The Volkswagen Golf family, from the base 1.8T to the especially lusty Golf R, might well be the finest vehicles on sale today. Along with the driving experience, this is the best combination of comfort, efficiency, utility, safety, value, and quality. There's an electric version, a diesel that gets 45 mpg on the highway and an R that gives more expensive cars a run for their money around a track. So why choose a 2015 VW GTI as our newest long-term project?
Let's start at the beginning. The TDI is ideal for 90 percent of the driving population: incredible mileage, great torque where it's needed most, and a stellar car overall. The base with the new 1.8T is a fantastic value at around 20 grand. For normal people, 170 hp and a comfortable suspension tune is just fine. Most of our readers and writers aren't normal drivers (and I mean that in the nicest way). We're willing to sacrifice some fuel efficiency, and arguably a slight amount of comfort and cash, for a different driving experience. Notice I said "different" and not better. Our tastes are not those of the mass market.
To get the most out of this new GTI, I chose Autobahn trim with DSG, plus Performance and Lighting packages. Yes, DSG. I'm a big fan of dual-clutch transmissions. They're a more modern engineering design than manual gearboxes, and they're consistently faster and more accurate than any human could be. A greater number of buyers are choosing them. I'll go out on a limb and guess a growing percentage of those are Euro car aficionados.
Most importantly, however, I think it will deliver better data for the project. DSG-equipped cars present a bigger challenge to tune. In the interest of self-preservation, they can limit the amount of torque the engine produces. I've tested several tuner cars with automated manuals that have put in exactly the same acceleration times as a stock car through first and second gear. Even some with hundreds more horsepower than the factory supplied. I hope we'll be able to quickly identify that torque limit and then look at the effectiveness of DSG software flashes. If we can't get around that, then other modifications might be pointless.
Maybe slightly less important is that the fingertip thwacking of the paddles to select the next gear makes me feel like a real racing driver. That's important. As much as I love showing off my heel-toe technique, I actually enjoy the DSG more on the track. But keep watching this space—at some point over the year I can say with a high degree of certainty that I will be writing about my longing for a third pedal. If only I could have both.
The Performance package was chosen primarily for a single component. The power bump is nice, but it's all software. The larger brakes are appreciated, but would have been easy to get from the aftermarket. The badges are cool, but what I really wanted was the limited-slip differential. Sure, the aftermarket makes LSDs, but the cost (once installation is factored in), is far more than the $1,495 for the VW package. Plus, this is very much an active unit, so (in theory, at least) there is no downside. According to VW, the VAQ differential is good for eight seconds on the Nürburgring; I'm looking for at least a six-tenths improvement at the Starbucks drive-through.
The Autobahn package brings navigation to the touchscreen head unit, 12-way power driver's seat, Climatronic, plus the sunroof, Fender-branded audio, keyless entry and ignition, rearview camera, and leather. Which brings me to my first complaint. The Titan plaid cloth, probably the coolest interior material in production, is only available on the base model. Come on, VW. If I'm paying more for a higher-spec car, give me the option of interior materials. And another thing: If it were my car, I wouldn't want the sunroof, either.
I also opted for the $995 lighting package. In all honesty, as someone who drives more cars than anyone short of a valet, I have a tough time telling one modern lighting technology from another. This package uses bi-xenon headlights, which, on paper, are far superior to halogens. And, I assume, twice as good as uni-xenons. My entire reason for choosing this package was to get the adaptive front-lighting system—or AFS, as VW calls it. Once you've used headlights that steer on a pitch-black canyon road, there's no going back.
I left a couple of boxes unchecked. The first is DCC, which somehow stands for adaptive damping. I've driven many cars with this $800 option and it's amazing—as good as any adaptive suspension out there, and there's a huge difference between Comfort and Sport modes. However, it would have drastically reduced the number of choices when it came time to try an aftermarket suspension. Most sport springs work fine with this setup and KW Suspension has a set of adaptive damping coilovers that interface with the factory system. But if I want to try other manually adjustable systems, the car may not react well to removing that electronic circuit. I also skipped the $695 Driver Assistance package. I would have liked the park distance sensors and wouldn't mind the forward collision warning system, but there's no active cruise control or blind spot monitoring.
With all these features, the magazine's new Pure White '15 GTI Autobahn totals $34,455, including $820 destination. Admittedly, that number hurt my feelings at first. My favorite of the GTIs I've owned personally was a '92 GTI eight-valve. It had half the horsepower, half the features, and likely half the safety of this car, but it was less than half the price. I am quickly able to put the contemporary GTI's price into perspective, though, when I remember the last comparably equipped BMW 328i sedan I drove was well north of $50,000. I think complaining about the price of cars is the precursor to wearing black socks with sandals while yelling at kids to stay off your lawn.
I know this will be a quick year with the GTI. There are many plans, and every time I think about the car I hear the blunt, mechanical tick-tock of the seconds counting down. I will start by breaking in the car and testing it stock.
Once I feel like I have a good handle on living with the standard machine, I will start with basic modifications: tires, wheels, suspension, and maybe a few bolt-on power-adders. I want to try out products from different manufacturers to give you an idea of the various options out there. After that, I hope to try some more in-depth modifications. Ultimately, the goal is to keep everything that's good about the car and just change the small compromises VW had to make for mass-market use.
The more miles I put on this GTI, the closer it moves to my benchmark GTI, the MkII mentioned earlier. There may be a few fun comparisons for this GTI along the way, as well as some road trips and lots of driving just for the sake of driving. This is the 40th year of the Golf in the United States, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate it.