By Eric Peters
The ’17 VW GTI may not look much like a Corvette, but in several ways, it reminds me of one.
Well, not a new one.
My high school buddy’s 1978 L-82 coupe
Wait. Give me a minute.
The GTI has 210 hp – 220 if you buy the Sport, SE or top-of-the-line Autobahn versions. My friend’s ’79 Corvette also had 220 hp. Both engines make almost exactly the same torque, too: 258 ft.-lbs. for the VW vs. 260 ft.-lbs. for the Chevy.
This is a startling verisimilitude given the VW’s engine is a four only about a third the size of the Corvette’s V8.
Here’s another Weird Thing in Common:
A ’78 Corvette with the optional L-82 350 V8 (this was the highest-performance engine available that year) stickered for $36,899 in 2017 dollars ($9,876 in ’78 dollars).
Are you ready?
The ’17 GTI with the optional Autobahn package VW sent me to test drive stickers for . . . $35,195.
A gulf of 40 years separates these cars – and one’s a rear-wheel-drive two-seater with a big V8 up front while the other’s a front-wheel-drive hatchback with a four and four doors . . . and yet you end up with something similar.
Well, kinda sorta!
The GTI is a hotted-up version of VW”s popular Golf four-door hatchback – though not quite as hotted-up as the 292 hp and all-wheel-drive Golf R hatchback (reviewed separately, here).
It comes with a larger, more powerful 2.0 liter turbo four in place of the Golf’s 1.8 liter four – along with upgraded wheels and tires, high-capacity brakes, dual exhaust, a sport-tuned suspension and different exterior/interior trim.
Base price is $25,595 for the S trim with a six-speed manual transmission (vs. $19,895 for the regular Golf).
With the available six-speed automated manual (DSG) transmission, the price rises to $26,695.
Next up are Sport and SE trims, both of which get a 10 hp performance bump viaa bit more boost as well as an electronically controlled limited slip differential and upgraded brakes with contrast-color powder-coated calipers.
The SE adds luxury amenities such as as a sunroof, leather seats and a worth-the-money premium Fender audio rig.
The top-of-the-line Autobahn includes everything that comes standard with the Sport and the SE, plus an an adaptive four-mode suspension with a larger diameter rear stabilizer bar, navigation, automatic climate control and trim upgrades. It stickers for $34,095 with the six-speed manual transmission and $35,195 with the DSG automatic.
The main cross-shop now that the firecracker MazdaSpeed3 is no longer available is the Ford Focus ST hatchback – which comes only with a manual transmission and stickers for $25,650 to start.
If you can abide something a bit smaller, you might also consider a Mini Cooper S – which is among the few cars left in this class that’s still available in both two and four-door hatchback body styles ($24,400 and $25,400 to start, respectively).
There’s also an “Autobahn-equivalent” version of the Mini – the John Cooper Works (JCW) Mini. It gets a stronger (228 hp) engine and other performance/styling upgrades. It stickers for $30,900 to start for the two-door version.
You might also want to wait a little while for the new Honda Civic Si, which should be available later this summer. There will definitely be a hatchback coupe and there may be a four-door hatchback version, too.
Or, have a look right now at the regular Civic -with its available 1.5 liter turbo engine. It only comes with an automatic (CVT) but it’s surprisingly quick (0-60 in about 6.7 seconds) gets fantastic mileage (40-plus) and it stickers for $19,700 to start.
No more two-door hatchback GTI. Well, not many of them (see below).
As much power – and better performance – than a ’78 Corvette, along with twice the gas mileage and seating capacity.
Four door/hatchback layout is practical. This “Corvette” can also be a family car.
Go manual – or automatic (Focus ST is manual-only).
Much roomier back seat (and more cargo room) than Mini’s got.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Four door hatchback-only layout.
Not as cute as the Mini (and about a foot longer overall, too).
Autobahn version is pricey; almost $10k more than a Focus ST and about $3k more than a JCW Mini.
