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Tiburon, give it props. Civic, pay your dues to it. Focus, single it out for honors.
Every one of these hot hatches owes a big favor to Volkswagen. In 1983 the Rabbit-based GTI pretty much set out the parameters for inexpensive handling fun, and for 20 off and on years has been one of the defining boy racers that have kept some of us eternally youthful, if only behind the wheel.
So how do these guys return the favor? By getting leaner, cheaper, quicker, and better looking. Some gratitude, eh?
But in case it’s fallen off your sport-tuned radar, the hardy perennial GTI has been growing to get back into shape. The power numbers are up, and the price is too — but not scary if you’ve priced out a top-end model from the competition. Its reflexes feel sharper than a few years ago, thanks to judicious wheel and tire choices. And VW can make a compelling argument now that it’s got all the running bases covered, along with the best safety package in the segment.
In terms of power, it wasn’t until the recent addition of the 200-hp VR6 and the 180-hp 1.8-liter turbo that the recent GTIs could challenge much more than the unmodified pedestrian Civics. Last year we ran you through the gears with the turbo four; this time around, it’s VW’s rorty VR6 that provides the underhood inspiration.
This is the powertrain the GTI has needed to arouse its lustiest, twistiest tendencies. In the GTI, the VR6 engine breathes out 200 hp at 6200 rpm and twists out 195 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm. So equipped VW says it will rush to 60 mph in about 7.7 seconds through its stock six-speed manual transmission. The gobs of torque and smooth six-speed linkage make it a joy to row and go.
You might automatically assume that more cylinders means more speed here, but you’d be ill informed. If you choose the four-cylinder, 1.8-liter turbo and the five-speed manual transmission, it’s actually quicker to 60 mph (doing the run in 7.5 seconds) than the more powerful and weightier VR6 option. But saddle the turbo with the Tiptronic automatic and it slows into the mid-eights. Either way, you’re still a few ticks off the quickest, most expensive SVT Focus or Tiburon V-6, too, but not completely out of contention.
Handling has always been the selling proposition of the GTI; thousands of college guys bought into them and started tossing them around SCCA events and, from one instance we know of directly, icy Syracuse roads in search of really cheap kegs.
It’s a simple MacPherson strut setup in front, and trailing arms/torsion beam in the rear, which has made for entertaining handling past and now present, too. The GTI’s turn-in and directional stability is just beautiful, its ride compliance a model for cars with such a short wheelbase. It’s just rack-and-pinion steering, not rocket science, but the GTI’s supple tuning distances it from the callow youthful competition. Among other GTIs the key difference is a set of 225/45-17 tires on stylin’ 17-inch rims; the 1.8T wears 205/55s, though the VR6 wheels are optional.
Another aspect the GTI rules over is extensive safety equipment. There’s three-channel anti-lock braking for the four-wheel disc brakes, traction control, and an Electronic Stabilization Program, too (it’s an option on the GTI 1.8T). Dual front and side-impact airbags are teamed with side-curtain airbags for possibly the windiest coverage in a car this small. It also sport our least favorite standard safety piece, daytime running lights, but forgiveness is as cheap as taking it to a VW haus and having them short-circuit the always-on lights.
If you were waiting on a styling dissertation of the GTI, we’d like to sidetrack you to the Michael Graves toilet brush we bought at Target last week. Really, how much is there left to say about the GTI’s two-box shape, except that it’s exceptionally clean and creates vast amounts of interior and cargo space? Leaving that said and the rest to Esquire, we also note the cabin is comfortable enough for four adults, and the dash is about as sophisticated as you can get in this niche: its handsome black leather and plastic, fancy steering wheel with a large VW logo, blue-lighted instruments and richly switching switches lend an air of subtlety in a segment where Eminem CDs are practically standard equipment.
For $21,995, the GTI VR6 comes stocked with goodies that qualify it for emergency housing in some micronations: air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows/locks mirrors, cruise control, and a rear-window wiper. To complement its urban warrior status, VW endows it with a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that, while not up there with Hyundai’s or Ford’s, is at least above average.
The GTI isn’t, and really has never been a radically self-styled rocket of the kind you’d see Vin Diesel drive. On the other hand, it’s not quite a grownup two-door saddled with more responsibility than urges, like a Chrysler Sebring. It’s quick enough to hold its own against advancing youth and smart enough to dance with the older crowd — and that’s why the GTI still earns respect.
2003 Volkswagen GTI
Base prices: $21,995; $24,715 as tested
Engine: 2.8-liter VR6, 200 hp/195 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 164.9 x 68.3 x 56.7
Wheelbase: 98.9 in
Curb weight (lbs.): 3036 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 23/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side impact and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, daytime running lights
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors, keyless entry, telescoping steering wheel, 17” alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles