A lot of car buffs are wondering what the upcoming 54.5 MPG CAFE standards are going to do to sports cars. Volkswagen has one potential answer: The Golf GTD.
A nifty car you can't buy... for now
Let me start with the bad news: If you live here in North America, you cannot buy this car, at least not yet. I caught the bright-green Golf GTD towards the end of an American goodwill tour; Volkswagen brought one in from Germany to give us hacks a taste of a dish already common in Europe: The diesel-powered performance car.
The GTD is, as you can probably guess, a GTI with a diesel engine. The engine itself is a souped-up version of the 2-liter turbodiesel found in the Golf TDI: Horsepower is increased from 140 to 168, while torque rises from 236 lb-ft to 258 lb-ft. Compare that to 200 hp and 207 lb-ft for a gasoline-powered GTI, and 256 hp/243 lb-ft for the Golf R. On paper, the GTD is about a second slower to 60 than the GTI; in practice, most of that extra time is wasted in the first second as you wait for the turbocharger to wind up and do its thing.
Despite a big wave of torque -- the GTD delivers max pull between 1,750 RPM and 2,500 RPM -- the GTD's diesel doesn't feel quite as flexible as the GTI's gas engine, which delivers peak torque from 1,700 all the way to 5,000 RPM. Consider that a compliment to the GTI rather than a condemnation of the GTD; few gasoline engines can match the GTI's even power delivery, not even VW's own Golf R. The trick with the GTD is to use the paddle shifters and keep the revs low -- the exact opposite of what you'd do in a gasoline car.
Diesel performance in the real world
How does it work in the real world? I drove the GTD both on the track and the road (including the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, of course). On the track, the GTD felt like a slightly-slower GTI -- perhaps down to a bit of transmission mis-management on my part. I drove with the twin-clutch automatic transmission in Sport mode, which lets the engine run near to its redline; had I shifted manually to keep the revs down, I think I could have extracted a bit more punch. I could fault the GTD for being so much work; in the GTI, you can just pop it into Sport and enjoy max torque for max time.
But any deficit in the powertrain (or my operation thereof) was made up by the suspension -- this particular GTD had aggressive tires and the three-mode adjustable shocks from the Golf R, and it stuck to the pavement like body odor sticks to the French*. All I needed to do to make good time on the track was bomb into the corners as fast as I dared, turn in, and stomp on the throttle as I neared the apex. By the time I started to unwind the wheel, the power would be coming on strong, and as long as I'd picked a good line, the GTD and I could keep up our momentum. Anything less than perfect, though, and it took a while to make up the lost speed.
* A low and undeserved blow; all the French people I know smell lovely. But I've over-used "sticks like glue" and "clings like a kitten on a drape" and I needed something new. Sorry.
Out on the Curvy Test Road, the GTD was rather more GTI-like. I expected corner-exit wheelspin, an issue for most front-wheel-drive performance cars, to be an even bigger problem in the GTD. When you exit a corner and apply power, weight is shifted backwards and towards the outside of the curve and the inside-front wheel has a tendency to spin, a fault I thought the diesel's prodigious torque would exacerbate. Much to my surprise, it wasn't -- it took supreme efforts of bad driving to get that inside wheel to spin, and when it did, the problem wasn't any worse than in a gas-powered car. (Whether credit is due to the GTD's extra weight -- about 70 lbs, most of it over the front wheels -- or VW's sophisticated traction control system, I have no idea.) Acceleration felt similar to the GTI, albeit in shorter bursts, but the lack of engine braking from the diesel meant I had to rely more on the brakes and less on the paddle shifters to control my speed.
The beauty of diesel
In day-to-day driving, the GTD was quite good. The ride is a bit hard for my tastes; even with "comfort" mode selected it just barely orbits the periphery of compliance. But after five days of mixed driving, the GTD averaged an astonishing 41.8 miles per gallon. Forty one point eight! With the sort of driving I did, I'd be satisfied with 25 in a gasoline-powered GTI. Nearly 42 MPG -- well, let's just say my reaction was an adult event that we don't discuss in polite company.
Will the GTD make it to the States? I honestly don't know, but given VW's commitment to diesel -- plus the fact that they're letting hacks like me sample it -- I'd say we have a pretty good chance of seeing it in US showrooms. If so, it'll be yet more evidence that America should take diesel cars more seriously -- and a great way to have fun in a 54.5 MPG world. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the VW Golf GTD:
- Excellent performance with outstanding economy
- Just as much fun as a GTI -- if you drive it right
- All the practicality of a Golf
What I didn't like about the VW Golf GTD
- Transmission's sport mode isn't optimized for the diesel
- You can't buy it here... yet
- GTD is VW's diesel-powered hot hatchback
- Price range: TBD (best guess: $27,000
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder/168 hp, 6-speed twin-clutch automatic, front-wheel-drive
- Observed fuel economy: 41.8 MPG
- Where built: Germany