lights, and heated front seats. It also had been equipped with a lighting package that served up Bi-Xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights, and red interior “pinstripe” lighting.
For an additional $1,495, this bigger, lighter, faster, and more fuel-efficient GTI can be upgraded with a performance package for anyone needing larger brakes, an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, and another 10 horsepower. But even without this upgrade the new GTI has 51 pound-feet of torque over the previous model, costs $700 less than the older generation, gets an additional three miles per gallon, and is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick.
Shedding 82 pounds and getting a face-lift is no small feat, but the GTI pulls it off without issue. The sharper headlights, slimmer grille, and black-gilled fog lights give the nose of the car a far more aggressive feel than previous generations, all while still keeping it distinctly “Golf.” On the tail-end of things the slightly duckbilled spoiler and black accent lines add just enough attitude to the equation, as the wider and longer body allow the front wheels to sit 1.7 inches further forward, giving what Volkswagen calls a “cab backward” look.
While the simpler S model we got to flog for a week did not come with the $800 DCC adaptive damping system option like one would find in the performance package-equipped SE and Autobahn models, we didn’t really find ourselves missing it, as the already sporty suspension offered us a fantastic balance between sharp and sophisticated. Volkswagen has apparently redesigned its steering rack in the new GTI as well so that the car responds more quickly when entering a turn, all while reducing the need for force at lower speeds. Paired with high performance summer tires, the GTI’s sharper steering rack made the red-hot hatch feel both controlled and carnivorous when it came time to chew-up some switchbacks, and not once did it feel like the car had reached its limit.
Since this is the first MQB modular platform car designed for the U.S.-market, the new GTI has a lot resting on its shoulders in the design department. Boasting four times the strength of traditional spot welds, a 28% boost in chassis and body strength, and the ability to be “53 to 82 pounds lighter than the previous-generation car,” the 2015 GTI is a testament to why a bump in size and additional equipment doesn’t always constitute excessive weight gain. A lighter and stronger GTI means better fuel efficiency and faster turn in times, which brings us back to how good this car is in the corners.
The interior was a smash hit for the most part too, with a “less is more approach” giving the driver what they need without any unnecessary frills. It has excellent visibility, perfectly-sized mirrors, and there is an overall high-quality feel to the fit and finish. While it may seem minuscule on the outside, this car surprisingly has luggage space that surpasses even the largest mid-size sedan, and even has a trunk floor that can be raised or lowered 3.9 inches so that you can put a full-size bicycle inside without issue. Folded flat, the cabin of the 2015 Golf GTI has 52.7 cubic feet of cargo space (a 15% bump over its predecessor), and anyone who is bitching about the backseat is unfairly forgetting that this is a compact sports car, and not Jabba the Hutt’s party barge. Still think it’s too snug? Go sit in the back of a Fiat Abarth for an hour and then tell us what you think about the GTI’s interior.
Re-positioned controls, retracted seat positions, a new shifter height, and spacing between the pedals have all been redesigned with the the enthusiast in mind, while the premium soft-touch materials have become more pronounced than ever before. After driving the car for no more than a few miles, we also grew quite fond of how beefy that flat-bottom leather steering wheel has become, how there is not a stitch of faux carbon fiber to be seen, how sensationally comfy the snug bolstered seats felt, and the overall tranquility of the cabin.
We also liked the fact that Volkswagen has finally installed the cruise control switches on the steering wheel where they belong, instead of on a column stalk. The standard 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment center was a pleasant surprise too, as it employs a “capacitive touch sensor” so the driver can use gestures like swiping and pinch-zooming. Even though the display’s proximity sensor function did take a little getting used to, it was nice that Volkswagen left us with the option of using the analog knobs or steering wheel controls to adjust things as needed.
On the downside, the simpler S model does not come with amenities like keyless push-button access, the Fender audio system, leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, navigation, automatic climate control, or a 12-way power driver’s seat. But performance is the name of the game with this one, not fancy interior upgrades, and although a rear-view camera would be nice, solid visibility kept us from missing it too much.
The new EA888 engine now hammers-out a healthy 210 horsepower, which is easily overshadowed by the 258 pound-feet of torque you get between 1,500 rpm and 4,500 RPM. This car isn’t über thirsty either, claiming 25/34 miles per gallon on average, even though our efficiency was considerably lower because it’s a damn GTI and we drove it accordingly. Volkswagen’s redesigned powerplant is more compact and lightweight than the previous version too, and even the turbo manifold has been integrated directly into the cylinder head to boost heat management while improving efficiency and longevity.
There are different driving modes on this car as well, with “Normal,” “Sport,” and “Individual” choices being the key three. Right away it was pretty obvious which one was going to be our setting for most of the week, and surprisingly “Sport Mode” did not seem spine-shatteringly stiff at all. There really is little need for the use of “Normal Mode” on this car unless fuel economy is numero uno for the day, and you don’t want to hit corners with great gusto.
Another interesting feature was the ESC Sport Function, which is activated by holding the ASR (traction control) button down for three seconds, thus causing the system to run even tighter. This setting is the primary reason why tests at the Nürburgring yielded lap-times that were more than eight seconds faster than when the system was not engaged, and is yet another reason why the base model offers you more than you’d expect. Even in regular driving mode, the electro-hydraulic active limited-slip differential worked flawlessly at getting the power to where it was needed most, all while keeping turns as precise as possible.
This truly is a stellar little hatchback, as the amount of care that has gone into making this version better than any of its predecessors is obvious everywhere you look, and by Zeus’ whiskers does it offer excellent value for the money! Sure, a heavier shift knob would have been nice, the infotainment system isn’t mind-blowing, and while the $995 red LED pinstripe lighting package is very cool, it’s a lot to cough up for something that’s more fun than functional. But outside of those few gripes, this car is a real gem in every way.
In a report we did a few months back on Volkswagen’s Mexico assembly plants where the GTI is made, we noted an interesting quandary that many Americans have when considering something like the 2015 GTI. The issue revolves around brand purity, and in the case of the GTI, we wrote that with “its German conception, Mexican birth certificate, and American adoption papers sitting on the table in front of them, buyers must surely be wondering if there is such a thing as a ‘purebred’ anymore.”
Personally, we don’t care where this car comes from — just as long as it keeps getting better with each generation and remains powerfully planted, unexpectedly utilitarian, and ferociously fast for a four-banger. Volkswagen’s 2015 GTI S is 100% guaranteed to dish-out miles of smiles to anyone adventurous enough to sit in those sensationally supportive plaid seats. It really is a great reincarnation in every way, and the only thing that is missing is more time behind the wheel.