2011 Volkswagen GTI

7.8
2011 Volkswagen GTI

The Basics:

The Volkswagen GTI does a lot with a three-letter acronym. It's VW's "GT," or "GTO," or even its "AMG"--to scale, that is.

A punchy turbo engine, crisp handling, and a dual-clutch gearbox give the 2011 Volkswagen GTI a performance profile that's anything but stodgy.

Those characters have a meaning beyond the Golf nameplate--and that meaning is better handling, and these days, gobs more power than unusual.

With such a dowdy shape but such a winning mix of power and handling, the GTI poses an interesting question. Should you make a pass at the zingy Honda Civic Si or the MazdaSpeed3, or set your sights higher with a MINI Cooper? With its boxy demeanor, high-quality cabin and punchy performance, the GTI can compete on either of those fronts, in every way except for style. Its turbo four has wads of torque down low, where the Civic struggles to get on boil. The same's true with the MazdaSpeed3, which nearly nails the GTI's magic blend of perky power and nifty handling, but is forced to wear a silly happy face 24/7. The Mazda also doesn't have the rock-solid feel of the VW.

Neither does the MINI Cooper, for that matter--and to get into a turbo Cooper S, you're talking nearly $7000 more on the base price tag.

If you're not easily swayed by showy displays, by all means, seek out the VW. The GTI's a solitary machine. It's nowhere near as showy as its classmates, nor does it have the badge to command as much respect as the MINI. It doesn't need any of those things to win us over, thanks to its brilliant handling and to one of the great transmissions in the automotive universe.


Since it shares the same basic body with the VW Golf, the 2011 Volkswagen GTI hatchbacks are upright and a little more dowdy than the hot hatches they want to beat around the next hairpin turn. The Mazdaspeed3 and Honda Civic Si sure look more sporty, don't they? The GTI grows on you anyway, particularly the three-door, which is a little less frumpy than the five-door. It has standard-issue Teutonic seriousness that the other lacks, and it's a substantially more expensive-looking hatch thanks to lovingly studied details--the louvers on the grille, the cutline around the rear doors and wheels, the very clarity of its shape as opposed to the visual chaos of the Mazda and the Honda.

To tell a GTI from a base Golf, you need some instinct for sporty styling details. The GTI adopts its usual black honeycomb grille and a GTI badge, framed in a thin red ribbon. Black side skirts, new tail lamps, and a body-color hatchback-mounted spoiler are other useful hints at the boosted performance under the creased hood.

The cabin opts for a little more showy style. Plaid seats carry on a GTI tradition, as does the flat-bottomed, three-spoke steering wheel that's trimmed in leather and aluminum and stitched with red thread. Tidy GTI badges are sprinkled on the deeply sculpted sport seats and elsewhere around the cabin. The big LCD screen dominates the center stack and is the single most advanced piece in the entire dash, and doesn't disrupt the sense that VW knows high-quality interiors, with all the GTI's richly textured plastic and soft-touch surfaces.

There's just one powertrain configuration in the 2011 Volkswagen GTI--and it's a good one.

A turbocharged 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine is VW's choice to pull the GTI up, up, up and away from the pedestrian plane occupied by the Golf. It's a torque machine, twisting out a wide, flat powerband like a mechanical F1 tornado, minus all the peakiness you'd feel in some other blown engines.

The turbo four gets paired with a six-speed manual as standard equipment, and VW's excellent dual-clutch six-speed gearbox is an option. The latter's our pick: it uses twin clutches to alternate and pre-select gearchanges like an automatic, with exceptionally quick shift speeds, all without a clutch pedal. The manual feels a bit more vague than it needs to, though it has a light clutch pedal action. The dual-clutch transmission's more entertaining to paddle through its gears, and it turns in superior fuel economy numbers.

It's also faster, by a tick or two. The manual-shift GTI scoots to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds while it earns 21/31 mpg fuel economy. With the dual-clutch gearbox, the same 60 mph arrives in 6.7 seconds and fuel economy jumps to 24/33 mpg. Top speed for both versions is 130 mph.

Handling is a strong point with the GTI. Its electromechanical power steering has a well-sorted feel, and the ride is taut, not jarring. The front strut and independent rear suspension absorb big bumps with nary a crash or bang, and braking on GTis we've driven felt strong and controllable. The GTI also adds an electronic limited-slip differential called XDS, which helps it push through corners better by shifting power to the front wheel with more traction--not a true limited-slip differential, but an approximation that works for most drivers well enough. The GTI wears standard 18-inch wheels and summer tires for the 2011 model year.