The GTI’s powerplant is a 2.0 liter turbo four making 210 hp in the base S trim and 220 in all the other trims. Torque output – 258 ft.-lbs. at 1,500 RPM – is the same regardless. You can go with a six-speed manual or VW’s six-speed Direct Shift (DSG) dual-clutch automated manual.
Either way, the GTI is the speediest car in its class . . . for the moment.
It gets to 60 in just over six seconds, vs. about 6.4 seconds for the stronger (252 hp) but heavier (3,223 lbs.) Ford Focus ST.
A Mini Cooper S – which also has a turbo 2.0 liter four (but just 189 hp) and is about 200 pounds lighter (2,750 lbs.) than the GTI still needs about 6.3 seconds to get to 60 and even if you go with the strongest Mini – the 228 hp JCW – it’s still the VW at the finish line first.
It’s an interesting disparity given the VW’s relatively modest rated output. Especially vs. the Ford, which has a much higher rated output. It is heavier. But – do the math. The Ford weighs 192 pounds more than the VW but that should be compensated for by the rated 32 additional hp its engine makes.
And probably does make.
But my bet is the VW’s engine makes more than its rated 220 hp.
This isn’t illegal – hey, you’d be getting more than you paid for. And it’s not uncommon. Car companies have been sucker-punching rival car companies this way for a long time.
Regardless of the true output of its engine, the GTI is very quick.
It is also more economical than the Focus ST: 24 city, 34 highway with the manual transmission vs. 22 city, 30 highway for the manual-only Ford. The VW even beats the Mini Cooper – which only manages 23 city, 32 highway.
Interestingly, gas mileage is best with the manual – as used to be the case generally – but is generally the opposite now, because of the efficiency advantages many modern automatics have vs. manuals, especially as far as shifting at exactly the right moment for maximum MPGs.
Not so here, though.
If you go with the optional DSG automatic, the GTI’s highway mileage dips slightly to 32 MPG – which is is still just as good as the manual-equipped Mini and better than the manual-equipped Ford.
And you get rev-matched downshifts.
Another interesting thing: The VW’s got the largest gas tank (13.2 gallons) and so, legs of the bunch (448.8 miles highway range). The Focus has a 12.4 gallon tank – and because t’s thirstier, it only goes 372 miles on the highway before sucking it needs a refill.
The Mini has the mini-est gas tank of them all, just 11.6 gallons. So even though it’s a gas-sipper, because there’s not much to sip, it’ll only go about as far on a fill-up as the Focus ST.
It’d be interesting to line up the GTI against my high school friend’s ‘Vette.
Well, it’d be revelatory.
If the VW’s turbo four were about the same size as the V8 in my buddy’s Corvette, it’d be making in the neighborhood of 640 hp. That’s a measure of how much they’re squeezing out of little engines nowadays. And how little they were squeezing out of big engines back when I was in high school in the ’80s.
Squeeze, by the way, is just the right word.
You can watch the boost build by pushing the “car” button on the right-hand side of the 6.5 inch LCD display; this dials up a digital three-pack accessory gauge cluster, which also includes a lateral G meter to measure cornering forces.
But you’ll know by feel that this is a big boost engine. Hit it and the tires claw the asphalt like a bear trying to rip open a mummy bag full of sleeping camper. All the way through second gear, it’s a tussle for traction.
This thing does a better burnout than my friend’s ’78 Corvette.
Which is also a function of the torque it makes.
The L-82 350 in my buddy’s Corvette only made 260 ft.-lbs. and didn’t make it until the engine was spinning 3,000 RPM – more than halfway to its single exhaust-choked 5,500 RPM redline. The Instant On torque of the VW’s turbo four arrives at just 1,500 RPM – which is nowhere near its 6,700 RPM redline but very near idling speed.
Which means no waiting around for things to happen.
Modern turbocharged gas fours like the GTI’s use quick to roll “twin scroll” turbochargers that do not need a moment (or three) to gather breath and build up the boost – as used to be the case with turbocharged engines. The power – torque and horsepower – are just there, whenever you need them.
