The 2015 Volkswagen GTI looks very manly in plaid

One of my best friends is preparing to replace his BMW 335i sedan. It’s one of the first cars that rolled off the line, and he bought it for a song.

Why was it so cheap? It’s a lemon.

Despite the car’s shakes and shudders, he has loved his Bimmer. He’s loved it for its excellent handling, and he has loved it for its peppy acceleration. But he’s also studying for his real estate license. More than anything, he’s excited about hauling his clients around in car that looks a certain way. Unfortunately for him, those clients might also see his dash’s colorful array of warning lights.

We’ve debated back and forth about the qualities needed in the perfect replacement car: fun but not flashy, nimble but not tiny, and well built but affordable. It needs to be a car that says, “I may be young, but I’m professional. I appreciate nice things, but I’m practical. I want to make money, but I’m not here to rob you.”

This week, I found the car that every successful, young 20-something should add to his short list: the 2015 Volkswagen GTI.

Right-sized

There’s no doubt that the GTI maintains tinged with boy-racer styling, but, in my opinion, that boy has now graduated from high school. Maybe even college. It still looks spunky – especially in red – but choose it in grey or black with the optional LED running lights and xenon headlamps, and you have a car that doesn’t look too far removed from its Audi cousins.

And, for those A3 enthusiasts who really wanted the wagon with front-wheel drive (or a manual), this little VW might be your best bet anyway. And just you wait, Snow Belt drivers, because the new all-wheel drive Golf R is on the way for you, too.

In terms of design, you get what we’ve come to expect from the Volkswagen Golf, plus a little machismo. The GTI is offered as either a three- or five-door hatchback, meaning that it really makes the most out of its compact layout. Its tall roofline creates extra storage space and plenty of headroom in rear, but its red-lined grille, Audi R8-esque fog lamp splitters, and dual exhaust keep it from looking too much like the family car that is, and that’s a good thing.

You can comfortably seat four full-sized adults inside, too, thanks to that extra headroom, and a fifth will fit for short/painful drives, too. Plus, the rear seats fold down for extra cargo space on college move-out, and they’re LATCH-ready, too, for young families who need to bolt in a car seat. Plus, the base seats are actually my preferred seats; their center inserts are covered in awesome red, black and white plaid, which give them an extra punch of personality, even over the more luxurious leather options. Point in case: it’s a versatile car that still hints to ‘fun,’ rather than ‘family-friendly,’ but actually offers the best of both worlds.

Right drivetrain

The GTI is powered by one my favorite drivetrains in the VW/Audi lineup: the ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It’s an engine that has been around for a while, and VW has tuned it, retuned it, and tuned it again. Thusly, it’s one of the most refined mills on the market at any price, with plenty of pep and smooth delivery in nearly every instance.

In the new GTI, that engine puts down 210 horsepower and 258-lb-ft of torque in the base model, and it’s boosted to 220 hp if you opt for the available performance package.

And, while those figures may seem low in comparison to some of the other turbocharged 2.0-liters on the market (Ford Focus ST, Hyundai Genesis, etc.), I cannot emphasize enough on how smoothly the engine performs. It’s punchy and quick, and the exhaust barks between shifts, leaving few questions about the GTI’s underlying personality. It’s a guy’s car, all day, every day. Plus, it’s available with either a six-speed manual for enthusiasts, or an excellent dual-clutch automatic for everyone else, both of which perform brilliantly.

The suspension sets the car apart from the pack, though. Both my copilot and I marveled at how nimble the car felt in the mountains, but how comfortable and compliant the ride was over broken city streets. It’s not that I haven’t seen suspensions like this one before – they’re standard issue in nearly every premium sport sedan in the industry – but it’s not often that you find something that rides this well for less than $25,000.

There’s no question that it rides better (and more quietly) than any of its competitors. Sayonara, WRX. So long, Focus ST. Add to it the performance pack’s limited slip differential, bigger brakes and optional adaptive dampening, and you have a car that costs about as much as a Toyota Camry, but drives as well as an Audi A3.

Right image … sort of

If we’re looking at cars as extensions of our personalities, the GTI has started to grow out of its niche and into the mainstream. While I was in San Francisco driving this car, VW offered me the chance to take a spin behind the each of the seven generations of sporty Golfs, dating all the way back to the MK1 “Mark One.” If you could distill the soul of our modern car down into one sporty, fun, loud tin can, you’d see that this new MK7 GTI hasn’t lost any of the brand’s zest for behind-the-wheel excitement at an affordable price. The focus remains on enjoyment behind the wheel, but without the need for compromise in passenger comfort. The new GTI just more mature, that’s all.

This has been the biggest point of debate between my broken-Bimmer friend and me. When he sees his BMW, he envisions what his BMW could be, if it weren’t such a bucket of bolts. But, that’s what you get when you pay VW money for a BMW. When he looks at the GTI, he sees what the car once was: a plaid-seated toy for boys who couldn’t afford a BMW.

But it’s evolved into something equally fun and surprisingly sophisticated, too.

I think that’s his biggest fear; he doesn’t want those prospective clients of his to think that he doesn’t take himself seriously enough to take their home purchases seriously, too. However, I see navigation, leather and xenon. I see a machine with a refined chassis, that’s fun to drive and costs tens of thousands of dollars less than the next best thing. I see practicality and affordability that suggest more than just the maturity of the car, but ipso facto, maturity of the driver.

Those are the things that VW will likely wrestle with as its new GTI pushes forward toward a now-employed Generation Y. At its core, it’s a car that does all things well, but does it send a message of early success, or does it still sing the siren song to high school parking lots? In my opinion, The 2015 VW GTI is both well rounded and affordable, making it the perfect fit for a man’s inevitable hopeful matriculation from adolescence into adulthood.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI is priced from $24,395, but can be given all the goodies for around $34,000. It’s EPA-rated at 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway.

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