Mar 2, 2014

GTI MK6 – a bit of a mixed bag

vw, gti, mk6, automotive, review

I’m camping it out today at Fifth Avenue Auto Haus waiting for my tires to be rotate and the car to be washed; maybe I should have skipped that checkbox – it is -29.5 C today. When they replaced the clutch I asked them to rotate the tires and of course they forgot.

That brings me to my biggest gripe so far with the car – the clutch failed with 8200Kms on the clock. When the dealer diagnosed the clutch I got the whole spiel about clutches being wear and tear items and how I would have to bear the cost should it be found to be damaged due to abuse on my part. Sure enough it turned out to be a defective part. It may not seem like a big thing especially since it was covered under warranty but would this have failed when I was trying to merge on the highway it could have a been a really hairy situation – you know not being able to shift the cogs and all. I have a feeling that maybe Mr. Volkswagen is cutting costs a little too much and in the wrong places. They are positioning the GTI as a premium product and so far it’s been a bit of a let down. There are small nagging issue and larger ones – like reliability – that keep this car from achieving its full potential. I’m starting to wonder why would you skip the Mazda Speed 3 or the Subaru WRX for this?

I always though that there are two ways to cut cost: smart, innovative engineering or simply cutting corners here and there hoping the customer won’t notice or can live without. I have generally equated german automobiles with the former way of controlling costs. Cutting corners seems to be something second tier manufacturers would do. But here we are now with a failed clutch, squeaky sunroof controls and rattling driver side seat belt assembly. What gives?

##Exterior

I have the 4 door in Tornado Red. I think it’s really sexy and the 4 door really balances the look of the car. It’s also more practical than a coupe for the sporting family man that likes a thrill now and then. The 18” wheels fill out the slightly flared fenders really nicely. I’m not sure about the factory powder coated red calipers – they are not machine finished and it looks a bit like something your friend and you did over the weekend in the garage with a can of spray. I’ll take it over the rusty look you would otherwise have in the long term, however I can’t award full points for this effort.

The adaptive headlights with LED daytime running lights on the other hand are nothing short of brilliant. It’s probably my favorite thing about the car especially during the winter season when it’s dark in the morning on my way to work and dark in the evening on my way home. They are bright and illuminate the road well. I was somewhat skeptical about the “adaptive” feature but you can really see this working on a twisty road. They really seem like something you would find on a much more expensive car and maybe it’s and incentive to upgrade to an Audi and get the other goodies. Fog-lights are included to tick a box on a marketing exec spec sheet. The front grille is attractive with a nicely finished honeycomb pattern and a prominent VW logo in the center, accented by two thin red stripes.

Working my way to the rear of the car I notice the heated side mirrors with builtin turn markers. The classic amber works for me really well, I’m not a big fan of changing the colors of safety items like signals and break lights etc. The mirrors seem a bit small and it’s a real shame that euro style glass with a blind spot zone are not included in this North American version of the hot hatch.

There isn’t a lot to say about the taillights – these are the same as every other Golf. It would have been nice if they included the LED tail light assembly from the Golf R but I guess the budget went on the front lights. That’s ok.

All the way at the rear the valence only partly covers the muffler tipped with a nicely finished pipes on either side. Starting the vehicle always rewards with a nice purr.

##Interior

Moving on to the interior – I notice nicely finished door sills as soon as I open the door which has a nice solid feel to it. I opted for the Sport Package and it comes with Jacky Cloth seats. I find the red plaid accents compliment the red exterior nicely but not everyone will enjoy this throw back to the MKI. The seats are comfortable and supportive and are equipped with three level heaters that seem well calibrated. The fabric is not too cold in the dead of our Canadian winters and after six months of use seems resilient enough for the long term. The rear seats provide enough room for four adults and unless you have really tall passengers they should be comfortable even for longer trips. The seat cushions are a bit on the short side in the rear with little thigh support.

The leather steering wheel is nicely sculpted with accent red stitching and radio/telephone/menu navigation controls built in. The radio controls are easy to operate and provide good tactile feedback. The instrument cluster is composed of a pair of good looking and easy to read gauges, separated by a multi information LCD that can display various bits of information like fuel consumption, range, bluetooth related settings and functions, etc.

