San Francisco--We’ve been very, very patient, waiting for this 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI. The seventh-generation GTI debuted as a concept, tantalizingly close to production, in September 2012 at the Paris Motor Show. Volkswagen followed up with the production version the following March, at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, and our European editor, Georg Kacher, drove it in France that same month. A couple of months later, also in France, west coast editor Michael Jordan had a turn behind the wheel. Both gentlemen enjoyed themselves tremendously, but the rest of us at Automobile Magazine had to bide our time, just like you.
Now, mere weeks before the 2015 Golf GTI finally reaches U.S. showrooms, we’re getting our first opportunity, albeit a brief one, to drive the car on American soil. Across the bay from San Francisco, in Richmond, Volkswagen has a fleet of Golfs and Golf GTIs at Craneway Pavilion, a dramatic, Albert Kahn-designed, prewar complex that was once a Ford Motor Company assembly factory, of all things.
Is this a new car?
At first glance, you’ll barely know that the 2015 VW GTI is a new car. Look more carefully, though, and you’ll realize that this Mk7 edition is indeed different from its predecessor. See the crisper body lines; the geometrically shaped five-spoke wheels; the new front fender badges; and the new front-end design with LED fog lights set into prominent horizontal strakes surrounding a mesh lower grille. The horizontal, body-color line that used to stretch between the headlights now goes all the way through the headlights, separating them from the turn signals. Still, while the 2015 GTI has lots of different details compared with the outgoing 2014 GTI, they’re all pretty subtle to the casual observer.
More power now, even more later
I’m handed the key to a Tornado Red 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI S with manual transmission and the Performance Pack. I open the door to see a familiar but freshened interior with the famous plaid cloth seats. (Leather is optional.) They are comfortable and supportive, but not aggressively bolstered. Once you settle in, you grasp the flat-bottomed steering wheel, which has a rim that’s just the right thickness. Left foot to the floor, right foot on the brake, right index finger hits the start button that’s located near the gearshifter, and I hear the steady thrum of the EA288 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine. With 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, it’s bringing 10 more hp and an additional 51 lb-ft to the party as compared with the Mk6’s engine. [The Performance Pack, a $1495 stand-alone option available on all trim levels and with both transmissions, adds an additional 10 hp, for 220 hp total, plus bigger brakes and, most notably, an electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated, torque-sensing, limited-slip front differential. The only bummer is that you’ll have to wait until December to get it.]
A silky clutch take-up segues perfectly to the linear movement of the gas pedal, and I’m effortlessly moving the gearshifter through the first few gears as I head to the 580 freeway. I hit the “mode” button and select sport settings for the steering and engine. Before long, I’m up on San Pablo Dam Road, a great, fast, hilly stretch that follows the San Pablo Reservoir. The razor-sharp steering, the torquey engine, and the great visibility all come into play here.
Feels like an old friend
I have lots of miles in the GTI Mk5 and Mk6, and this Mk7 feels like an old friend. The sensations of smoothness, refinement, precision, and accessible power that characterized those last two generations are even more finely concentrated in the 2015 GTI. The net effect is that the GTI is simply really easy to drive fast and to drive well. Your palms don’t get sweaty.
Cops, bicyclists, and turkeys
San Pablo Dam Road leads me to Wildcat Canyon Road, which winds through Tilton Park, above Berkeley. This is one of those tight, twisty, hilly, narrow roads dappled with California sunshine peeking through the tree canopy, that we Midwesterners fantasize about. Time to roll down the windows, the better to hear the exhaust and the optional, eighteen-inch summer rubber on the pavement. The GTI’s steering is pretty much perfect here. I’m rowing between second and third gears. I don’t have this road to myself, though, so I’m accelerating hard and then braking quickly, for obstacles as varied as a police car that’s running a speed trap; bicyclists; and, believe it or not, a wild turkey that crosses the road in front of me.
The GTI is unfazed. A little dab of the brake pedal, very little pitch or dive, and the car rotates fluidly through another corner. The ride remains supple, even in some bumpy, off-camber turns. As you toss the GTI into corners, you readily feel the additional torque that’s being directed to the outside wheels by the limited-slip diff.
At home on campus…
Down toward Berkeley I go, and suddenly I’m on Stadium Rim Way, looking into the vast bowl of the Cal Berkeley football stadium. I pull over to the curb for a minute, and a couple of students walking by eye the GTI. I almost roll down the window to say, “Guys, when you graduate, you should buy this car.”
…And on the freeway
Soon I’m on the 580 west heading back to Richmond. The GTI is quiet at 60 mph in sixth gear. Suddenly the freeway gets crowded, but it’s not a problem. Shift down to third gear, and there’s all sorts of power to slip into holes in traffic. In fourth gear, at 75 mph, the turbo four is running at 3500 rpm, well short of the 6000-rpm redline. There’s a little wind noise over the A pillars but, still, this is a quiet and refined pocket rocket, as well suited for a freeway road trip as for a romp on Wildcat Canyon Road.
Longtime love affair
How much do we love the Volkswagen GTI here at Automobile Magazine? In 2007, we named the fifth-generation car our Automobile of the Year, celebrating its blend of athleticism, practicality, and performance, which we felt was the closest thing to the spirit of the original, 1983 GTI. We followed that up in 2010 with yet another Automobile of the Year award for the sixth-generation model, which honestly wasn’t that different but was still able to capture our hearts.
An evolution, but one worth waiting for
The 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI is yet another evolution of the GTI formula, but that’s certainly no bad thing. It’s lighter, bigger, and more powerful and efficient than its predecessor but hardly more expensive, and Volkswagen of America secured all the goodies from Germany that American enthusiasts want and deserve, including optional adaptive damping, a premium Fender stereo, and the Performance Pack. VW has made sure there’s a GTI for every buyer, with some ten iterations spread across three trim levels: GTI S, GTI SE, and GTI Autobahn. Two-door and four-door models return, and you still have your choice of six-speed manual gearbox or VW’s superb six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic. The 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI was worth the wait.
2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI S 4 Door
Price As Tested:$28,305
Engine:2.0-liter turbo I-4
Cargo Capacity (seats up/down):22.8/52.7 cubic feet
Fuel Economy:25/34 mpg (city/highway)
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