Rolf the Golf GTI was thrust into action immediately, logging 1,500 miles in his first week. As Winter Storm Jonas threatened to immobilize much of the eastern seaboard, I aimed the GTI at New York City and hit the road. I had to: my snow tires were in New Jersey at my family's house, bolted to my 2013 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic, which is approaching the end of its lease.
It was something of a relief to find that the pricey (for winter wheels, anyway) BBS SR wheels I'd splurged on for the Mercedes would fit the GTI, and that the 215/55 R-16 Firestone Winterforce tires were the right size. I ordered the correct hubcentric rings from The Tire Tack, and I was in business.
I got the tires swapped just in time for #snowpocalypse2016 to pound northern New Jersey with 24" of snow. I was eager to see whether my little GTI would become a ferocious little snowcat, or if I would be stuck with three years of Bambi on Ice. The snow tires were transformative. I did two hot laps of the subdivision, including a few cul-de-sac donuts that had me feeling like Sébastien Ogier in the 2013 Rallye Monte Carlo. Sort of.
This is my third set of Winterforce tires, and I can say with certainty that they offer some of the best bang for the buck of any snow tires out there. The directional tread pattern is chunky, with deep siping carved into the tread blocks for excellent water dispersion. The impact on dry weather performance is less than you'd expect, and snow traction is significantly better than more expensive Bridgestone Blizzak or Dunlop Winter Sport tires I've had in the past. This particular set has traveled 10,000 miles and still has plenty of tread depth to spare. I expect to make it through the next three winters without replacing them. Not bad for the cheapest snow tires I could find.
On the 1000-mile roundtrip to New York and back, the GTI impressed me with its quiet ride and thoughtful features. The unexpected champions of convenience were the Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Assist. A car like this, you see, begs to be driven fast. This car would cruise along quite happily at 100+mph, so 74 miles per hour (my unscientifically devised safe cruising speed of +9 above the limit) feels like a snails pace.
With Adaptive Cruise, I simply found another car willing to move at a brisk pace, set the cruise just slightly faster than their average, and set the following distance to three car-lengths. The car kept pace effortlessly, and slowed to accommodate other cars changing lanes into the forward sensing area. It's worth noting that I didn't have to consult the owner's manual once to learn how to use any of these high-tech features; they are completely intuitive. The only downfall of the system is that the forward radar sensor becomes obstructed with snow easily, rendering the system inoperable. A small heating element which activates in cold temperatures to thaw the sensor would solve this problem.
Lane Assist was similarly useful and unobtrusive. When the car detected that I was drifting toward the lane markers, Lane Assist steered the car back into the lane. It works on curves, too. After a few second of intervention, the display in the instrument cluster would flash a warning, reminding me to pay attention. With these two features, I can't help but think that VW (and other manufacturers) are spoon-feeding us bits and pieces of autonomous driving technologies, thus shortening the leap to fully autonomous cars in the future. I'm a keen driver, but I wouldn't have argued if my car offered to drive itself the majority of that 450-mile road trip while I caught up on some light reading or looked at videos of narcoleptic dogs on YouTube.
A major justification for getting a hot hatch over a similarly priced V8 muscle car is fuel economy. I'm averaging 28 mpg or better in mixed driving, and saw upwards of 34 mpg in extended highway driving. To encourage better driving habits, the MIB-II Discover Pro Infotainment System has a screen called the "Think Blue. Trainer," which gamifies efficient driving by rewarding the driver with a ThinkBlue Score, and a graphical readout of average fuel economy. It's similar in concept to the systems in hybrid cars, and I found it a worthwhile feature. I rented a Prius back in 2008 for a road trip around the American West, and the gamified efficiency readout was the only thing fun about the car. Fortunately, the "Think Blue. Trainer" in the GTI is merely a clever diversion and not the main event.
On the subject of the Discover Pro infotainment system, I've spent a significant amount of time testing it in both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto modes, and I'll dedicate the next post to the pros and cons of each.
Overall, my initial impressions of the GTI continue to be reinforced, with nary a whisper of buyers' remorse to be heard.