The MINI Cooper S vs The New MKV Golf GTI (w/DSG)
I have to admit I haven’t been a big fan of the most recent GTI. It’s looks and packaging I loved. However every time I got behind the wheel I felt let-down by the driving dynamics. Of course this wasn’t always the case with older VWs. The MK2 GTI, the 80ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Sciroccos, and the gorgeous early 90ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Corrados I was always fond of. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s the more recent cars that wore the VW badge (like the MKIV GTI) that have kept me away from the brand as a whole. Unfortunately this means just about every car VW has made since I’ve been legally able to drive.
And it would seem that I’m not the only one. If you haven’t noticed VW isn’t doing so well these days. If it’s not poor sales of the $80,000 Phaeton, it’s the notorious quality issues and some sticky issues revolving around sludge.
But I’ve always felt that it’s only when a company is down that you really see what they’re all about. So with that in mind VW released its new Golf GTI in America this month. Never mind that it’s the same car that has been on sale in Europe for two years, it’s new to the crucial US market. It’s also got some buzz about it being the best Golf since the mid-80s. So with all this in mind I thought it was worth spending some time with this new VW to both see how it compares with the MINI Cooper S and how it continues the hot hatch legacy for VW.
The GTI is not really a pretty car. Few hatches are. It’s actually better in person than photos but I can’t imagine anyone being seduced by the design alone. Its look is really more bold and purposeful than anything. But nevertheless beauty isn’t what this car is all about. What it does do well is what made the first GTI an icon; packaging, performance, and price. And at around 24,000 with standard options such as a sunroof and the new DSG transmission it’s not all that bad. Xenons are standard as are some fairly large brakes for a car of this size class. It also came standard with a terrible rattle in the sunroof, but more on that later.
Getting in, the first thing that stares you in the face is the new shape “sport” steering wheel that VW seems to be using across all of it’s product lines. I’m pretty sure I saw this same design in an Audi RS4 recently. Being common isn’t bad though, especially when it’s something shared with a car like the RS4. It’s a nice design with good weight and sized just about perfectly. It certainly makes the MINI’s wheel feel a little big. On the downside the leather does feel cheaper than expected, but the design and weight make up for it.
VW and Audi know how to push all the buttons when it comes to interior design. As long as you don’t actually push the buttons. And I don’t mean that in too negative a way. It’s just that the overall design is so well executed at first glance, that you can’t help but feel a little let down by the materials and, more importantly, the feel. But hey this is a $22,000 car so I will gladly look over this. The MINI has its fair share of interior cheapness as well. Maybe I was just expecting too much, but in the photos, the interior looks incredibly rich and well put together for a $22,000 car. The reality is just a notch below that.
One of the things I was most excited about in getting behind the wheel of the new GTI was the latest version of the much acclaimed DSG transmission. Some quick background. DSG is VW’s attempt of an auto-manual gearbox. Not like what the Cooper S currently offers with its automatic with manual controls, but a true manual that happens to have its clutch controlled by computer. Specifically, VW’s solution is to use two clutches, applying one as you disengage a gear and the other when you engage the next gear. It makes for an incredibly smooth operation, and from my experience is the first truly consumer friendly auto-manual.
If you’re wondering, the result is quite a bit different than BMW’s SMG. Where the DSG is smooth to the point of boring and predictable at low speed driving (good attributes as far as I’m concerned), the SMG can be jerky. Except replace the words “can be” with “is” and the word “jerky” with “unbearable”. Okay, it’s not that bad. In fact it’s a characteristic actually makes some sense for a car like the M3 or the new M5. But it makes less sense on a small car that is aimed at a fairly wide audience like the MINI. That’s where the DSG would seemingly fit in well.
The seating position is good once you get settled in. It is a little odd only being able to see a sliver of the bonnet but visibility is excellent overall. The seats are stiff (in a good way) and fairly supportive. While they’re better than the standard MINI sport seats in some ways, Recaros they are not. Those will be saved surely for the upcoming R32 replacement. But what’s this? Tartan seats? How is it a German car has tartan seats and our beloved British car is stuck with something called panther black leather? It’s a great addition to the interior and a nice touch of color. But here’s the problem with the seats, with the car, and it turns out with the way VW America sells them and the car. You can’t just order the seats a la carte. In fact as I found out you can hardly get anything a la carte. You have to get almost everything as part of package one or package two. That means no tartan farbric heated seats. This of course is quite a foreign idea for a MINI owner who is used to getting anything they want with anything added on the side in any color. So why can’t VW offer a little customization? Surely there’s money to be made and customers to be gained?
Enough about spec and tartan. Let’s talk about how this car drives. From P to D and over to the right – let’s see what this thing can really do.
