Mark Twain famously wrote, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Judged on statistics and track numbers alone, the 2011 Volkswagen GTI would be one of the least desirable of the currently available sport hatchbacks. But that's a lie. In reality, the GTI is a front runner among the competition.
Sure, the 2011 Volkswagen GTI isn't as quick to reach 60 mph as the competition, nor can it weave through the slalom or cling to a skid pad as tenaciously. How then, you ask, can the GTI rank so highly in such a sport-oriented segment? The answer is two-fold: refinement and drivability.
The VW GTI's interior is quite simply, the best in its class. It's so nice, in fact, that it could be mistaken for a cabin from sister company Audi, save for the plaid fabric seats. (About those private school uniform-patterned coverings -- it's a nod to the original GTI from more than three decades ago.) The GTI also boasts surprising amounts of rear legroom and useful cargo space considering its compact overall size.
Drivability is the other main advantage the 2011 Volkswagen GTI has over other sport hatches. Output from the 2.0-liter turbo engine is smooth and linear, and that power is more manageable in the real world than that of more feisty rivals. Competitors like the Mazdaspeed 3 and Mini Cooper S suffer from torque steer -- the sensation of the steering wheel tugging in your hands under hard acceleration -- that many drivers find distracting.
In addition to the Mazda and Mini, other performance hatchbacks to consider include the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart and Subaru Impreza WRX. Certainly, there's a lot to like about all of these cars. But if you're like Mark Twain and don't blindly go by the numbers, you'll find the 2011 GTI an ideal pick -- the sum of its parts can't be quantified with statistics alone.
The GTI cabin is businesslike without being austere, a place the driver can appreciate and passengers will find quite accommodating. It's nicely trimmed and well-assembled, the level of fit and finish better than you might expect for the price knowing money also got spent on the engineering. You might argue the instruments and switches benefit from Audi influence, or the other way round since VW owns Audi.
Heated sport seats are standard up front with a fair range of adjustment, long cushions for long-legged support, excellent bolstering that contains you without restricting movement or entry and exit, and comfort for all-day drives. Leather is available yet we find the standard cloth better breathing and a bit less slippery if you're of slender build.
The rear seats are designed for three-across seating, but as usual this is better for slim adults or children; more bolstering might be beneficial for some passengers but would compromise flexibility. There are three adjustable headrests, reading lights, cupholders, and storage bins, but the side windows open only on four-door models (the seats and space are the same). It may not be a long car but it is roomy; we put four 6-plus-footers in a moonroof model with no complaints thanks to the hatchback roofline.
Both front seats slide forward for entry/exit and with big side doors make the two-door a realistic proposition. With the narrow part of the split-folding rear seat behind the driver, a tall driver with the seat well back can still carry longer loads and two rear passengers, or one passenger in back and really long things over a reclined front seat.
A tilt and telescoping column with a flat-bottom, heavily contoured steering wheel, a good dead pedal and nearby brake and shifter allow anyone from 5-foot to 6-foot, 5 inches to find a comfortable driving position. Any option pack adds controls to both wheel spokes and automatics have shift buttons behind, so it's rare to need to remove a hand from the wheel.
Gauges are basic white-on-black analog with large engine and road speed, and 270-degree sweep fuel and temperature inside them. A central display handles trip computer and radio data, exterior temperature, door-open warnings and so forth. The audio and navigation systems are new for 2011, MP3/iPod compatible, most touch-screen and Bluetooth controls are roof mounted. Climate control is three-ring simple and unlike many cars each of the center vents can be closed independent of the other.
Storage is reasonably good. The sides of the bin ahead of the shifter double as places to brace a knee, door pockets have good space and bottle holder contours, but the center-console under-armrest room is good for little more than a smartphone and pack of smokes.
Outward visibility is very good. Outside mirrors are low and the inside high enough that neither blocks any vision even on climbing switchbacks. The bottom of the windshield is unobstructed the full width of the dash and the top is high for an excellent view forward, and the rear pillars are so far away they don't compromise quarter views.
Behind the seats there is 15 cubic feet of trunk space; a bit less below the cargo cover. Folding the rear seats expands that to more than 40 cubic feet bettering some SUVs. The cargo area also has tie-down loops, grocery bag hooks, three baby-seat tethers, a multitude of cubby holes underneath and a surprise below: the spare tire and wheel are identical to the other four so you avoid temporary-spare or run-flat speed limits and wondering where the flat tire will go.
The GTI is based on the VW Golf, and both received a new exterior last year that made them more angular and menacing. The GTI has some unique features, including a thin, blackened honeycomb grille with two red outlining stripes; different front and rear bumpers; side skirts; and GTI badging. It also rides slightly lower than the Golf. Exterior features include:
- Standard 18-inch alloy wheels
- Dual tailpipes
- Optional xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights
The front-wheel-drive 2011Volkswagen GTI is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (called DSG) is optional. The DSG transmission can be shifted manually via the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel, or it can operate as a standard automatic.
In testing, the GTI accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, which is slower than the competition by at least half a second. It is also on the pokey side in terms of handling, turning in a 67-mph run through the slalom and pulling 0.84g on the skid pad.
The EPA estimates fuel economy at 24/32 mpg city/highway for DSG-equipped models and 27 mpg in combined driving. The manual transmission achieves slightly less, at 21/31/25 mpg.
Standard safety equipment for the 2011 Volkswagen GTI includes antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Last year's optional rear-seat side airbags for the four-door have been discontinued.
In government crash testing, the GTI sedan earned four out of five stars for frontal crash protection of the driver and front passenger and five stars for side impact driver protection. In performance testing, braking from 60 to zero mph required 129 feet, which is a full car length longer than the Mazdaspeed 3's impressively short 115-foot halt.