Launched in mid 1970s in Europe, the Volkswagen GTI made its American debut a few years later and became the original pocket rocket, a nimble, dynamic, compact vehicle that did for imports what muscle cars had done for Detroit a decade earlier.
Using the then brand-new VW Golf as their platform (at first, the Golf was sold as the Rabbit in the United States), a group of Volkswagen engineers, working on their own and without formal corporate approval, hot-rodded the replacement for the original Beetle into an exciting performance car that went into production wearing GTI designation. VW executives hoped to sell as many as 5000 of these sporty hatchbacks; over the next 25 years enthusiastic drivers would buy more than 1.4 million of them.
However, even Volkswagen admits that with ensuing generations it didn't stay as true as it might have to the original spirit of the GTI. So when it came time to launch the all-new and fifth generation of the company's Golf hatchback, one of the engineering team's assignments was to produce a true successor to the original GTI, and in so doing to make it a car that would stand as a counterpoint to the big-winged sport compact cars with their coffee can exhausts and their flamboyant paint jobs.
The 2006 GTI is full of Teutonic subtlety, but it also is fast. Volkswagen is positioning it as being already prepared. No tuning necessary.
The GTI draws its energy from Volkswagen's smaller and lighter 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which has been turbocharged to boost its output to 200 horsepower and to 207 pound-feet of torque, with peak torque holding steady all the way from 1800 to 5000 rpm.
Volkswagen notes that the GTI can rocket from a standing start to 60 miles per hour in just 6.8 seconds, but notes, too, that the car is rated at 23 miles per gallon in town and 32 on the highway with the manual transmission and at 25 and 31, respectively, with the Direct Shift Gearbox, which can be left in a fully automatic mode or can be manually manipulated by racing-style paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel.
We delighted in the car's quick and precise steering. We appreciated the support and design of the Interlagos plaid seating surfaces and the versatility of its hatchback design.
Volkswagen GTI 2-door manual transmission ($21,990); 2-door DSG ($23,065)
This new hot hatch wears the same GTI badge as the original, and it displays it like a well-earned lapel pin against a black, honeycomb grille that features a red accent stripe in the shape of a slightly devilish smile.
The shape of the headlamp covers, which have an almost winking eye form, accentuates this mischievous attitude. Three large, black honeycombed air vents in the lower fascia enhance the strength of the front end, with large fog lamps housed in the outboard intakes.
Viewed in profile, the windshield rakes quickly back over the front of the passenger compartment and the roofline ends with a wind-cheating spoiler above the back window. This view also gains visual strength and a sporty stance from the way the car's waistline rises and the side windows taper above the rear fenders.
Also noticeable in the profile view are the red-colored brake calipers that show through all of the various wheel choices and proclaim that this is an all-around performance car, designed to stop as well as it goes.
Like the profile, the rear view is clean, with large tail lamps mounted high on the car's haunches with twin exhaust tips peaking out from the lower left side of the black bumper.
The rear seat can hold three people, though it's best suited for two, who can get even more comfortable by tipping out the wide armrest that forms the center seatback. Those sitting in the back have both cup holders and storage cubbies for their stuff. There's plenty of rear legroom, at least when someone in, say, the 5-foot-10 range is occupying the front seat.
Access to the back seat is easier because of a feature that VW calls its Easy Entry System. Here's how it works: You tip the front seatback forward until it snaps into a locked position, then you can slide the entire seat forward to open a good-sized path to the back seat. Slide the front seat back and it stops in its original position and the seat back also returns to its former position so the driver or front-seat passenger can climb in without having to make any readjustments. It works well.
The front passenger's seat offers good legroom and easy access to climate and audio controls, though the seat you want in the GTI is the one immediately behind the steering wheel. This is a car for driving enthusiasts and it's best experienced from the driver's seat.