This is a little engine with a bigger engine’s bottom end and mid-range and the high-rpm sing that used to be the one thing a high-performance four did better than a high-performance six or eight.
Now you get all three things – plus the four’s economy car gas mileage.
My test car had the four-setting (Comfort, Normal, Sport, Custom) adjustable suspension – which you can only get if you spring for the top-of-the-line Autobahn package. It’s a big jump from the base S and even the SE and Sport to the Autobahn version of the GT, but being able to instantly tailor the car’s ride quality from reasonable (Comfort and Normal settings) to rock-hard is not only nice, it’s something you can’t do in the Focus ST, which is a punishing car to live with as an everyday driver and which does not even offer the option of an adjustable suspension. The Ford’s seats are track-day-only too. They have about as much padding as a surfboard with a towel wrapped around it.
The same critique applies – though not to the same extent – as regards the Mini. It’s a very fun car, but it can’t match the the VW’s manners. Part of this is due to it being smaller, lighter and so, bouncier.
It’ll be interesting to see what Honda comes up with – but as of early spring, the GTI is still comfortably wearing the championship belt.
AT THE CURB
You can still see the Rabbit underneath all that Golf.
And the GTI is a Golf with Goodies, most of them mechanical and not obvious – unlike the too-snarky-for-its-own-good Focus ST, which draws undesirable attention from cops like a guy with sniffles and white powder all around his nose.
But that’s subjective and you may see things differently.
What’s not debatable is the VW’s superior space-efficiency.
Even though it is a longer car – 171.7 inches vs. 168 inches for the GTI – the Ford’s back seat is not a friendly place, with only 33.2 inches of legroom vs. 35.6 in the GTI. Although both cars have about the same headroom in both rows, the VW’s taller/boxier profile and big car doors makes it seem like there’s more because you don’t have to duck as much to get in.
Both the Ford and the VW have about the same room for cargo behind their second rows – 23.8 cubic feet and 22.8 cubic feet, respectively – but the VW has a bit more total capacity: 52.7 cubic feet with the second row folded vs. 43.9 for the Focus.
The Mini Cooper comes up . . . mini on both counts: 13.1 cubic feet behind its second row and 40.7 cubic feet total, with its second row folded. In its defense though, the Mini is nearly a foot shorter overall (157.4 inches vs. 168 inches for the GTI) so it’s not really fair to criticize it for being a bit less roomy on the inside than the much larger on the outside GTI. For its size, it is very space-efficient.
But it’s a smaller car – so you have less space to work with.
You might still be able to get a two-door GTI.
Though it’s been cancelled, a few 2017s were made – and VW still (as of late March) lists them as available. But it’s a rare bird and if you want to find one, you’re probably going to have accept some compromises as far as trim/equipment.
Assuming you can find one at all.
But they are – cueXFiles – out there . . .
The standard 6.5 inch touchscreen is on the smallish side (especially in the $34k-up Autobahn trims) but it’s among the easier-to-use units on the market and among its cool features, you can Bluetooth pair two devices at once and all trims get Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. It also has a kind of gesture-control feature that recognizes hand waves and makes displays larger or smaller just by waving your hand at it.
The available Fender audio rig is top drawer; if you’re an audiophile, you will dig it. But the standard eight speaker is good, too.
Great three-stage seat heaters and – unusually, for a German car – better-than-decent accommodations for beverages, including oversize water bottle holders molded into the lower door panels. This is a much more coffee-friendly car than the $123,000 Mercedes AMG GKE 63 S I had last week!
Similarly (and contra the Benz) the USB port is located where it can be seen – and reached – ahead of the shifter, at the bottom of the center stack – and not hidden inside the center console storage cubby.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s no Quadrajet moan as the secondaries kick in – because there aren’t any secondaries. And no Qjet.
But 30 pounds of boost is a not-bad replacement for yesterday’s displacement!
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.
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