Playing with my Volkswagen

Ok, so call me superficial. I decided to buy a new car two years ago. At this point in my life I decided to finally get that ‘fun’ car that I always wanted: the quintessential ‘hot hatch’. I bought a 2011 VW GTI.

Since it’s a hatch that comfortably seats 5 and had folding rear seats and handles very well in the winter, it is also a practical car. It even gets good gas mileage for the performance it puts out. I’ve gotten two foldable kayaks and all relevant gear in it and can easily get three good sized hockey bags in the back.

So that was my starting point.

For some reason (mid life crisis or simply leaving children and therefore I can indulge myself) I got into this car and its possible modifications in a way I have never done with a car before.

And, being progressive, it is of course politically incorrect to be into cars. That might have been one of its appeals.

First mod? A tune. A chip. A reflash. These are all the terms used for after market reprogramming of the ECU (electronic control module–the brains of the car) for more power. Most cars, and VWs are known for this, are over engineered. That is to say, they can safely (up to a point) deliver more power without negatively impacting durability of components than the factory tunes them for. That means if you take care of your car then you can safely squeeze out more performance.

There are several companies that do this for VWs and the VW turbo engine (2.0l TSI) is particularly adaptable. I decided to go with the most popular North American tuner, APR, based in Alabama U.S.A. There is a Canadian company, Unitronic, a European, Revo and GIAC (? country of origin). They all deliver similar results but APR seems to have a very good reputation for customer service as well as a good dealer here in Toronto. So I went with them.

By the way, tuning the car actually increases efficiency and so increases km/l a bit.

Because VW doesn’t approve of this, the tuner must bypass the ECU encryption by removing the ECU and bench flashing it. There is a slight risk involved in doing this and so you must choose your tuner carefully and make sure they re-seal the ECU when it is replaced under the hood. Failure to do so has resulted in destroyed ECUs at a cost of just under $2000.

I chipped mine 18 months ago and am quite happy so far.

Chipping it increases horsepower by about 10 to 15% but increases torque by about 20%. It is noticeable when you step on the gas. It’s all very controllable, though. You just have to know how to drive.

So now I have a more performance oriented engine which will do 0-100 in about 6 seconds. As important, however, is that the stock suspension on these cars is great and cornering and on-ramps are a hoot.

A word of warning: if something goes wrong with the engine and VW determines it was the fault of a chipped ECU, they can deny repairs under warranty.

Applying power is nothing without control. I know I should have dedicated summer and winter tires but I decided to change over the stock (and pretty crappy) tires to Continental Extreme DWS (size: 225/45/17). These tires have a bit of a soft sidewall so aggressive cornering can feel a bit squishy. Personally I find them just fine but others have complained.

What is amazing about these tires is their grip on dry put particularly in the wet and slush. These tires are truly great in the rain and I feel a real added safety factor in wet weather. They have also been very good in the past two winters. I know last winter had very little snow but I was pretty impressed by their performance.

The DWS stands for Dry, Wet, Snow. As the tires wear and lose tread depth the S, then the W on the tires are worn down and disappear. That’s how you know what to expect from them. Two years into them I think I still have about another year on the S. In other words I should be good through this winter.

Next year we will see but I would buy these tires again.

I should note that I kept the 17″ wheels (most GTIs I see have upgraded 18″ wheels). The 17 s have better road feel (more comfortable as compared to lower profile tires), are cheaper to replace the rubber on and, since they are lighter in weight by at least 5 pounds (less inertial mass) they perform better in the corners. They also have better winter traction. I don’t know why people insist on getting the 18″ wheels. Looks, I guess.

So now I have the power and the contact with the road. Next I got a short shifter. The Audi TT has a short throw shifter that is an OEM direct replacement for the one that comes stock on the GTI. It is under $100 to purchase and instal. The difference isn’t huge but it makes the manual transmission just that bit nicer.

By the way, the DSG automatic transmission on the GTI is very nice. I’m just a ‘row the boat’ kind of guy.

These three mods are my main performance changes. I’ve done a couple of cute cosmetic things. I bought some decals to go over the dummy buttons that all cars have. The eject button on my console is my favourite.

I changed all the light bulbs in the interior of the car to LEDs. They are much brighter and much whiter. For $25 I really like the ambience that much better. I went with SuperbrightLEDs superwhite 5000.

To enhance level cornering and stiffen the body a bit I installed a Unibrace UB body brace underneath the car. As well, to prevent wheel hop and tighten up shifting through the gears I installed a modified polyurethane lower engine mount (cost all of $10 and makes quite a difference). Shifting gears is now a tighter more precise experience.

I’ve done a couple of minor cosmetic stuff I won’t bother mentioning for now.

Last week I disconnected the Soundaktor–a device under the hood that responds to the ECU to essentially pipe noise into the passenger cabin. They have so well insulated the passenger cabin that people can’t hear the growl of the engine, thereby detracting from the performance experience of driving the car. A number of high end cars do this.

I decided to see what the car sounds like with it disconnected. It’s not hard to do. You have to remove a rubber gasket under the hood, lift up the rain tray and reach under the windshield and disconnect. I am pondering this one.

The car is definitely quieter. On the highway it’s very nice. Around the city I kind of miss the growl that makes me feel I’m sitting on a more powerful power plan than I actually am. I may reconnect it in the future but for now it will stay disconnected.

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