So the Volkswagen Golf GTI is your 2015 North American Car of the Year.
At least that’s what the jury of 57 journalists that handed it a decisive win over the excellent Ford Mustang and Hyundai Genesis thinks. I wasn’t on it, but I generally agree with the assessment that the seventh generation GTI offers lots of utility, refinement and performance per buck.
You’ll need 25,605 of them to get into it. That buys you a two-door GTI with a six-speed manual transmission. Add $600 for a four-door model and another $1,100 for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic and you end up with the car I tested.
The GTI looks familiar, but it’s an all-new car that’s built on VW’s innovative modular platform, which can be stretched or shrunk to accommodate a variety of vehicles that range in size from subcompact sports car to midsize SUV. In this case, you have a compact hatchback that’s lower, longer, wider and a few pounds lighter than the model it replaces, with crisp lines and a high quality interior that wouldn’t look out of place in an Audi showroom. These are all good things. It also has a new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque that would make a small pickup truck envious.
The boxy GTI could almost pass for one with all the room it has, even more than before. The plaid-upholstered seats provide plenty of support and legroom, and if you drop the ones in the rear, 52 cubic feet of space is yours for the filling. Of course, the latter also applies to the run-of-the-mill Golf. You buy the GTI to drop the hammer.
Do that, and you have a moment to catch your breath as the turbo spools up, then smoothly launches you forward like you’re being tossed from a trebuchet. It’s all very controlled; there’s no torque steer twitching the wheel in your hands, as is the case with many powerful front wheel drive cars, and the excellent traction control system makes quick work of any slippery surfaces.
It’s almost too sophisticated and quiet, but darn it if the little guy doesn’t feel fast. If you must, and you might as well, the GTI has a Sport mode that turns up the aggression and the volume, pumping engine noise into the cabin via a device VW calls a soundaktor. Most turbocharged cars these days have something like this, but the VW’s is among the best.
That goes for the ride quality, too. Despite the focus on handling, the GTI is an everyday comfortable commuter that’s as good in town as it is in the mountains, and gets up to 33 mpg to boot. You can further enhance it with an $800 computer-controlled adaptive suspension system that I didn’t have the chance to try, but that I wasn’t pining for, either.
Either way, the GTI knows how to go around a turn. It has a variable rate steering rack that’s not twitchy in a straight line, but is quick as a whip when you crank the wheel. It takes just 2.1 turns to go from full right to full left, so bring on that parking lot full of orange cones.
If that’s your favorite weekend pursuit, you’ll probably want to order yours with the $1,495 performance package, which ups the ante with an extra 10 hp, an electronic locking front differential and bigger brakes.
VW actually sold more GTIs than regular Golfs last year, which speaks to its broad appeal, but not that many. Chevrolet moved twice as many Corvette Stingrays in 2014, when it was voted Car of the Year for many of the same reasons as the GTI, just at twice the price.
Nevertheless, if someone asked you to conjure up the ideal $25,000, sporty, all-purpose ride, you might wish it looked like the Corvette, but it’d probably end up being more like the GTI.
No car is perfect, but for what it’s aiming to be, the GTI comes pretty close to a hole in one.
2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI S
Base price: $25,605
As tested: $26,915
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 210 hp, 258 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 25 city/33 hwy