Payne: VW GTI is a cheap thrill
After a week with the superstar, supercar BMW i8 (stay tuned for my review next Thursday), I am in withdrawal. Despondent. Needy. What can fill the void of a hybrid luxury sports car with 357 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque, and a body that would make Kate Upton jealous?
May I recommend the Volkswagen Golf GTI?
Not that the German hot hatch will make you forget the i8. It won't. But the VW will remind you that you don't have to spend $140,000 to get a thrill. At $30 grand – the average price of a new car – this fun-box will give a pricier BMW 3-series sedan fits.
Sure, the GTI doesn't have the celebrity status of the i8, but it's plenty sexy with its signature, 18-inch wheels. And as any tabloid star will tell you, celebrity can be exhausting. You can't hide in an i8. Muscle cars wanted to challenge me. SUVs full of picture-snapping families sidled next to me. Street gawkers wanted to know its every detail.
Like beautiful people, beautiful cars come with paparazzi.
But they are often, like the i8, short on practical amenities like headroom, legroom, luggage room. Heck, the backseat inspiration of the i8 seemed to be my college clothes trunk. Purses have more room than the rear luggage compartment. The beauty of the GTI is that you can comfortably accommodate three friends and their baggage for a weekend Up North – and have a blast getting there on twisty Route 66.
Since the GTI washed up on our shores in 1983, it has inspired a whole segment of pocket rockets including the Ford Focus ST and Subaru WRX. GTI accounts for a whopping 50 percent of Golf sales and debuted its seventh generation this year – a spicy bratwurst I reviewed for you in June.
Not content with that firecracker, VW this fall added a performance package option — 10 more horsepower, more stopping power, more cornering power (and if that isn't enough spice to curl your taste buds, the speed nerds at APR will sell you an engine chip upgrade worth another 100 ponies).
So I dragged my sullen, post-i8 depression into this randy rocket – and perked right up. Mrs. Payne thanks you, VW.
The GTI fits like a glove. Sure, the bolstered seats aren't made from organic unicorn hide like the i8 — but they are leather nonetheless. The Autobahn-trim cabin comes with lux-like amenities — heated seats, leather steering wheel, voice-command audio – plus features the i8 lacks: A proper touch screen and 6 cup holders (proof that not all German makers are numb to the needs of car-dwelling Americans).
Stomp on the gas and . . . a twinge of i8 nostalgia returns. The 220 horsepower, 2.0-liter four banger hesitates before the turbo awakes. The i8's 227 horse, 1.5-liter twin-turbo three would do the same were it not for its complimentary electric motor. Sigh, I do miss that instant, hybrid torque . . . but then the turbo cavalry arrives and the GTI explodes down the road like a bullet out of a rifle.
Approach a sharp bend and the big, fire-engine red, GTI –monogrammed brakes stick like glue. Electric steering is perfectly weighted. The short wheelbase rotates on a dime. This is front wheel drive? Where's the push? Exit the corner. Back on the juice. Glorious.
And all this for just $34,000. Ditch the lighting package and opt for a stick (the only way to fly) and you're under $30 grand. I could buy everyone in my family of four one for the price of an i8 – and have enough left over to buy a used '13 for my sister for Christmas.
But aren't steroid-fed athletes a maintenance nightmare? Actually, the quality experts at JD Power give it a Performance Award.
Except, ahem, for the water pump.
Every Golf owner knows their water pump is cursed. It's the GTI's Achilles Heel. My son drove his 2013 GTI to California this summer. Flattened the back seats. Got all his stuff in the hatch. The perfect cross-country car. His water pump failed on arrival in San Francisco (at least it has the courtesy of not failing in the middle of Death Valley).
So save for a water pump. And $1500 for the performance package. Or you can save another $10 grand for the next GTI upgrade: The Golf R400. Which VW will tease at the Los Angeles Auto Show next week. Which has all-wheel-drive. And (ahem) 394 horsepower. And a 3.9 second zero-60 time. That's right. A 2.0-liter turbo V-dub with the same acceleration as a 6.2-liter Corvette C7.
Do I miss the BMW i8? The what?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2015 VW GTI
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact hatchback
Price: $25,215 base ($34,005 Autobahn edition as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: Zero-60: 5.6 seconds (Motor Trend); 153 mph
Weight: 3,105 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined
Highs: No torque steer under hard acceleration; Will terrorize 3-series
Lows: Options push price into mid-30k; Hit/miss voice commands