2003 Volkswagen GTI Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Sophisticated fun with hatchback practicality.
Volkswagen Golf offers driving excellence and high levels of refinement. It's agile and responsive, making it fun to drive. Yet it's remarkably practical, and offers admirable gas mileage. Upscale trim and a high level of standard equipment make for a comfortable and sophisticated experience.
Two people can sit comfortably in the back seats. The hatchback design means you can fold the seats down and cram in an impressive amount of stuff.
Some Golfs are affordable, starting at just $15,295. Others are frugal. The TDI diesel boasts an EPA-rated 42/49 mpg. Others are quick or downright fast. The GTI is a true driver's car. The 1.8 T delivers 180 horsepower, while the VR6 boasts 200 hp.
According to Volkswagen of America, the Golf continues to be one of the safest cars in its category. The four-door Golf earned the best Federal safety rating a vehicle can receive: a dual five star frontal crash test rating for the driver and front passenger.
Volkswagen Golf comes in two-door and four-door versions. All are hatchbacks. Three trim levels are available, GL, GLS, and GTI. Four transmissions are available: 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual, 4-speed automatic, or 5-speed automatic with Porsche's Tiptronic manual override.
Volkswagen offers more engine options for its compact than other manufacturers. Four engines are available for the Golf: 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4; 180-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4; 200-horsepower 2.8-liter VR6; 90-horsepower 1.9-liter TDI turbocharged diesel inline-4.
GL two-door ($15,295) is extremely well equipped for a small car, with standard air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power heated mirrors, a premium sound system with CD player, and neat woven-cloth upholstery. Golf GL comes standard with the 115-horsepower engine and 5-speed manual transmission, but is available with a 4-speed automatic ($16,170). The two-door Golf GL TDI features the diesel engine and comes with a 5-speed manual ($16,720) or four-speed automatic ($17,905). The four-door version of each of these cars retails for an additional $200.
GLS ($17,520) is only available as a four-door and comes with a power sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels, and velour upholstery with matching door trim and a center armrest. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in both the GL and GLS. A four-speed automatic costs $875 to $1185, depending on model and engine choice.
Options on GL and the GLS include the Monsoon Audio System with eight speakers ($325). Also available is the Electronic Stabilization Program ($280), a system that uses sophisticated sensors and microprocessors to stabilize the vehicle in a sudden emergency maneuver. A third option, currently offered on the GLS and available later in the model year on the GL, is the Cold Weather Package ($150) with heated front seats and heated windshield washer nozzles.
GTI is the hot-rod of the line and comes only in the two-door body style. It's comes with the 1.8 T engine and is available with the manual transmission ($18,910) or Tiptronic automatic ($19,985). It's also available with the 200-hp VR6 engine and 6-speed manual gearbox ($21,775). The Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) is an option on the 1.8 T model and standard on the VR6. GTI 1.8 T comes standard 16-inch alloy wheels, while 17-inch alloy wheels are an option on the 1.8 T ($400) and standard on the VR6.
Options on both the GTI 1.8 T and the VR6 include the Cold Weather Package; the Leather Package ($900), which includes leather upholstery and items in the Cold Weather Package; and the Luxury Package ($1,240), consisting of a power sunroof and the Monsoon sound system. Available as an option only on the VR6 is the Technology Package ($755), which includes electronic climate control, a self-dimming rearview mirror, and rain-sensing automatic windshield wipers.
Small enough to tuck easily into tight parking spaces with relative ease, Volkswagen Golf looks stylish and distinctive as well as practical.
With its roofline extended over its rear wheels, the Golf provides a surprisingly large storage space and more than ample rear headroom. The rear hatch is easy to raise and lower, and provides a large and convenient opening for loading everything from grocery bags to furniture to big boxes.
Americans are starting to buy more hatchbacks, especially those with four doors (or five if you prefer to count that way). Historically, hatchbacks have been hugely popular in Europe, perhaps the most popular body style there. Hatchbacks offer some of the functional benefits of station wagons, including easy access to cargo through side doors and the rear hatch.
Golf comes with an unusually high level of standard equipment, including anti-lock disc brakes and side-impact airbags. It also comes with a high level of refinement. Forget the grained plastic wood found in many cars. This trim is the real thing. Stylish instruments look like aircraft components at night with vibrant red needles over richly backlit indigo gauges. Power windows with auto-up and auto-down are normally not found in this class.
There's plenty of storage space, with a large glove box, deep door pockets and a center tray that's useful for stowing cellular telephones. Golf's cup holders are well placed and adequate for most container sizes. Driver and passenger doors use different inside handles that make them easy to close.
Seats in our GTI 1.8 T were firm and supportive. More side bolstering would help brace driver and passenger in tight corners, however. Seating adjustments are trademark Volkswagen, with its unique jack to adjust seat height; they are a bit difficult to use at first with an awkward knob for adjusting rake, but familiarity improves this.
The optional Monsoon Sound System with eight speakers is among the best factory stereos we've heard, with crisp highs and snappy bass response.
Rear seats, with height-adjustable headrests, seem surprisingly roomy with plenty of headroom for all but the tallest passengers. There isn't much stretch-out legroom, but the seats are unusually high off the floor, which makes the available space more comfortable than in many other compacts. For the taller person, sliding your feet under the front seats makes the back seat of the Golf a quite comfortable place for short trips. Three-point seat belts are used in all three positions in the rear, an excellent safety feature normally found on more expensive luxury cars.
