As a young and impressionable teen in 2006, the North American launch of the Mk5 Golf GTI was one that captivated me like few other cars had done before. It was a car that was portrayed as having a fun and youthful spirit while still being the more mature choice. If reading Super Street in that era taught me anything, it’s that the possibilities for modifying and/or ruining a car were endless – but this German-engineered hot hatch was supposed to make all of that irrelevant.
After winning my heart, over a decade went by without a chance to experience one and see if my hype for it was justified. A month ago though, I finally got that chance through a Turo rental I found while I was in California. I had four days with it to see how well it’s held up and whether it really could be as great as I was expecting, even in the context of all the progress that’s been made in the industry since then.
The Mk5 GTI came with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 200 horsepower and a bit more in torque. This particular car was equipped with a six-speed DSG which offers very quick gear changes via small paddle shifters. The GTI’s visual updates were very tame by today’s standards with hardly anything but those iconic “Huffeisen” wheels (I think), a slightly more aggressive fascia, and a larger (but hardly large) rear spoiler to make it look any different than other Golfs.
Enthusiasts can pick it out from a crowd immediately, but the rest of the world will just think it’s another one of those pollutin’ VWs. As far as enthusiast-favorites go, this car probably draws the least amount of attention to itself. That’s a good thing.
I picked up the car with just over 68,000 miles on the odometer and it was obvious this was bought used for cheap before being rented out to random people from the internet. Not a single wheel was free of curb rash and it seemed like someone lightly damaged the molding that runs below the nose. A few radio dials and switches were missing and there were a couple small tears in the seats. Other obvious and unavoidable signs of use were evident as well, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
For a car that’s had a life of service with some undoubtedly harsh people, I’d say it held up reasonably well. Everything worked (except the key fob) and there were no warning lights or mechanical hiccups during my 640 miles with it.
And by the way, those 640 miles were sensational. Over a decade of waiting and wondering led up to the moment I first got it warmed up, threw it around a corner, and sprinted onto a highway for the first time. The question of whether or not my hype was justified got answered pretty quickly.
The GTI’s strongest characteristic is without a doubt its handling and the way it stays composed and predictable on even the most technical roads. Its front strut and rear multi-link axle are set up to be more firm and do a decent job at soaking up bumps in a way that doesn’t upset the balance, but I won’t say it’s soft.
To be honest, the ride kind of sucks on the extraordinarily crappy highways of California in terms of stiffness and road noise, but it’s acceptable everywhere else (and could probably be improved with some better tires). I also hate to say it, but it serves as a reminder to why adaptive suspension caught on.
On the twisty roads of the Santa Cruz mountains though, it’s the perfect chassis for the job. The compact dimensions make it easy to navigate through the sometimes one-lane roads (I went waaaay of the beaten path sometimes) and I could place it exactly where I wanted with tremendous feedback. Where the front was pointed, the rest of the car would follow without hesitation.
Oddly enough though, I didn’t pick up on its surefooted nature right away. Years of driving nothing but RWD cars in mountains meant this GTI felt like a completely new experience. In the back of my mind I was almost expecting to upset the balance on a mid-corner bump (of which there were many) and have the back end step out, sending me into a ravine (of which there were also many).
Obviously, none of that happened because this car is far better than that. Despite driving some challenging roads, coping with extremely wet conditions in a 100-year rain, and coming face-to-face with my first mudslide (California can’t handle a lot of rain), I had gained full confidence in the car. I can’t ask for more than that.
The internet will tell you that a little four-cylinder hatchback will never be powerful enough, but I can tell you (also through the internet) that 200 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque feels much quicker than it sounds. This engine was an absolute joy to command and was pretty responsive as well.
I forgot to take a picture of the engine, so photo source: Volkswagen
There was a bit of turbo lag but I never found that it got in the way of a good time. The boost built up pretty low in the rev range and could offer near full power all the way to the top. Almost everything is turbocharged these days and in ways that often favor efficiency over outright performance, but this engine doesn’t feel like one of those. It’s a turbo engine with character. And to top it all off, it also makes a nice aggressive sound that’s just loud enough to hear with the windows rolled down but not so much as to annoy anybody.
The internet will also tell you that autotragic gearboxes will ruin a car like this, but I think this DSG worked really well here. Obviously newer automatics make this one feel dated by comparison, but the only issue I had with it was the slight hesitation I experienced while starting off from a standstill. A lot of dual-clutch transmissions from that era had a similar characteristic though, so it’s to be expected. At speed though, it did everything I asked it to and did so very smoothly.
If there’s anything that makes it feel truly dated though, it’s the interior. The only thing I loved were checkered sport seats that were very supportive and had great bolstering. There were hard touch points and some really unattractive plastic everywhere else though. It’s not exactly what I’d call a problem though because, as mentioned, it’s all just too much fun.
Now here’s where it really gets special in my mind. Every one of the words above I used to describe the car’s performance and driving characteristics could be easily attributed to a full-blown sports car. If you take out all the Volkswagen and FWD references and show this to someone who doesn’t know any better, they might consider it a review of some new two-seat roadster.
Obviously the GTI couldn’t be any less alike. It’s a three or five-door compact with seating for at least four adults if you try, decent trunk space, and about 23 mpg combined after climbing a mountain several times. It’s no wonder the original GTI rendered British and Italian roadsters essentially useless – it’s more practical, nicer to live with, more reliable, probably just as fun, and doesn’t require any justification before buying one.
This car has dual personalities and you don’t need special driving modes or a separate key to access them. When you want practical transport, it can deliver. When you just want to have a good time, it exceeds expectations.
Every minute I spent in this car made me feel young, but not immature. The hype was justified.
[Images © 2017 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian – full size images are up on my Flickr as usual]
Disclaimer: I found and rented this car through Turo, but Turo themselves did not contribute to this review. I used the service as anyone would.