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2015 Volkswagen GTI first drive, the seventh generation of hot hatch

Spot a 2015 Volkswagen GTI by the "strakes" on the lower front quarters.
Spot a 2015 Volkswagen GTI by the "strakes" on the lower front quarters.
John Matras photos, copyright John Matras Media LLC

The thumbnail description of the Volkswagen Golf’s seventh generation is lower, longer, wider, but lighter, as well as bigger inside. It is the first U.S. model built on Volkswagen’s new MBQ chassis. The faithful 2.5-liter five-cylinder is gone, replaced by a 1.8-liter turbo four. The diesel in the Golf TDI is all new. The chassis is stronger, using a zig-zag laser welding procedure to replace spot welds. Suspension is struts in front, multilink in the rear (except for the TDI, which has a torsion-beam setup). The MBQ chassis moves the driver position almost an inch rearward, and interior upgrades include a much needed 5.8-inch touchscreen multi-information display. And that’s just the beginning.

2015 Volkswagen GTI
John Matras photos, copyright John Matras Media LLC

The 2015 Volkswagen GTI takes those elements and adds, well, the GTI attitude.

Like its predecessors, the VW GTI is a Golf with performance modifications, though Volkswagen prefers to set it apart with its own model designation—except when it doesn’t. Descriptively it’s “Golf GTI,” but technically Volkswagen GTI it is.

The 2015 VW GTI, then, shares most of the exterior with its alter ego, available in either two- or four-door configuration. It’s honestly going to take a practiced eye, or placing a Mark VI GTI alongside a Mark VII, to tell the difference, but the squinty eyes of the 2015 are just a little squintier, the grille loses a center bar, and while the spokes of the 18-inch wheels extend to the rim to make the wheels appear larger than they already are, the new spokes are hooked to one side rather than symmetrical.

However, most noticeable are the giant black strakes either side of the lower radiator grille, lifted directly from the sides of the Ferrari 512 TR, though not so many and not so big, and instead of inlets, they house the standard LED fog lights. Consider them the Hey You styling feature of the GTI. From behind, a distinctive diffuser and hatch-top spoiler distinguish the GTI from lesser members of the Golf clan.

Still, with the front wheels moved 1.7-inches forward, the changes may be subtle but they make a more aggressive Volkswagen GTI.

Inside, the Golf and GTI measures bigger in almost every direction, thanks to the larger outside dimensions. The 2015 GTI increases the use of soft touch materials, and while we weren’t able to see it during our daylight first drive, the GTI has red-illuminated door sills and ambient lighting, plus buttons and switches backlit in white.

The GTI also gets a sporty-look flat-bottomed steering wheel and aluminum-look pedals, ‘cause one’s gotta have The Look. Sport seats are standard in the 2015 GTI, and accented, like the soft-texture leather steering wheel, with red stitching. Our test car seats were optional leather, part of the SE trim level, more about which later.

Our first-drive 2015 GTI was equipped with the six-speed DSG automatic. It’s optional, instead of the six-speed manual transmission, in all trim levels except the top-of-line GTI Autobahn model, available only with the DSG automatic. The automatic can be shifted manually with the shift lever or better, discrete paddles on the steering wheel. And of course, it can be left to its own devices to shift manually.

The 2015 Volkswagen GTI’s engine is a two-liter inline four with an aluminum head but, surprising today, a cast iron block. The engine block, however, is an extremely thin-wall construction, with the walls actually a mere 1.2-inches thick.

The double-overhead cam has variable intake and exhaust timing and variable valve lift as well, and with direct injection and a single-scroll turbocharger gets a significant increase in power, up by ten to 210 horses, but a substantial bump in torque, from a peak of 207 lb-ft to 258 lb-ft, and that over a range from a just-above-idle 1500 rpm up to 4500 rpm. A Performance Package available later in the year will increase horsepower to 220 horses.

The engine, still dubbed EA888, is also lighter than its predecessor, with four instead of eight crankshaft counterweights, plus a polymer oil pan and the use of aluminum-alloy screws and fasteners.

The head also integrates the exhaust manifold, which not only allows quicker coolant temperature warm-up for improved emissions and economy, but its thermal management optimizes fuel injection operation for more efficient fuel use.

The 2015 Golf/GTI increases the use of high-strength steel to 28 percent of its steel body and chassis, still less than many competitors, but up from seven percent for its predecessor. Varying thickness of steel used, however, allows strength to be added where it’s needed, helping reduce the overall weight of the GTI by 53 to 82 pounds, depending on model.

The GTI retains the strut-type front suspension and multi-link rear suspension used in the standard TSI, but sport suspension lowers the GTI by 0.6 inches, with larger front and rear roll bars, at 24 mm front, up by two millimeters, and the rear a millimeter thicker than the standard TSI’s 20 mm.

The 2015 Golf GTI can now be ordered with the DCC adaptive damping system, available only on SE and Autobahn models with the Performance Package. The system varies compression and rebound shock absorber rates individually, for better suspension control.