Cargo space is generous, 18 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. Flip the articulated rear seat bottom, remove the rear headrests and fold one or both rear seat backs down to create a cavernous space capable of carrying even more cargo, 41.8 cu. ft. The split rear seat allows carrying one rear passenger along with luggage and long items like skis or fly rods. A cargo cover shields possessions from prying eyes when the rear seats are flipped into place.
Spirited and responsive, the Volkswagen Golf is a lot of fun to drive. The driving experience is colored by engine and transmission choice, so choose carefully.
The 180-horsepower 1.8 T is a joy when paired with the manual gearbox. It's quick, at times abrupt, but incredibly smooth. It delivers brisk, off-the-line acceleration. There's a surprising amount of torque available, more than enough to spin the front wheels. Traction control steps in when needed to minimize this, enhancing control. This 1.8-liter turbocharged engine is so smooth and revs so freely that you're encouraged to put the throttle down. In spite of its power, it nets an EPA-rated 24/31 mpg city/highway.
Accelerating through the gears, there is some turbo lag down at the bottom of the rev range. Under normal conditions, launches can be a little slow unless you rev it up and drop the clutch. With the turbocharged engine, there is little torque available below 2000 rpm. It starts to build at 2500 rpm and comes on quickly after that, but it isn't the explosion of power that big turbochargers deliver. It's more like the progressive acceleration of a smaller turbo, more fluid and linear.
We have issues about pairing the 1.8 T with the five-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission ($1075). The automatic seems to get confused by the turbo in city traffic, often leaving the engine caught out, bogging just when we wanted quick response. When asked for moderate acceleration, the transmission would downshift, there would be a surge of power, I'd ease off the throttle, the transmission would upshift, the engine would eventually bog again, and the process would start all over. It's far more subtle than the description above suggests, but it annoyed me on downtown streets. This car is too good to be saddled with this combination. Therefore, we strongly recommend the manual gearbox with the 1.8 T. We recommend pairing the automatic with one of the other two engines, which are naturally aspirated (non-turbocharged).
GTI VR6 comes with Volkswagen's innovative, narrow-angle V6 engine that delivers 195 foot-pounds of torque. The recent power boost is the result of a switch from two-valve to four-valve heads. Strong torque would make this a great engine for the automatic, but Volkswagen doesn't offer that combination.
The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offers good performance for commuting. It feels flexible, holding its own in traffic, and is comfortable when cruising steadily at 80 mph. It isn't an engine that inspires enthusiast drivers, however. The 2.0-liter engine is EPA rated at 24/31 mpg city/highway: good, but no better than the GTI's 1.8 T engine. Its relatively low price still makes the 2.0-liter a good value, however. This should be a good mate for an automatic, though we haven't tried it that way.
If fuel economy is at the top of your shopping list, consider the 1.9-liter TDI, a turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder diesel engine. Diesels have a reputation for being noisy, smelly and slow, but Volkswagen has perfected the design. New emissions systems have cleaned up the exhaust scent, and the TDI is only a shade louder than the 2.0-liter gasoline engine. At highway speeds, you'll barely notice the difference. You sacrifice some performance, but the improvement in mileage is dramatic: it gets an EPA-estimated 42/49 mpg. That's competitive with hybrid gas-electric cars from Honda and Toyota.
No matter which engine you choose, the Golf offers excellent handling and a comfortable, well-controlled ride quality. With compliant coil springs and gas-filled shocks, the driver feels connected to the road while vibrations and bumps are comfortably muffled. MacPherson struts in front and the independent torsion-beam suspension in the rear help keep the car rooted to the road. Aggressive maneuvers generate little body roll. The longer wheelbase and the much stiffer chassis of this fourth-generation Golf reduce vibration on rough roads and improve.
With its precision German engineering, Volkswagen Golf is among the most enjoyable, refined, and sophisticated of compact cars. It has been Europe's best-selling car for more than a decade. One reason why is that it plays many roles and plays them well.
The 2.0 and TDI models deliver comfort, handling, quality, practicality, economy, and value. GTI 1.8 T may be relatively expensive when measured against other compacts, but it's more fun to drive and more refined than other cars in its class. If you enjoy driving, this car is a great choice, but we recommend getting it with the manual gearbox. Moving up to GTI VR6 provides plenty of grins and puts you in a performance class with upscale sports sedans and sports cars.
In addition to all this, Volkswagen offers not only its standard four-year/50,000-mile warranty, but also coverage of wear and tear items and adjustments during the initial 12 months or 12,000 miles of ownership. Additional coverage includes a five-year/60,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, four years/50,000 miles of 24-hour roadside assistance, and protection against rust-through for 12 years.
GL 2-door 2.0L ($15,295); GL 2-door 1.9L TDI diesel ($16,720); GL 4-door 2.0L ($15,495); GL 4-door 1.9L TDI diesel ($16,920); GLS 4-door 2.0 ($17,520); GLS TDI diesel ($18,710); GTI 1.8 T ($18,910); VR6 ($21,775).
Options As Tested
Luxury Package ($1,240); Cold Weather Package ($150).
GTI 1.8 T ($18,910).
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