The 2009 Volkswagen GTI offers sporty performance and impressive refinement in a practical hatchback design.
When the current-generation Volkswagen GTI debuted in 2006, it could go toe to toe with the top performers in the "pocket rocket" segment. Its turbocharged four-cylinder engine boasted a then-competitive 200 horsepower as well as bountiful low-end torque that put high-revving Hondas to shame. The segment has evolved substantially since then, however, with muscle-bound sport compacts like the 260-hp Chevrolet Cobalt SS and 263-hp Mazda 3 stealing the performance spotlight. But the GTI's refined road manners, tasteful styling and high-quality interior help make up for whatever it may lack under the hood.
Like every sport compact, the GTI is a performance-tuned version of a basic economy car -- in this case, VW's venerable Rabbit, née Golf. Starting from this top-rated runabout, VW engineers have tacked on go-fast goodies like VW/Audi's highly regarded 2.0-liter direct-injected turbocharged engine, better brakes, a sport-tuned suspension and the optional Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission, which is an automated-clutch paddle-shifted manual. Another feather in the GTI's cap is its autobahn breeding, which is evident in its exceptionally composed behavior at higher speeds. And unlike the Mazda 3 or Mini Cooper S, for example, the 2009 Volkswagen GTI is available in both two-door and four-door versions.
If there's a knock against the GTI other than its comparatively modest collection of horses, it's the car's shortage of all-out cornering ability. Don't get us wrong; the GTI handles well, but competing sport compacts generally offer sharper handling and less body roll. Of course, there are always trade-offs, and in the GTI's case, they come in the form of a genuinely comfortable ride, whereas some rivals ride so stiffly that they should be offered with a chiropractor. The GTI also boasts the richest interior materials in its class, and its restrained exterior design is almost completely devoid of boy-racer kitsch.
Choosing a sport compact these days is all about priorities. If you value powertrain excellence over styling and refinement, the Cobalt SS or Civic Si could be for you. If you want neck-snapping acceleration and sharp cornering in a practical package, the Mazda 3 is an excellent choice. If you're looking for go-kart handling (and go-kart ride comfort) along with an extra dollop of character, the Mini is the way to go. But if you prefer a more mature sport compact with a civilized demeanor, upscale appointments and hatchback utility, the 2009 Volkswagen GTI is still the only game in town.