Donna, my wife, scarcely notices the evaluation cars delivered to our house each week. Once in a while she might ask, "what's this big thing we're driving in?" Or she may comment, "that truck takes up the whole driveway." But overall she regards automobiles with the same casual indifference that many women apply to the essential machines: just get the job done, and don't be a pain.
But the Volkswagen GTI made her sit up and notice. During a thousand-mile road trip last week, after her first shift behind the wheel, Donna said, "I really enjoy driving this car. It's got a lot of pep. And when you turn the wheel it just goes where you want it."
She may be indifferent about makes and models and all the competitive hubris involving automobiles, but Donna does not slouch in the driver's seat. She handles an auto with confidence and vigor.
As it happens, Volkswagen sets up its GTI for vigorous, embracing road assaults. My wife's spontaneous endorsement indicates how well the German automaker succeeds. The GTI is the sporting, spirited version of VW's Golf. But while the Golf is a practical economy car, the TDI is enhanced with an energetic, 200-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a quick-shifting six-speed manual transmission (a six-speed automatic with a manual mode sells for an additional $1,100). The GTI's suspension is tuned for aggressive maneuvers. Its enlarged disc brakes ride inside big, 17-inch wheels. The car's electro-mechanical power steering is geared for rapid, precise action.
VW calls its GTI the original "hot hatch," because of its hatchback design. Like the Golf, the front-drive GTI comes in both two-door and four-door body styles. Efficiently compact, its interior is comfortable and friendly — with appropriate measures of flash and dash from such features as a flat-bottomed, aluminum-spoked steering wheel and well bolstered seats trimmed in a no-nap, jaunty plaid. With list prices starting at $23,990 (compared to $18,190 for a basic Golf), the Volkswagen GTI delivers a lot of entertainment for a modest investment.
Volkswagen revamped the GTI when it introduced the current 2010 model late last year. Through the first quarter of 2010, the GTI has outsold the more prosaic Golf across the country.
In the Merrimack Valley, the car enjoyed a similar jump in popularity, reports Charles Daher Jr., sales manager of Commonwealth Motors. Located in Lawrence, Commonwealth sells Chevrolet, Honda and Kia vehicles, in addition to Volkswagen. There, GTI sales also outstrip demand for the less expensive Golf.
But few of the zealots buying GTI are ladies like my wife. The car's enthusiasts are predominately young men, Daher said. They see the GTI as an attainable substitute for more luxurious, and more expensive, high-performance models for which Germany is renowned.
"They want to get the feel and the drive of a BMW," Daher explained. "The GTI is half the price. And it still has the German fit and finish."
Many, but not all of those young guys are single, he pointed out. As a hatchback, with four doors available, the GTI remains practical enough to serve as a sprite family hauler — as long as the family isn't too large.
The combination of exuberance, affordability and basic utility also attracts mature men who enjoy driving, but who also exercise some temperance.
"You start thinking practical when you get a little older," quipped Daher. "The GTI is a decent tradeoff for them, because they get more utility out of the hatchback."
They also get a respectable measure of fuel economy from the car. With its standard, manual transmission, the hatch earns an EPA rating of 21 miles per gallon around town, and 31 mpg on the highway. With the optional, automatic transmission, fuel economy improves to 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway.
If your driving habits match Donna's and mine, you should do even better. Over nearly 1,200 miles of predominately highway driving, we burned fuel at an average rate of 36.1 mpg. With a 14.5-gallon tank, our GTI cruised far between stops at filling stations.
People who want to run even farther per gallon are buying the Golf TDI, the diesel-powered version of VW's thrift-leader car. While the revamped 2010 GTI is this year's grinning adventure story from Volkswagen, the TDI is winning drivers for its social responsibility. The car company re-introduced diesels to its lineup after scrubbing the engines to produce the cleaner admissions demanded by Massachusetts and a handful of other states.
Priced $5,100 higher than a standard, gasoline-fueled Golf, the TDI model earns a fuel-economy rating of 31 mpg city, 41 mpg highway.
Because of its high fuel mileage, "the diesel is VW's way of going mainstream with the green folks," Daher stated. "They're making it easy for the people who want the German feel and look, who would go for a hybrid, but who can't get a hybrid in the kind of car they like."
Following its heritage, the German company has seized the leadership in high-mileage diesels. Excluding a couple of luxury brands, Volkswagen is the only consumer-market automaker making a splash with the efficient engines.
"No one has matched them in diesel performance yet — or even attempted to," said Daher. "It puts them a jump ahead of everybody else and gives them a new direction." While the diesel-powered models expand the appeal of Volkswagen, Daher expects the company to also retain its hold on thrift-minded performance enthusiasts. The new GTI helps ensure that outcome.
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Jeffrey Zygmont has written about automobiles since 1982. Based in Salem, N.H., he writes books and articles about innovation, technology and culture. He can be contacted through the Web site www.jeffreyzygmont.com