I rarely think of a Volkswagen GTI as a dirt monster. It’s a car that always comes up in the context of tarmac shenanigans—track days, autocrosses, and general acts of on-road hooliganism. This assumption—fed by the low-profile tires and big, pretty wheels—is wrong. It’s downright amazing on dirt.
Lone Star Rallycross held two glorious days in a row of dirty fun during some of our coldest days this winter: one to make up an event that kept getting rained out, and the other, as a make-up for the similarly delayed 2016 season ender. The Subaru Legacy wagon I usually used for sideways dirt hilarity wouldn’t start at all in the freezing temperatures, so someone else offered to let me drive their GTI Mark 7 for the day.
Holy crap, what a revelation.
Driving something smaller and nimbler than the beloved beater wagon I’m used to was incredible. As soon as the turbo kicked in—much faster than the mid-nineties wagon I’d been driving—the GTI was a little rocket ship.
The suspension and wheels were stock, but it handled on dirt like the car was supposed to be there. Its short wheelbase made it easy to put exactly where you wanted in the tight course of cones and dirt, and all you had to do to get the rear end to kick out for an upcoming turn was lift mid-turn. Stab the brake with your left foot if you need to get just a little more sideways. It was perfect.
Even the DSG dual-clutch transmission didn’t skip a beat. For much of the weekend, I just let its do its thing in with the transmission in “drive” with Sport Mode on. The only time the DSG really struggled to drop down to the right gear was in a really slow, silty turn near the back of the course. Otherwise, shifts were near-instantaneous—faster than I could have done it with a manual, anyway—and pretty smooth.
I wish the GTI had stationary paddles behind the wheel for a sideways-heavy activity like rallycross—where the up and down paddles are always in the same place no matter where your hands flap around. Even then, the whole package felt like having cheat mode for the stock two-wheel-drive class.
The GTI’s one weakness was heat soak from being used run after run for two drivers sharing one car. Opening the hood between runs and spraying down the intercooler with cool water did wonders, though, and soon, our boost was back. It was a constant back and forth between the car’s owner and I for the fastest run time in the class, which was a blast. On day two, I ended up narrowly beating him for the class win. (Sorry, not sorry.)
I liked driving something that could contend for a class win for a change. A nicely set up front-wheel-drive car was much more fun than I expected as well, perhaps well suited to my years of messing around with a front-wheel-drive Lancer at track days.
The little GTI was so much fun that it left me somewhat conflicted. I’ve long been a fan of seeing what I can do with cars that are just kind of lying around and good enough for whatever, but do I need a faster car? Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing out on after all.