Sometimes, the whole of a car is greater than the sum of the parts. Such is the case with the 2011 Volkswagen GTI. On paper, the GTI looks fairly unremarkable. The starting price is just over $24,000 for a three-door, or just over $25,000 for a five-door, which makes it slightly more expensive than its closest rival, the five-door Mazdaspeed3. Worse, it gives up a significant amount of horsepower to the Mazda: the GTI makes 200 horsepower from its 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, while the Mazda cranks out some 263 horsepower from its 2.3-liter turbo four. If you’re looking for performance and handling, it looks to be an open and shut case for the Mazdaspeed3.
Or is it? Life doesn’t consist of an endless series of mountain roads and racetracks, and even if you hit the track every weekend, chances are that you still drive there on boring public roads. On the road, the GTI’s ride is more refined than the Mazdaspeed’s, and the Mazda’s ever-present (and occasionally puckering) torque steer is absent from the GTI. Sure, it’s not as quick as the Mazda, but the difference is less than you might expect. Volkswagen is very conservative in rating the GTI’s power, and owners who dyno their cars often find that the GTI produces about 215 horsepower at the wheels on 93 octane gas. It weighs about 240 pounds less than the Mazda, too, so the real-world advantage of the Mazda in 0 to 60 times is only a few tenths of a second.
The Mazda does stick better in corners, but that’s due to the car’s stiffer suspension and more performance-oriented tires (the GTI comes with H-rated all season tires, and odd choice for a performance car). The GTI still does an admirable job in the twisty bits, and it rewards the owner with a more comfortable ride quality across all conditions. In many ways the GTI feels more like an Audi A3 than its own stablemate, the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta. Besides, if the stock wheels, tires and suspension aren’t to your liking, there’s a huge aftermarket for Volkswagen performance parts.
Inside is where the real difference between the cars becomes apparent. The Mazda’s hallucinogenic seating and trim isn’t for everyone, and there are no options to go with a more subdued interior. The materials used in the Mazda don’t feel as high quality as the materials used in the GTI: there’s a lot more hard plastic and less refinement, although the fit and finish on both cars is quite good. The Mazda feels roomier inside than the Volkswagen, although the actual difference in interior volume between the cars is just under six cubic feet.
If you’re in the market for a hot hatch, the 2011 Volkswagen GTI is definitely worth a test drive. The 2012 models are beginning to hit dealer lots, and there isn’t a huge difference between the two cars. For 2012, the Volkswagen GTI gets new wheels, revised Bluetooth phone controls, LED running lights, LED license plate lamps, new shift knob, and new interior trim in higher-end versions; in other words, if you can strike a deal on a leftover 2011 model, now is the time to buy.