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Lucky number seven

Golf GTI still a hot hatch, but a little on the pricey side

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Editors' Choice: Road rockets under $30,000. Credit: Darren Begg

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0L Trendline+ (M5) for $11,990

2011 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0L Trendline+ (M5)

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Volkswagen debuted a souped-up version of its front-wheel-drive Golf at the Frankfurt Motor Show back in 1975. Hence, the GTI and its legend were born. Now comes the seventh-generation model with an all-new platform.

It is longer, lower and wider, it has 10 per cent more luggage space, it's 10 per cent stiffer and, in spite of this, the new GTI is 23-kilograms lighter, which helps overall performance. In all else, it remains very familiar -- from the fender badges to the cabin. The latter is, however, where things are beginning to change.

Yes, those now-famous tartan seats are still very much alive and kicking and the interior remains true to the driver -- supportive seats, a chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and clean instrumentation all speak to this point. What's changing is the march upmarket. The test car featured leather seating and VW's Discover Media navigation system. The latter has a touch-sensitive screen and a proximity sensor. Moving one's hand toward the screen sees a menu rise up from the bottom of the screen. It is neat, but it's also a necessity -- the screen is small without the icons, it's cluttered with them. As an aside, the audio system is by none other than Fender, the company made famous by Jimi Hendrix and his liking for the Stratocaster.

Powering the gen-seven GTI is a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 210 horsepower and, more importantly, 258 pound-feet of torque at just 1,600 rpm. This means that there's little turbo lag off the line and the urge onward builds very strongly through the mid-range. In the end, it brings a run to 100 kilometres an hour in 6.4 seconds and it accomplished the more important 80 to 120 km/h passing move in 4.5 seconds. Both are strong times by any standard.

Our tester's power was relayed to the road through a very good six-speed twin-clutch transmission. It bumps up and down the gears with incredible speed and it seemed to know what the driver was about to do next. From here, the work ethic reaches the road through substantial P225/40R18 tires. The neat part is everything can be tailored to the tone of the drive. Normal mode is just that, sport mode sharpens the throttle and steering, while individual allows the driver to pick the upgrades. The transmission's sport mode stretches out the upshifts, which brings more urgency to the drive. The GTI tested also benefited from paddle shifters.

The suspension is taut, but it delivered a nicely damped ride in the city. The variable ratio electric steering also takes a turn for the better.

It had a rewarding response to input and, unlike so many electric systems, it delivered the needed feedback, which made the communication between driver and car a clean and clear affair. The uprated brakes are also worth a mention. The track session saw them provide plenty of fade-free performance. Finally, there is a sport mode for the stability control. It gives the driver much more latitude before stepping in and raining on the fun.

So, that's the techy stuff. The driving proved to be a mixed bag. The GTI's track performance was good, but the group consensus was that it was too soft to be a real demon -- it required the judicial use of trail braking to get the GTI to point into an off-camber, decreasing radius corner with the alacrity demanded by this driver. Without said assistance, it began to understeer in spite of the substantial tire package.

The question is, does this really matter? Again, the consensus was not a whit. On road, the GTI remained the paragon of virtue, driving into corners with precision as it soaked up a rough road without heeling over in the process. It proved to be a very enjoyable experience that made the driver want to go back for more.

The GTI was born to be a rebel with a cause -- bring sporting performance to the People. My week with the latest GTI proved it to be one of the strongest all-round sports cars available. If there is a nit, it is that the GTI is beginning to move away from its People's mandate. While the GTI's sticker starts at an entirely manageable dollar, adding options see the price tag soar -- the base three-door GTI with a six-speed manual gearbox starts at $27,995; the five-door with its options and twin-clutch transmission carried an as tested sticker of $36,085.

--Postmedia Network Inc.

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