My year with the 2015 Volkswagen GTI Performance Package flew by. I tried a number of different performance parts, took it on road trips, and drove it on the track, but most importantly, I lived with it. It's easy to like a car for a couple of weeks of everyday use, or over a longer time period as a weekend toy, but to really enjoy a car day in and day out for a year, it's a whole different thing. It's a bigger challenge when a car is trying to impress an automotive journalist who consistently gets in and out of the world's best luxury, sports, super, and even race cars during that year.
It didn't seem to matter what I drove over the last 12 months; I would still look forward to getting back into the Pure White, Autobahn spec hot-hatch. Even with a sticker price of $34,455, it was one of the least-expensive European cars I drove all year; the surprising thing is that it never felt that way. The driving experience in the GTI is the equal of anything short of cars wearing S, M, AMG, or Porsche badges; and with that statement I'm not even taking value into the equation. A few well-chosen tuning parts made the driving experience even that much better.
I wasn't disappointed in any of the tuning products we tested on the car. For additional boost, we cycled through: a Neuspeed Power Module, a Unitronic Stage 1 ECU Flash, and Power Box from BK Tuning. For all-out performance, it's hard to touch an ECU Flash, and Unitronic knocked this one out of the park. While it doesn't make the very low-end torque of either of the intercept boxes, the top end of the power curve makes it feel more like a big turbo than a flash. The intercept boxes trick the ECU into producing more boost, so while they can make all the boost the little stock turbo can muster, when the stock boost map starts tapering off at higher rpm, they are forced to as well. Consequently, big power numbers definitely go to Unitronic making 262 hp and 298 lb-ft of torque at the wheels. The downside of the flash: It's nearly impossible to completely hide the evidence if something would go wrong. So if you are concerned about your warranty, it might not be the best answer for you.
We were certainly satisfied with the results from the Neuspeed Power Module. The device is roughly the size of a deck of cards, is available for less than $400, and installs in 10 minutes. We saw 248 hp and just over 300 lb-ft at the wheels.
Sadly, before writing this, we didn't have time to get dyno results for the BK Tuning Power Box. It is just slightly more complicated to install than the Neuspeed unit, requiring a connection to the battery and one extra sensor. It does, however, offer more adjustability and the ability to leave the harness in the car and just remove the tuning box for things like dealer service or even emissions verification. We intend to dyno it very soon and even try it out with either some race gas or other methods to use even more boost, which it is capable of adding with a couple of button pushes.
With all the boost adders, we used a Neuspeed P-Flo intake and the Corsa cat-back exhaust. It's nice to be able to open the hood and see a CARB-certified sticker with the intake. The P-Flo definitely adds additional turbo noises to the car's soundtrack and a couple more horsepower at the top end. The Corsa Exhaust cat-back is one of the best systems we've heard on MQB cars, and I couldn't be happier with it for daily driving. It has a grumbly sound to it but is only a little louder than stock inside the car. Outside, it's definitely noticeable but nowhere near obnoxious. We will likely have a new downpipe in the near future, so it will be interesting to hear how that changes the sounds.
We've done the most work on the car's suspension. I have been the surprised by the SuperPro control arms. It might not be entirely the arms themselves, but the stiffer bushings included with the arms. The arms are beautifully made aluminum pieces and will set you back around $800. Unlike earlier Golfs, they don't save a great deal of weight, but they would appear to be far stiffer. The magic is in the bushing; a front and rear set for your factory control arms is available for less than $150. Taking out the soft rubber bushings, while adding a little more camber and caster, gives world-class abilities to the GTI's already great steering.
Second on my list of must-haves are the H&R antiroll bars. I'm not usually a fan of super-stiff ARB rates; they effectively remove some of the independence from your independent suspension. The H&R bars, however, work great at getting rid of some of the body roll without adding a bunch of head toss. I have front and rear bars as I've always felt like adding just the rear bar throws too much weight on the outside front tire and un-weights the inside front. I even tried the bars with factory shocks and springs and they work great when driving hard.
I went through three different iterations of spring/damper combinations, well four, but more on that later. The least expensive and easiest was H&R Sport Springs over factory dampers. Unlike GTIs of the past, the spring and damping rates on the MK7 are pretty aggressive right from the factory. The stock setup is actually fantastic. The Sport Springs will give you the lower ride height so many people want, while the spring rates are also a little stiffer. In fact, if I were doing Sport Springs again, I would probably do them with an aftermarket damper as well.
The second step in terms of outlay was the H&R Street Performance Coilovers. As the name would suggest, these are ideal for aggressive street driving with an occasional track day. The ride quality is easily as good as factory with improved handling. As a matter of fact, with the SuperPro arms, H&R coilovers, and antiroll bars combined with some sticky Bridgestone RE-71Rs and the added power from the Unitronic flash, we were turning faster lap times around our figure-8 track than an e90 M3. Boom!
The highest-end setup we tested was the Bilstein PSS10 adjustable damping coilovers. These are more suited for track use but are still streetable for performance-minded enthusiasts. These are definitely high-quality units and roughly 50 percent more expensive than the H&Rs we tested. For street use, we had the fronts set at 5, which is mid-level for damping force and the rears at 8, with 10 being the stiffest.
Something we found with both the Bilstein and H&R kits was that they lowered the car more than we wanted, even at maximum ride height. The fully optioned GTI as you see it here is as heavy as any GTI you'll find on the lot, so if you were to put these on a two-door, non-sunroof base car, I'm sure it wouldn't be nearly as low. Our conclusion after testing with the different kits? The car does not respond well to being overlowered. You may think it looks faster when your GTI is slammed on the ground, but it most certainly is not. Again, with either of these kits, it probably isn't an issue with lighter GTIs.
With that in mind, as this was going to press, we were installing H&R's newest coilover kit for the MQB platform, the Street Performance Plus kit. This kit not only has slightly higher rates than the standard Street kit, but it switches out the powdercoated rear shocks for plated units and most importantly, has camber plates. MQB cars have no adjustability in front camber, which can be a real problem for those of us who don't like understeer-which should be all of us. The new top mounts replace the factory rubber units with aluminum plates, which use steel spherical bearings. What the SuperPro bushings did at the bottom of the front suspension, these mounts do for the top. I haven't spent many miles on these yet, but my GTI now has the steering feel and precision of a GT3. I'm not exaggerating.
You are probably asking yourself, "Why did he just install new suspension if the car is going back to VW?" Well here's the thing: I like, no I love, this car so much I talked VW into selling it to me. The highest praise a car can get is for an automotive journalist to spend what little money he has on a car, when we all get to drive whatever we want, basically whenever we want. The MK7 GTI is, in my opinion, the best performance car less than $60,000 in years. And even above that price, most of the cars that are better won't carry as much as the GTI.
So there you have it; I bought it and, no, I certainly wouldn't say I got any better deal than any of you going to a dealership and buying a 1-year-old GTI with 25,000 very hard miles. You will be seeing more of it, and possibly with some crazier modifications, as I'm no longer worried about having to return it completely stock at the end of a year.