Overwhelming. That was our first reaction as we began the task of choosing the best new car for our annual Yahoo Autos Car of the Year. The previous winners — the Tesla Model S in 2013, and the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray in 2014 — had been drawn from a tight pack of favorites. The 2015 model year offered dozens of new models, yet not one had emerged as the front-runner by the time we assembled in California last month.
That would hold true as we winnowed our choices down to 17 vehicles and ran them through our most extensive battery of tests to date — with hundreds of miles of driving loops and countless sessions around our autocross course. We set loose at speed, opened and closed everything with a hinge and debated questions from the nature of transportation in the 21st century to seat-fabric stitching to whether 707 hp was too much or just enough.
2015 Yahoo Autos Car of the Year. Photo illustration by Robert Kerian
Yes, our gathering included the whooping Dodge Challenger Hellcat, along with that other high-end piece of Detroit iron, the Chevy Camaro Z28. Ford sent the new Ford Mustang Ecoboost, while the luxury performance world was represented by the Alfa Romeo 4C and BMW M235i. From the more affordable side came the Honda Fit, Subaru WRX and a pair of new midsize sedans, the Hyundai Sonata and Chrysler 200C. For luxury cars, we invited the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Hyundai Genesis, Kia K900, Acura TLX and Maserati Ghibli. Rounding out our class was the Mercedes GLA-Class and the quirky BMW i3 electric car.
When we ran our final poll, none of the editors chose the same top three models — yet only one car landed on most lists and topped a majority, proving itself worthy of our highest endorsement. For 2015, our Yahoo Autos Car of the Year honor belongs to the new Volkswagen Golf GTI.
As we have in years past, the editors at Yahoo Autos weighed five categories when making their choices: Performance, efficiency, value, design and engineering — not just how well individual pieces worked, but how they meshed as a whole. Because we were judging so many different types of vehicles, managing editor Justin Hyde offered what he called the Westminster Kennel Club rule: A car has to be among the best in its breed before it can compete for the top prize.
In that light, the GTI might seem like a dachshund winning Best in Show. The previous generations of the 40-year-old hot hatchback brand have built a fervent but limited fan base in the United States. “A lot of people who were attracted to the GTI over the years would walk away because it was too small, too expensive or too European for them,” said Hyde. “This 2015 edition should make them reconsider.”
Built from VW’s new MQB chassis — an attempt to make a Lego-like kit of parts to underpin almost any size and style of vehicle — the 2015 GTI has grown longer, lower and lighter; about two inches in overall length and wheelbase, about 80 lbs. fewer overall. On the inside, those extra inches have gone into cargo space; the GTI now has 22.8 cu. ft. behind the rear seats, more than our favorite compact car from 2014, the Mazda3.
Outside, the new dimensions and sharper bodywork make the GTI the most attractive model VW sells on these shores. Inside, the cabin and sightlines feel solid and Germanic in the best sense. The interior “brings Audi-level refinement,” said contributing editor Steve Siler. “I wish the styling had evolved a bit more, because no one will be able to tell how much better it is merely by looking.”
Power comes from the traditional 2-liter turbo four, boosted this year to 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, paired with either a six-speed manual or six-speed, dual-clutch automatic with launch control.
But that’s not exactly what we drove. Instead, our tests of a four-door automatic GTI included what VW calls the Performance Pack — a set of upgrades that adds 10 hp, better brakes and a trick new style of limited-slip differential known as VAQ. Like its competitors such as the Ford Focus ST, the regular GTI has software that can lightly blip an individual front brake to even power delivery. The VAQ goes much further; it’s a set of electric clutches and software controls on the front driveshaft that anticipates what wheel needs more power. In the right moment, VAQ can send the engine’s entire grunt to one wheel, and add power when coming out of a turn to nearly eliminate understeer.
No other front-wheel-drive car in the world has this technology, and it’s the key innovation that defines the GTI and set it apart on our custom-built autocross route. You might assume, that, being front-wheel drive, the GTI would have a hard time navigating the tight, twisty course we constructed — the kind that makes such cars stumble into curve-destroying understeer.
Only it didn’t. The GTI managed a 44.9 second lap time in editor/racer Alex Lloyd’s hands, bumper to bumper with that of the Ford Mustang and not too far off the more powerful, rear-wheel-drive BMW M235i. The only hint of understeer came under hard acceleration from tighter turns. Trail-braking into a corner, the hot hatch is lively — the rear end dances on its toes. At corner apex, the slowest part of the turn, there’s a delightful pivot around the front axle that none of us have personally experienced before from a front-wheel drive machine.
The GTI also beat the 707-hp Challenger Hellcat on our autocross, by a decent margin. Admittedly, the big ol’ Hellcat isn’t at home on such a tight course, but it’s an able demonstration of the GTI’s prowess. The GTI’s time was a far cry from the 40.5-second fast lap set by the Camaro Z28, but then the Z28 was built to go fast around a track and little else.
The GTI, however, can ably serve as a Costco-to-schoolhouse shuttle. The rear seat of the GTI was more comfortable than some of the midsize cars we tested. The suspension lets you feel the road but not so much that you tire of driving around rough urban pavement. And, as we’ve seen, it can handle itself on track with more poise and dignity than expensive cars whose handing was their calling card. Did we mention it was faster than a Subaru WRX?
“Out on the streets, it’s composed with excellent road feedback that makes you feel connected,” said road test editor Aki Sugawara, “yet it’s still refined enough to pass as a luxury car.”
When we ran down our five categories, the Golf GTI shined in all of them. As equipped, our GTI was rated at 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway. Sticker price on our full-boat edition was $31,040, but the regular GTI starts around $24,000 for a two-door stick (with the traditional plaid-cloth seats), and the performance pack will list for $1,495 when it becomes available next month.
The GTI “constantly delivers more than you expect,” said Lloyd. “It’s a lovely cruiser, nippy and fun during city driving, and downright magnificent for a front-wheel drive machine on the autocross.” For all those reasons and more, we’re glad to welcome the Volkswagen Golf GTI into our garage of vehicles we’ve deemed worthy of being a Yahoo Autos Car of the Year.
Five other cars impressed us enough to earn their own individual accolades as the best new vehicles in the performance, enthusiast, luxury, value and green categories, and several others came close. Click the tiles below to see what cars prevailed, and which ones left us wanting more.