But my first mental note isn’t something about remembering which paddle on the steering wheel does what, it’s “what the hell is that damn rattle an inch from my skull. And this isn’t just an annoying rattle. This is like what it must have sounded like when the Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. It’s that bad. Luckily, opening the sunroof managed to momentarily fix the issues. Never mind that it’s 35 Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â°F.
So back on the road. The steering feels less weighted than the MINI and noticably less quick. Where the MINI reacts almost as fast as you can move your hands, the GTI can get flustered on quick switch backs. Of course this is also helped by its considerable bulk over the MINI. At 3150 lbs the GTI is almost 400 lbs heavier than what many of us are used to. And it’s a penalty that you feel in every change of motion. But things don’t feel bad. In fact compared to any comparable car but the MINI you’d be hard pressed to have many complaints.
The communication through the sterring wheel, while good for the segment, doesn’t quite compare to the MINI. Throwing the car into one of my favorite corners brought on ESP (VW speak for DSC) all too quickly. But even before it came on I felt a little let-down by the level of feedback the car was giving. I had an idea the grip was there, I just didn’t get inspired by it. What’s worse I couldn’t really feel how the car was reacting and thus didn’t have the confidence for the next right-hander 20 yards away. That said the handling is a huge improvement over recent Golfs. Much of the slop that was evident in later generations isn’t there. And even if the ESP isn’t as finely honed as that on a MINI, it’s still quite improved from the MKIV Golf. In fact those not used to the level of feedback seen in a MINI will probably have no complaints.
Where the 2006 GTI really shines however, is the drive-train. First off it’s endowed with the latest version of VW’s turbo 4-cylinder engine. This time it’s cranking out 200hp with no real turbo lag to speak of and strong torque the moment your foot hits the pedal. The engine feels strong throughout the range all the way to it’s disappointingly low redline of 6500. However, since the new 2.0L FSI engine is pushing a package that is almost 400 lbs heavier than the MINI, the car ends up not feeling as rapid as I had hoped it would be. The lack of LSD is also a burden in terms of performance. 200 hp (and loads of torque) coming through the front wheels without a limited slip just isn’t an optimal solution for aggressive corner carving, especially around the cones or at the track.
Regardless of how great engine feels, that’s not what has so many excited about the new MKV GTI. That honor falls to the brilliant DSG gearbox. Shifting is incredibly fast and certainly quicker than a manual shifter. It’s also smooth and drama free, giving the driver plenty of confidence in the system and allowing them to concentrate on other things. But my favorite trick with the DSG (and SMG for that matter) is going from 3rd to 2nd upon entering a turn. The transmission blips the throttle (a little too subtle in the GTI perhaps) and you’re where you need to be in the power range within fractions of a second. It’s all so seamless that you’d swear you were playing GT4 on a Playstation.
Unfortunately those paddles behind the wheel carry that analogy a little too far. They just aren’t endowed with the feel that BMW’s SMG paddles give. And placement probably isn’t ideal for most people. Like the M3 and M5 SMG systems, the right paddle is for up-shifiting and the left for down-shifting. The paddles are also attached to the back of the wheel itself rather than the column. The downside to this layout is that it could potentially confuse drivers trying to up-shift while corning (not a good idea mind you). For the MINI driver it would be akin to trying to turn the volume up from the steering wheel while making 90 degree turn. Actually the design of the paddles on the Cooper S automatic transmission make a little more sense from a mass appeal perspective. While they’re attached to the wheel also, either paddle is designed to operate both functions in an rather intuitive way. Of course you can always use the GTI’s gear lever and end all the confusion.
I also felt that the DSG could have been tuned to be a bit more aggressive, especially in sport mode. I’m told that the German version of the car has just that. Why VW USA decided that we Americans deserve less is anyone’s guess. It certainly seems like an unfortunate trend though.
But all that aside this is a brilliant kit. Even in full auto mode the DSG feels smarter and quicker than the Aisin supplied automatic in the Cooper S. Shifts are crisp, quick, and always just when you need them. There’s definitely less pedal to the floor confusion than I’ve felt in the Cooper S auto.
In the end, the new VW GTI has proven itself a true heir to those early GTIs and a worthy competitor for the current MINI. Yet the GTI is betrayed by its bulk and the lack of feedback, agility and feel that is so abundant with the MINI. While its performance was very respectable in the corners and certainly a huge improvement over what came before it, there’s a little bit of magic missing in the handling department. That said the new 2.0FSI turbo is a step up in power and torque and is a gem of a powerplant. It delivers power the instant you hit the pedal all the way to the 6500 rpm redline. That coupled with the DSG transmission is what really makes this car special. It’s enough to make a manual GTI driver seriously consider switching. But is it enough to make someone consider switching to a GTI from a MINI? Unless the GTI’s bigger boot is the answer to your Ikea related prayers, the answer would probably be no.