The Nissan GT-R: Insane grip. Zero-to-60 in under three seconds. “Godzilla.”
The Bugatti Chiron: 1,500 horsepower. Three-hundred miles per hour. Over $3 million.
My 7-year-old Volkswagen GTI: Practical 4-door hatchback. Twenty-four miles per gallon. Now worth around 10 grand.
What do these cars all have in common? They all have launch control.
The inclusion of launch control on the DSG-equipped Volkswagen GTI was a trump card in the hot hatch segment in the late 2000s. The only other vehicles offering it back then cost at least three times as much to buy and about three times as much to insure for someone in their early 20s.
A feature normally reserved for high-performance sports cars, launch control uses software to minimize wheel spin on a hard, drag-strip style launch for optimal traction and acceleration. Instead of the car sitting there and spinning its tires for a moment, launch control is supposed to get the car going as quickly as possible, in theory. Since 2011, when my GTI was born, the feature has made its way downmarket to just about any vehicle with a performance aesthetic.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the best thing about having a car with launch control is getting to tell people that your car has launch control. It’s useless in 99 percent of situations — and when you do use it with anything but the grippiest of summer tires, there’s still enough wheelspin that it likely results in a slower launch than if you’d moderately apply the gas pedal manually.
But whatever — it’s a cool feature that sounds like rocket terminology. How does it work?
To start, you need a DSG-equipped GTI. Some manual-transmission vehicles out there do have their own versions of launch control, but as far as VWs go, you need the dual-clutch gearbox.
First, let the car warm up. I always make sure the needle for the engine temperature gauge is pointed straight up — where it normally sits after the car has reached its normal operating temperature.
Next, put the transmission into either manual mode or sport mode.
Then, turn off traction control via the button located on the center console in front of the shift knob.
Now, launch control is ready. To engage it, you mash the brake pedal with your left foot and floor the gas pedal.
Under normal circumstances, the revving engine would groan a bit and the whole car would lean forward, wanting to go, but held back by the brakes. However, with launch control engaged, you’ll notice that the engine now revs independently of the transmission, like it’s in neutral. In my experience, launch control doesn’t always engage at first. Driving forward a bit, or adjusting your order-of-operations usually rectifies the problem. Once you get this free-wielding, manual transmission rev, though, you know you’re ready to launch.
The rpms will peak at around 3,000, and if you’re feeling especially cavalier, you can flutter the gas pedal a bit to bring things up to 3,500.
Either way, when you’re ready to go, just release the brake pedal. The car will hesitate for a second before everything engages and, theoretically, it propels forward in the perfect launch.
My GTI currently rides on all-season tires, so there’s no way I’m getting the most out of this system — but at the very least, it’s fun to play around with at stop lights.
It’s safe to say that the best thing about launch control in the Volkswagen GTI is also the best thing about the GTI altogether — you can have a lot of fun with it without ending up in a ditch, the hospital or jail. Launch control in the GTI might, MIGHT reduce the car’s 0-to-60 time by a few tenths of a second, in the right conditions, with the right tires. But just like the rest of the car, it’s fun to play around with, and it won’t necessarily earn the driver points on their license.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.