There's no difference in the packaging of the GTI and the Golf, but the tight back seat of the base Golf doesn't worry enthusiasts so much in the three-door GTI.

In front, the 2011 VW GTI fits enthusiastic drivers very well. The GTI comes with standard sport front seats; they're bolstered thickly and they can be adjusted in eight ways. We do wish the adjusters could be simplified--it takes two levers and one big knob to set your ideal driving position--but once you're there, the GTI has hours-long comfort in its chairs, and excellent forward visibility from behind its somewhat tall dash.

Tall drivers in the front seats will cut down on the legroom available to those in back, where knee room can become an issue. It's difficult to get into the back seats in the first place on three-door models. There's an "easy entry" seatbelt holder on those three-door models, but frankly it doesn't make clambering in back that much easier. Once you're settled in back, shoulder room and head room are quite good, and the rear seats get adjustable headrests and a fold-down armrest.

The rear seats also fold flat to open up the 15-cubic-foot cargo area, revealing a bin of a considerable size.

 

Like every other car on the market, the 2011 Volkswagen GTI faces some uncertainty in the new model year, in terms of safety ratings.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have revised their crash-test criteria for 2011. In the case of the GTI, it shares the Golf's Top Safety Pick rating, as awarded by the IIHS.

However, the NHTSA hasn't yet completed tests of the hot hatch. We'll revise this rating when they publish updated results.

Standard safety features on the 2011 VW GTI include six airbags; anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; tire pressure monitors; and active headrests. Rear side airbags are an option in the four-door GTI, but the hatchback does not offer parking sensors or a rearview camera, which could help with the reduced rearward visibility in three-door models.

With other hot hatches adding all kinds of infotainment gear, the $23,690 2011 Volkswagen GTI has upped its game to stay competitive with the tech-friendly competition.

Every 2011 GTI has standard 17-inch wheels and performance tires; upgraded brakes; a sport suspension; a monochromatic paint scheme; metal-trimmed pedals; air conditioning; cruise control; and a rear defroster. The GTI also gets a six-CD changer and Sirius satellite radio included in its base price, as well as Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port for media players. This model year, new 18-inch alloy wheels are fitted.

The options list is short. The GTI can be shod with a touchscreen navigation system teamed with a 30GB hard drive, an SD card slot and DVD playback. A premium 300-watt audio system is an option; it's included in a Premium package that bundles the nav system, xenon headlamps and adaptive headlights, as well as a multifunction steering wheel with leather trim.

With its high-performance powertrain, the Volkswagen GTI could probably get away with lowest-common-denominator fuel economy. But it doesn't. In fact, it gets better gas mileage than the base engine in the mass-market Golf--a five-cylinder.

The EPA says for the 2011 model year, the manual-transmission GTI earns a rating of 21/31 mpg. Opting for VW's marvelous dual-clutch transmission boosts gas mileage to 24/33 mpg.

There's no plan to fit the GTI model with Volkswagen's well-regarded diesels--in fact, a more powerful gas engine is coming in the Golf R for the 2012 model year.

Buying Tips:

If the GTI's sub-7-second acceleration times aren't quick enough, hold out for the new "R" edition of the Golf coming as a 2012 model. It'll be more powerful with even tauter handling.

Other Choices:

  • 2011 Honda Civic Coupe
  • 2011 Mazda MAZDASPEED3
  • 2011 MINI Cooper

Reason Why:

The 2011 Volkswagen GTI lands somewhere between sporty hatchbacks like the Civic Si and Mazdaspeed3, and more mature, entry-level sporty luxury hatchbacks like the MINI Cooper. Both the Civic and Mazdaspeed3 have the look and feel of more youthful drivers, but they're by no means less expensive or much more capable. The closest rival to the GTI could be the MINI Cooper, with its flat windshield, turbocharged thrust, and classically boxy stance. It can be far more expensive, though, and it's much smaller inside, too.

The Bottom Line:

A punchy turbo engine, crisp handling, and a dual-clutch gearbox give the 2011 Volkswagen GTI a performance profile that's anything but stodgy.

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