From the June 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Good cars make you smile. The great ones make you laugh. A bout of the giggles overcame us as the 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI carved its way through Little Tujunga Canyon Road. Built in the 1930s, Little Tujunga and the adjoining Sand Canyon Road encompass 17 miles of coiled asphalt over the San Gabriel Mountains on the western edge of the Angeles National Forest. The tight, twisting two-lane climbs gradually to 2750 feet and connects Lake View Terrace on the south end with an In-N-Out Burger in Santa Clarita.
Less popular than the famous Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways to the east, Little Tujunga has switchbacks and low-speed corners that favor nimbleness as well as steep drop-offs that test a driver’s trust in the vehicle and commitment to speed. Small, light cars work best here, which is probably why Mazda engineers used this road to dial in the final tuning of the current Miata.
If you’re coming from L.A., take the Osborne exit off the 210 freeway and head north. As houses give way to equestrian stables, Osborne becomes Little Tujunga. Enter Limerock Canyon and the view changes to mountain vistas and empty road. The new GTI charges hard, its turbocharged 241-hp four-banger unfazed by the thinning air. A 4.3-psi increase in boost pressure, now at 26.1 psi, adds 13 horsepower for ’22, and the new gen’s 3154-pound curb weight is 28 pounds lighter than its predecessor’s. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but our Euro-spec test car arrived with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Equipped with launch control that raises revs beyond 4000 rpm before engaging the clutch, the GTI runs to 60 in 5.1 seconds (0.7 second quicker than the last automatic-equipped, all-season-shod Rabbit edition we tested), and the quarter passes in 13.6 seconds at 105 mph.
Little Tujunga’s sun-parched asphalt provides a good test for ride quality. With the adaptive dampers in Comfort mode, the suspension sops up the sharpest hits despite a 5 percent spring-rate increase in front, a 15 percent bump in the rear axle, and our car’s optional 19-inch wheels (18s will be standard). VW homologated six tires for the GTI; it remains to be seen which will be on U.S.-spec models, but the Bridgestone Potenza S005s on our test car strike a great balance between ride comfort, steering feel, and easy grip.
Cycle through the drive modes to Sport and the dampers’ baseline stiffness rises, shaking occupants more. VW redesigned its adaptive dampers for the latest GTI, and new programming makes adjustments up to 200 times per second in response to what you or the road throws at them. With 15 possible settings, best practice calls for leaving the suspension in Comfort and letting the software firm things up as necessary. Wheel and body control remain taut, and the GTI seems stabler, less skittish, and less affected by midcorner bumps. That’s the great thing about adaptive dampers—they adapt.
After a few more miles, the road rises to hug the mountainside. The vistas go from dusty sagebrush to a Bob Ross painting. Around Dillon Divide, Little Tujunga coils up into a series of corners with 10- to 15-mph recommended speeds. Guardrails painted by drivers who ran out of talent loom ominously, but the GTI’s sure-footed handling seemingly widens the lane. Again and again, the little box on wheels dispatches everything the driver asks of it. Corners fall with such unerring ease that it’s possible to flirt with all the available grip. On the skidpad, we measured 0.97 g of giant-killing stick.
Although the GTI is easy to master, it’s never boring. The variable-ratio rack quickens the farther you turn off-center and goes from lock to lock in only 1.9 turns of the steering wheel. The upper spokes on that thick-rimmed wheel have capacitive buttons for various controls. Start hustling the car and you’ll find your hands sweating, not because of the work, but because your palm accidentally switched on the heated steering wheel. Turn-in response is natural and builds confidence in the front-end grip. To help toss itself into and through a turn, the GTI will drag the inside rear brake, but the real joy comes when you roll into the throttle on corner exit.
The GTI’s handling and ability to put the power down are so impressive that you’re left giggling like a fool. Credit the electronically controlled limited-slip differential for pulling this front-driver out of corners with supernatural zeal. Selecting Sport mode increases the enthusiasm with which the differential locks up its clutch pack. All you have to do is stomp the accelerator and let the diff and brake-based torque vectoring figure out the rest. The GTI surges out of bends with unbelievable ambition and confidence. Limited-slip diffs on front-drive cars can create unwanted tugs and noise at the steering wheel as load shifts from one side to the other, but the GTI’s allows the car to maintain its path without drama and without disturbing steering precision or feel. You’re left in awe of its magic.
There’s no magic to the practicality of the hot hatch’s shape. It’s a box. (There’s a reason Amazon doesn’t ship your stuff in teardrop-shaped packages.) The cargo area appears to rival those of small crossovers, and the rear seat remains family-friendly, should you want to use Little Tujunga and the GTI as an emetic. Ahead of the steering wheel is a 10.3-inch screen that displays virtual gauges, navigation, or a host of other information. Like an Apple Watch, the bright, legible screen has a lot to say, but we miss the simple clarity of the old analog gauges.
We also strongly prefer a volume knob, which the GTI lacks. Adjusting the audio system’s volume is done via capacitive buttons on the steering wheel or below the 10.0-inch center touchscreen, which controls a number of functions and settings buried in a dizzying menu structure. We never did find a trip odometer. Fortunately, cars coming to our shores will have Apple and Android phone-mirroring capability, which will allow owners to mostly avoid VW’s obtuse infotainment system.
Traditionally, GTI customers have enjoyed interior appointments from the next class up, but the finishes in the latest generation aren’t good enough for an Audi. While the dashboard is more modern than the upright minivan-like design of the old car, the materials lack richness and disappoint when you touch them. Plaid cloth seats are one tradition that hasn’t been forgotten. They don’t adjust as far down as before, but the car’s cowl seems lower and the view out more expansive. At a steady 70 mph, there are 71 decibels of four-cylinder hum. Add a little speed and the droning engine resonance disappears by 80; kick it up to triple digits and there’s virtually no wind rush. All of this is in keeping with the GTI’s “go faster” mantra.
On the back side of the mountain past the Bear Divide parking lot, Little Tujunga’s name changes to Sand Canyon and we work the brakes harder. The GTI shares its rotors and single-piston calipers with its predecessor, but VW tuned the new electrically powered brake booster to maintain a firm pedal—something the old car struggled with. Stops from 70 mph take a sports-car-like 151 feet, and given the brakes’ lack of fade, we never feared the GTI would lose to the mountain.
The road opens up for the final approach into Santa Clarita and ends, for us, at the In-N-Out Burger just before the 14 freeway. We turn around and head back. We’re hungry not for a Double-Double with cheese and raw onion, but for the happiness that comes from driving a great and willing car over a tough mountain road. We all could use a good laugh right about now.