The GTI comes with larger brake discs than the standard TSI/TDI models, but opting for the Performance Package adds an inch to brake disc diameter up front, to 13.4 inches, and to 12.4 inches at the rear.

All 2015 Volkswagen GTI XDS Cross Differential System, updated from the previous GTI, controls torque steer with electronic controls of the front brakes side to side to prevent wheelspin on one side or the other.

Track day drivers will appreciate a new ESC function, which is activated via a button on the center console. Press it once and the traction control system is shut off. Press it for more than three seconds and the stability control system will go to a sport mode that’s less invasive—the nanny less controlling—to allow the experienced driver get the most out of the GTI on a road course.

This shouldn’t be confused with the mode control button that changes the electronics controlling the electric power steering boost and the transmission mapping with the automatic transmission.

The Performance Package goes further with steering…literally. What it calls “Progressive electric power steering” doesn’t vary boost but rather has teeth closer together in the center of the in the steering rack, and further apart nearer the ends. It gives a quicker response initially, as when turning in to a corner, while providing the greater turning effect useful in slow maneuvers such as when parking.

A why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-that safety feature found on all Golfs, not just the GTI, is Automatic Post-Collision Braking. It applies the brakes after impact to mitigate any further collisions or just keep the car from rolling into something or somewhere where it might not be a good idea to be.

Of course, going is whole point of the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, and if you’ve waded through all the how to’s and what fors to get to this point, well, the GTI lives up to its billing. It’s still a hot hatch and the new engine makes it hotter. Torque is the new horsepower. Not really, but you know what we mean. In day-to-day driving or unfamiliar winding back roads, leaning against a big bag of torque to, respectively, pull away from a stoplight or come digging out of a corner. Keeping a high winding engine on the power band is exhausting and borderline delinquent anywhere but on the race track.

That said, we took to the sound of the 2.0-liter turbo winding out like an Alabama linebacker goes for grits. The transmission’s shift paddles are small and tucked behind the steering wheel spokes but are easy to flip from one gear to the next.

We didn’t have access to the ESC system or a place to truly utilize it, but we did experiment with the Sport mode button. In addition to Normal and Sport, the mode setting also includes Individual, which allows resetting specific mode elements—electric steering, engine and front lighting—one at a time. We didn’t have time to experiment but after trying Sport just left it there, if for no other reason than to hear that puppy bark when the transmission is shifted. We know, it’s juvenile, but we have so few vices…

And the 2015 Volkswagen GTI is quicker than any of its predecessors and measures up against most all of its competitors…and does so at a much lower price. The base 2015 Volkswagen GTI S two-door has a base price of $24,395 and has all the performance of any trim level. Move up to the GTI SE two-door manual transmission raises the price to $27,395. At the far end is the GTI Autobahn automatic, at $30,695, plus the Performance Package for $1495, the Driver Assistance package at $695, and Lighting Package (adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights, LED running lights) for $995. All trim levels have an $820 destination fee, but that Performance Package? Not available until later in the model year, and worth waiting for, we’d think.

When it comes to hot hatches, the Volkswagen GTI Mark VII flips ‘em as good as it gets.

2015 Volkswagen GTI Autobahn automatic, price and key specifications as tested

Body style/layout: 5-door hatchback, front engine/front-wheel drive

Base price: $30,695

· Driver Assistance Package: $695

· Lighting Package: $995

· Destination charge: $820

Price as tested: $33,205

Engine

  • Type: 2.0-liter 16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
  • Displacement, cc: 1984
  • Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
  • Compression ratio: 9.6:1
  • Horsepower: 210 @ 4600 rpm
  • Torque: 258 @ 1500-4500 rpm
  • Recommended fuel: premium unleaded
  • Fuel economy, EPA est.: 25/33 mpg city/highway
  • Fuel economy, observed: n.a. mpg

Transmission:6-speed automatic paddle-shift

Chassis/Suspension

  • Suspension, front/rear: strut type / multilink
  • Wheels: 18 x 7.5-inch alloy
  • Tires: 225/40R18
  • Brakes: 4-wheel disc; 12.3-inch dia. front/10.7-inch dia. rear.
  • Steering: electric power variable ratio rack-and-pinion
  • Turning circle: 35.8 ft.

Dimensions

  • Wheelbase: 103.6 in.
  • Length: 168.0 in.
  • Height: 56.8 in.
  • Width: 70.8 in.
  • Curb weight: 3,086 lbs
  • Trunk volume, min/max: 22.8/52.7 cu. ft.
  • Fuel tank: 13.2 gal.

Safety

· Airbags: Front, front side, side curtain

· Anti-lock brakes: Yes Traction control: Yes Stability control: Yes Electronic brake-force distribution: Yes Brake assist: Yes

· Other: Automatic Post-Collision Braking

Warranty: 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper; 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain; 1-year/10,000-mile scheduled service, 3-year/36,000-mile roadside assistance