Friday, June 3, 2011

2011 GTI

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Julie and I went to test drive cars.  She's thinking about replacing hers, and I'm a car guy, so she wanted me to join her.  And hey, I haven't test-driven anything since I bought my Mazda, so I was certainly game!

Julie first drove a Prius, which was an interesting experience from the passenger seat.  By that I mean that I'm not sure a Prius is a car in the way I think of cars.  You turn it on like an appliance, you don't start it with a key.  The gearshift is an abstraction of what I use to shift gears.  And the drivetrain takes more commands from a computer than it does from the driver.  Now, I understand that most automatic shifters are connected with wiring to their gearboxes these days, and that there's a massive amount of computing power behind even my relatively low-tech Mazda out in the driveway, yes.  Even so, while the Prius is four-wheeled transportation, I'm pretty sure it's not a car.

The Prius experience behind us, Julie piloted Allyson's Mini Cooper over to the VW dealer, to give the little British BMW a try.  And she seemed to enjoy that experience, too.  At one point I told her to give the steering wheel a little bobble, and the car virtually leapt off center, catching her a little off-guard.  That gave me a giant grin -- it's a fun car.  Not perfect, by any means, but fun, fun, fun!

At the VW dealer, we asked for a 5-door GTI for a test drive.  The car the salesman produced was black, had big "phone-dial" wheels (18 inches, I believe), a gorgeous interior with black leather seats, and a raucous stereo with way more going on than I had time to figure out.  This one was a 6-speed manual, rather than a dual-clutch DSG car (though I'd like to try one of those gearboxes some time).  Oh!  And it had red brake calipers peeking from the five massive holes of the front rims.  Maybe the rears were red, too, but I don't remember.  Actually, that's a good illustration of my problem with the car -- it wasn't memorable.

Julie took it out first.  She's a VW driver, and seemed to appreciate the blue lighting, the quality of the interior materials, and the car's overall zip.  It is a quick car, to be sure, and the controls all feel pretty good in the hands, which is the norm for VW.  The seats are comfortable and supportive, it's got more stuff in it than anyone can reasonably ask for, and it sounds OK, too.

But when I took the wheel, I found it to be an absolute snoozer to drive.  Compared to the Mini, the damping and springing are soft and gentle -- not floaty, but not terribly sporty, either.  Compared to the Mini, the steering is slow and lazy -- hell, that's true when the GTI is compared to my Mazda3.  And though it is plenty strong, the turbo engine's power delivery is annoyingly non-linear.  In traffic, I found myself giving it a little throttle, then a little more because not enough happened the first time, and then having to back off that second bump when the turbo finally spooled up.  I'm sure I'd get used to that, but I wouldn't want to get used to the lazy reflexes.  Where the Mini feels like a racer despite its lack of power, the GTI feels like a mid-sized family sedan.  Where the Mini feels like an athlete, the GTI feels ready for a nap.  Back to the dealer it went, with absolutely no interest on my part of driving another.

Julie seemed to like all of the cars for different reasons, and it'll be interesting to see what she ends up doing.  For my own part, I can't really make a Mini work in my life right now, but that's not at all true of the GTI.  With five doors and a lot more cargo space than the Mini, the GTI would be a perfectly sensible choice for me, the girls and Jake.  But there's absolutely nothing about the GTI that I particularly want.  The Mini, on the other hand, sits out in my driveway right now practically begging me to take it out for a fling around some on ramps.  I'm resisting buying it because it's not what I need right now.  But unlike the GTI, I want it -- I want it bad.

Maybe someday.

All for now,


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