June 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

2015 VW GTI: Hail the (still) King Hot Hatch

How good is the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI? While testing Wolfsburg’s latest pocket rocket on California’s notorious, twisty Route 1, I was picking fights with Ferraris.

Parked at a scenic Pacific overlook somewhere north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I heard a symphony of 12 cylinders blow by, waking me from my ocean reverie. Now here’s a test, I thought. Moments — and a bent speed limit — later I had caught up with the blood-red 1968 Ferrari 330 GT in a traffic clot on Route 1’s two-lane artery. California drivers instinctively know what to do when their mirrors suddenly fill with the prancing horse logo: Get out of the way.

Traffic scattered to the shoulder, and we were off. The skilled Ferrari driver clearly knew the terrain and we danced from corner to corner — shredding short straightaways, straightening out ess turns, dive-bombing hairpins — the front wheel-drive GTI effortlessly keeping pace with the rear-wheel drive Italian legend. After a few miles of this, my dance partner signaled to pull over.

“I wanted to find out how a VW could keep up with a Ferrari,” he said, smiling broadly.

Seven generations after VW wowed the world with its first hot hatch, the GTI is still wowing. It’s a testament to the relentless advance of auto engineering that a compact sedan can do battle with a supercar that 40 years ago would have blown it off the cliff. But it’s also a testament to the competition in the modern hot hatch segment.

To maintain its crown — and the new GTI does — it must constantly improve to stay ahead of the hungry contenders nipping at its heels: Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic SI, Subaru WRX, and so on. The GTI may have invented the pocket rocket market, but its competition wants to own it.

You should be warned, dear reader, that your speed-addled reviewer is hardly objective on such matters. My first car was a 1984 GTI. Yes, the Alpha Dog itself. Or rather Alpha Rabbit. Back then, the little VW was sold under the Rabbit badge on this side of the pond. Maybe the marketing department didn’t think Golf — named for the Gulf Stream’s warm winds —would translate to America. Whatever. My Mark 1 went like a scalded hare with an ocean tail-wind.

And it’s a tortoise compared to the new Mark 7. To prove the point, VW brought along representatives of all seven generations to California to celebrate the car’s 30th U.S. anniversary. There was my 1984 GTI, just as I remembered it. The flying shoebox that filled a shoebox full of speeding tickets. But aside from the golf ball shifter (Golf ball, get it? And they say Germans have no sense of humor), the Mark 7 has been transformed over the last three decades.

The Mark 7 is more refined yet has lost none of the spirit of the original. Comfortable in its skin, the GTI’s distinctive package has evolved subtly over time. What’s the German translation for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Squint and you’ll see the changes from the outgoing Mark 6. The new gen is lower and wider (producing a lower .31 drag coefficient) which translates to the car’s graphics as well. The grille and headlights are narrower, more horizontal. The classic phone dial wheels have grown more angular. Red highlights splash the grille and brake calipers for a touch of menace. From headroom to toe-in, this randy rocket has been crafted with attention to detail.

Begin with that bane of front-wheel drive rockets: torque-steer. Stomp on the accelerator of the eager Ford Focus ST, which I recently had the pleasure of flogging around Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake, and the steering wheel wants to leap from your hands as 250 horses stampede the front wheels.

Not so the GTI. Jump on the V-dub when exiting a tight corner — when chasing a Fezzaz on a windy road, for example — and this German hare leaps forward without resistance. It’s this precision that allows the GTI to match the ST’s sub-6 second 0-60 mph time despite giving up 40 horsepower.

The 2.0-liter engine is a joy, pulling smoothly throughout the rev range thanks to a remarkable 25 percent boost (to 258 lb.-feet) in torque. Credit Wolfsburg’s mad scientists, says VW North America Quality Chief Marc Trahan, and their cocktail of single-scroll turbo, variable cam timing, and direct fuel-injection that delivers juice to the cylinder heads at a brisk 2,900 pounds per square inch. Oh, yes: It also manages 29 mpg. This supple engineering is matched by superb handling dynamics, courtesy of a lighter chassis and the GTI’s strut front and multi-link rear suspension.

Crouching a half-an-inch lower on 18-inch wheels than the standard Golf, the GTI benefits from an electronic differential system that monitors all four wheels for slip to reduce understeer inherent in FWD cars. The result is a fun-box that feels as planted as a California redwood through Route 1’s intimidating switchback turns.

So the GTI is a boy toy delight. So it’ll feed your need for speed. So is it a livable daily driver?

If the GTI is all fangs and sinew on the outside, it cups you like a soft glove on the inside. Even at full song, the interior is remarkably hushed, secured with laminated glass and an enclosed undercarriage. The interior is simple, elegant — its utilitarian knobs, touch screen, and six (six! This is a German vehicle?!) cup holders integrated by sweeping lines and red highlights that echo the exterior.

Unlike cramped two-seat sports cars or four-seat coupes (looking at you, Mercedes CLA250), the GTI has plenty of rear head and trunk room. Hail the hatch. Where my 1984 original was a three-door, most Mark 7’s will be sold with five thanks to a 103.6 inch wheelbase stretched over a stiffer chassis that doesn’t sacrifice performance for room. The trunk space (a bicycle-swallowing 52.7 cubic feet with the seats down) rivals mid-size sedans.

More power, more room, more comfort will also leave you with more in the wallet. The 2015 GTI hits dealer lots this month $700 cheaper than its predecessor. My Tornado Red, SE-trim, automatic, five-door tester stickers for a sweet $30,910.

The GTI has matured nicely. And who knows? If I live another four decades, I may be hounding a 2014 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta down Route 1 ... in a 2060 GTI.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI / Volkswagen