Can it get any better than the outgoing Mk6 Volkswagen GTI? That question was front and center for us as we began our first drive of the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, known as the Mk7. The Mk6 was already so rewarding and well-rounded that VW could have just kept making it indefinitely, and it would have remained a top choice in the hot-hatch segment for years to come. So why didn't they leave well enough alone? How much could the new Mk7 GTI really improve?
They're separate questions, and we'll take each in turn. First, as a practical matter, the new U.S.-market 2015 Golf will be built in Mexico on VW's latest compact platform -- so the Golf-based GTI, previously built in Germany, had to follow suit. That's just business. As for the second question, it turns out that the Mk7 GTI has markedly sharper performance than its predecessor; it's a significantly hotter hatch. Not that the GTI needed more performance, but it's got more of an edge now. Fundamentally, we're talking about the distinction between quick and fast. And if that's an important one for you, you're going to love what VW's done to the place.
The GTI has always been more about overall excellence than jaw-dropping acceleration, but thanks to a new engine under the hood, the Mk7 can build some serious speed. The basic specs remain the same: It's still a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, but torque is up in a big way, from 207 lb-ft last year to a whopping 258 lb-ft. It's a difference you'll feel every time you punch the gas. Although horsepower is little changed at 210 (the Mk6 made an even 200), that extra torque shoves you back into your seat like a proper sports car engine. Four-cylinder Audis have been making 258 lb-ft for years and, indeed, the new GTI's eager character reminds us of the latest Audi TT. It's a lot of motor for the price.
Publications that judge cars by their behavior on a racetrack have long complained about the GTI's relative softness at the limit. That's not a concern for most drivers, but it did make for a bit of bad press where the Mk6 GTI was concerned. Accordingly, the Mk7 has been treated to standard summer performance tires and tightened up for both track and back-road duty. The first thing we noticed was the much more responsive steering, which vaguely reminded us of the Scion FR-S model's ultra-sharp rack -- high praise for a front-drive car with a history of tepid tillers. There's also less body roll this time around, making the GTI feel more solid in spirited driving. The brakes, too, have been revamped, ditching the soft-pedal feel in favor of firm, confidence-inspiring bite.
Think of it this way: Although the previous GTI was plenty capable, its handling was never really something to brag about, whereas the Mk7 gets full bragging rights. This is a dynamic car to drive.
You Know the Rest
Otherwise, the new GTI is very similar to the old one, which is more of a relief than anything else. The Mk7's styling is more creased and angular, but the changes are subtle, even to a trained eye. Inside, the center stack with its beautiful 8-inch touchscreen now tilts slightly toward the driver -- a welcome modification -- but the high-quality materials and classy layout will feel instantly familiar to Mk6 fans, as will the standard plaid upholstery. We were astounded by the 4-door Mk6's ability to accommodate four 6-footers in its compact cabin, and the Mk7 can do the same. There's nothing outside of the performance category that makes the new GTI a must-buy compared to the old one, but there are also no unpleasant surprises. If you liked the Mk6, the Mk7's bound to satisfy.
Best Car Under $30,000?
Pricing hasn't been finalized for the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, but we expect it to start around $25,000, with only fully loaded versions cresting the $30,000 mark. So we have to ask: Is this the best sub-$30,000 car money can buy? If you value driving satisfaction in addition to the usual suspects (style, quality and versatility), the 2015 GTI could very well be the winner. It's the kind of car that leaves you wondering whether you really need anything more. And at this price point, it doesn't get any better than that.