A track test can be a tough review to write when it comes to a new car. First off, most new cars aren’t really meant for the track. Secondly, many writers have little or no competitive experience to aid them in starting a valid discussion about the performance of a vehicle on track. Equally challenging is the reality that the writer may have never seen the track laid out before them.
As a driver, it has been many years since I’ve driven competitively. Fortunately I had spent a bit of time playing in the forest, boogieing a rally car along stage roads. In other words, I became fairly adaptable and able to handle just about anything that could be tossed in front of me. I was just never very precise about it. For the Canadian launch of the 2010 GTI, Volkswagen herded a bunch of journalists to the famous Le Circuit Mont Tremblant. I have never been to Tremblant, but to quote Tom Cruise, “I’ve seen it on TV”. Truly a historic place, one which I was hoping to enjoy.
Also fortunate is the fact that the new GTI is no ordinary car. It is a serious testament to the work designers have done that one can head out onto a track and after a couple of familiarization laps be perfectly comfortable that the car will do exactly as the driver pleases, without any silly surprises. Just like the original GTI loved to be flung about, so does the 2010 version.
The new car is offered in the traditional 3 door hatch variety and 5 door hatch version which adds a touch of versatility for the person who needs to haul guests. While like all GTI’s, the 2010 offers up sport seats with funky plaid inserts, the seating options are not what set the sporty version apart from the more pedestrian versions. The performance driving experience is the GTI’s whole reason for being.
At the heart of this experience is a 2.0 L, 4 cylinder, 16 valve engine that ingests dino juice by way of direct injection. This powerplant delivers 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. Throttle modulation is instantaneous thanks to the direct injection and the fat torque curve begins at 1,700 rpm and stretches all the way to 5,000 rpm. Power makes it’s way to the front wheels through your choice of a pair of 6 speed transmissions. You can’t go wrong with either choice really. The manual is a silky smooth shifting unit that feels perfect, while the Direct Shift (DSG) automatic responds to the steering wheel mounted paddle shifts in something like 4/100ths of a second. In other words, much faster than you or I can shift manually. While I would go for the manual myself, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this unit as it really does work well. An interesting side note is that the DSG equipped car actually gets better fuel economy on the road, using only 6.3 l/100 km on the highway and 8.7 in the city. Obviously we weren’t checking for fuel economy at Tremblant!
Even a great drivetrain is no guarantee that a sports car will indeed be sporty. The box must be suspended by well designed bits that perform well with that motivation package. The new GTI has been lowered, with Macpherson struts up front and a 4 link setup with shocks out back. These bits are all mounted to weight saving aluminum subframes, while alignment settings are tuned for the performance driving. In other words, this this has been set up perfectly for the track! Big disc brakes on all corners, coupled with ABS ensure that there is sufficient whoa to go with that go. In fact, I drove several cars on the track and never felt fade from any of them even with stock pads.
Obviously when a company rolls out the newest version of the car that created the whole Pocket Rocket segment at a race track, they know that the cars are going to be driven hard. In today’s world, there are so many new media outlets that it would be impossible to have any sort of idea what skill level this crowd of journalists and wannabe journalists have. To keep things safe, there has to be instructors to herd the flock. For this event, Volkswagen brought in the big guns. Veteran Canadian racer and instructor Richard Spenard was joined by his old friend (and I suspect a 1 time student), Patrick Carpentier who has a long history in professional racing. Some of you might recognize his name from Champ Car and more recently NASCAR. Yeah, that guy!
We were split up into groups and followed Pat and Richard out onto one the track which has played host to Can Am, IndyCar, ALMS and even the Canadian Grand Prix. This place has history! Heading out of pit lane though, all thoughts were on learning the track and not embarrassing oneself behind one of Canada’s top racers. Like many tracks built in the early Sixties, Tremblant is a roller coaster that follows the lay of the land and is a perfect setting to display the GTI’s skills.
Right from pit lane, the GTI accelerates strongly and smoothly thanks to that fat torque curve with no discernible lag usually evident with a turbocharged engine. Down the hill into the fast right hand beginning to The Esses, the big brakes haul things down nicely, even if I can’t seem to get my braking point right all day long. Up and over the curbs as I attempt to keep pace with Spenard while recovering from my late entry, the GTI remains completely composed and willing. Through the fast, uphill left they call The Gulch, that torque comes in to play again as I try to stay within feet of Spenard’s back bumper as we approach the blind bridge turn. I love this section of the track and so does the GTI. A tiny bit of brakes as we approach the bridge and then hard on the throttle again to wind it up for the straight leading to 2nd gear Namerow. This is the only place the GTI exhibits any real front wheel drive traits. Get too hard on the throttle exiting Namerow and the right front will light up, even with the fancy electronic LSD. Play it patient though and the GTI will carry tremendous speed through the pit straight as we head back down the hill, that nasty right just waiting for me to brake too late again. Later, we headed back out in the cars with Carpentier, Spenard and organizer Chris Bye for a few hot laps. I’ve co-driven rally cars, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in a car as when Spenard dove on the inside of an unsuspecting Carpentier, pretty much flinging the Golf over the top of the curbing with mere inches between the cars. what a hoot to watch these pros battle it out in these capable little cars.
Oh. I think I need to go outside for a smoke now!
I found it quite interesting that the shift points in both the DSG car and the manual were almost identical. A couple of times I found myself forgetting to downshift to 3rd in the DSG car, as the torque is so abundant that there is next to no lugging when you are a gear too high. Another thing to note was that no matter how hard the car was pushed, it kept coming back for more. No drama, no unexpected excitement, just great fun and lots of it.
Over the years, many sports cars have lost the spirit of their forefathers. The GTI was the original pocket rocket, offering affordability and style to go along with a passionate driving experience. The newest version has evolved into a competent, comfortable car that can also kick butt on the track for a reasonable price tag. The black sheep of the Golf Family has definitely earned it’s place in the family tree.