All windows have auto up/down function and I really appreciate this little extra. One thing that puzzles is the mirror heating switch – why can’t the GTI figure out temperature/moisture levels automatically and turn them on or off Mr Volkswagen? Surely you have a junior electrical engineer on staff that can figure this one out.

The brushed aluminum door accents compliment nicely the trim around the gauges and air vents without being ostentatious. The aluminum pedals are a nice addition and I’m a fan unless they don’t provide enough grip which these do – with the help of rubber inserts. The rest of the interior is spartan but uses upscale materials and the black headliner is a nice touch. I personally feel very comfortable inside the cabin with its nicely finished and understated look.

##Driving dynamics

We’ve been spoiled so far with a nice upscale interior and gorgeous looks but driving the GTI is what it’s all about, isn’t it? I’ve been driving it for a few months now and I have mixed feelings about it. Maybe coming from a Z4M – I sold this when I bough my condo, real estate is pricey in Calgary – changed my idea of what a sports car should be. The GTI is supposed to be a “sporty” version of a compact car so to be fair I’m not comparing apples to apples here.

The steering is a bit over assisted a low speed and the clutch action is light. This is very nice when we’re stuck in bumper to bumper city traffic but it’s not great on the side country roads. The steering stiffens up and I must say it’s extremely communicative and well balanced despite being the electromechanical variety.

The gear box is nice and smooth but I’m also almost always having issues on a cold start in low temperatures (below -15C) with the 1-2 synchro. The gears seem a tad to far apart but overall I’m happy with the ratios. Rowing the six speed on a twisty road is fun. Unfortunately the light, inconsistent clutch coupled with the long throw of the shifter dulls the experience. Some vibration are also transmitted trough the clutch pedal at higher RPMs that are a bit disconcerting at first.

The breaks are a bit on the soft side and lack initial bite but are easily modulated and provide good stopping power. Come summer time I’ll do some testing to measure stopping distances but I think based on my initial impressions they are very good.

The engine has nice tractable power and the torque comes early, just shy of 2000RPM. It is easy to drive around town without excessive shifting required to keep the engine in its power band. It revs nicely, but doesn’t seem particularly eager. As the revs climb a decent noise starts to fill the cabin, without being straining. Cruising around is accompanied by a little more road and tire noise than I like. The dual mass flywheel makes the revs hang a bit in between shifts which was a bit weird at first. Fuel economy can be poor in stop and go traffic – my morning commute is around 10L/100Kms but I averaged 6.1L/100Kms on the highway on a longer trip to the mountains which is great. Speaking of flue premium is recommended for maximum performance but you can run the GTI on regular.

The chassis is nothing short of spectacular, everything is well communicated and I always know what the wheels are doing. The car seems very stiff, I can’t feel any body twisting or flexing. The car is very well balanced and when pushing a little we get mild understeer. Just remember slow in, fast out and I’m sure your track times will make folks wonder. If only we had a track around Calgary! The suspension works well and is firm without being uncomfortable. The stock all-season tires are grippy but a little noisy as they wear. They should be good for at least 25K with frequent rotation. The good news is that they should take you trough the first winter before you need a dedicated set.

##Conclusion

Overall I must say I’m somewhat conflicted – this hot hatch is a bit too civilized. Maybe a more raucous exhaust and a short shifter would fix that. On the other hand the refined interior for this segment is very comfortable and the overall package very well put together. Every time I take it out for a spirited drive I’m left wanting a little more but the occasional run around town is great.

Reliability has been a let down with a major component failure early on. This makes me question VW warranty of 4 years/ 80.000 KMs. You may want to purchase additional coverage if you plan on keeping the vehicle for a while or if purchasing this as a used on in a couple of years. The services at the dealer has been great so far with only the odd minor inconvenience.

Overall I would have to rate this 3.5/5 with big points being deducted for reliability. Maybe a 4 with the DSG, I would have to drive one before I can tell.