Volkswagen's Golf GTI: snarl with smarts

Volkswagen's GTI heralded the rise of the "hot hatch" category when it debuted in Europe in 1976. Seven years later it swept into the US to become the kind of "driver's car" that spawns cultlike devotion. (So did the cheaper, tamer Rabbit, also back this year.)

GTI's evolution has been a little uneven. Motor Trend's Car of the Year in 1985, it saw lukewarm reviews in 1993 for its third generation. Recently, the heavy but high-performing all-wheel drive R32 model was a monster hit.

We tested a six-speed version of the new Golf GTI, which arrived in the US this year, with its turbocharged 2-liter inline 4-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection (200 h.p.; 207 lbs.-ft. of torque). Promisingly base-priced in the low $20s, with options it can quickly rise above $28,000.

GTI does everything fast. Brawny but accommodating (rear headroom, sensible rubber floor mats), it knows how to behave but is happy to snarl. Cargo space is ample. Highway fuel economy: a respectable mid- to upper-20s if you can resist always surging into passing lanes. (Good luck with that.)

Loaded with electronic driving aids, it hurtles sure-footedly and looks handsome in the process, from its honeycomb grille and Swiss-cheese rims (showing off red brake calipers) to the VW badge on the hatch that tilts in to become a handle. GTI might be marketed to youths as a Euro-slick alternative to Japanese "tuners," but this Teutonic rocket is nicht (just) für Kinder. We didn't want to give it back.

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