Both front seats are nicely bolstered so you won't slide around while exploring the car's dynamic capabilities. However, this is not a car for everyone. The seats may be too snug for some, and others won't like the black, grey, white and red-striped Interlagos plaid pattern in the seating and back area between the bolsters. GTI faithful will love these seats, however, and consider the Interlagos plaid an iconic part of the original GTI. Those who really don't like it can always opt for the black leather seats with the small GTI emblem stitched into the upper part of the seat back.
Drivers will like the way the three-spoke, leather-covered and flat-bottomed (like a racecar) steering wheel both tilts and telescopes to enhance steering control and comfort. The alloy pedals with rubber grips are nicely placed for heel-and-toe shifting, and there's a large dead pedal for your left foot when it isn't depressing the clutch pedal.
The steering wheel includes audio and trip computer control buttons. On cars with the DSG transmission, racecar-style paddle shifters are on the steering wheel right at your fingertips.
The instrument panel (which is not shared with the new Golf) features VW's blue-lit gauges with red indicator arrows as well as trip computer to track miles to empty or to display redundant navigation system instructions within the driver's line of sight. The gauge cluster is very readable, even in bright sunlight when the driver is wearing Polarized sunglasses.
Not only are the seats height-adjustable, but so is the arm rest on the center console, so you can put it high for comfortable cruising or lower it so it won't interfere when you get aggressive with the six-speed manual shifter. Cup holders also are positioned on the center console so they don't interfere with gear changing. And when the driver gets really aggressive, there's a grab handle on the center console so the front-seat passenger can hold on.
The high-compression, 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine is very responsive. Especially impressive is its torque curve, which is much more of a broad plateau than anything with peaks and valleys. Maximum torque is available all the way from a mere 1800 rpm up to 5000, so you can putter comfortably around town in fourth or even fifth gear without having to overwork your right arm searching for the engine's sweet spot as you maneuver in city traffic. While the car operates on regular unleaded, premium fuel is recommended to achieve maximum power levels.
The engine is comfortable and the GTI's interior is surprisingly quiet at highway speeds. When you want to downshift for curves on mountain roads or to make a pass on a two-lane in the country, the clutch has a very light and easy pickup, the shifter has short and sure throws and the engine spins into gear immediately. On winding roads, we preferred the six-speed manual, which allowed us to feel truly connected to the car and to the road.
Even faster than manual manipulation, however, is the DSG, a manual gearbox with two clutches and an ability to shift at the speed not of your right hand but of electronics. We've driven the DSG in other VW Group vehicles, and it is a marvelous device, especially if you have a commute heavy with stop-and-inch-and stop-and-inch traffic.
The steering is quick and precise and the suspension is responsiveness. The GTI benefits from MacPherson struts in front and a four-link suspension in the rear. We found the response of even the all-season Continental tires to be up to enthusiast standards, though we think that serious enthusiasts will want to consider the larger 18-inch wheels and high-performance summer tires. Its 35.8-foot turning circle makes the GTI maneuverable in tight quarters.
Grasped by those red calipers, 12.28-inch ventilated front and 11.26-inch solid rear discs stop the GTI quickly and surely. The front brakes are an inch larger and the rears two inches larger than on the fourth-generation GTI. ABS comes standard, helping the driver maintiain steering control while braking. Brake Assist helps the driver maintain full braking pressure in an emergency stopping situation. Electronic brake-force distribution balances braking front to rear for quicker, more stable braking.
Even though nearly 60 percent of the car's 3308 pounds is supported by the front wheels, the GTI does not exhibit the tendency to understeer so prevalent in most front-wheel-drive cars. To help the driver keep the car on course, the GTI comes with electronic stability control as well as traction control.
Volkswagen's new GTI is neither the least expensive nor showiest styled vehicle in its category. Nonetheless, this new GTI offers more horsepower and considerably more torque than either the Honda Civic Si or Mini Cooper S. The GTI also offers either its short-throw six-speed manual or the state-of-the-art DSG transmission with speed-of-electrons shifting via paddles mounted on the steering wheels. With its subtly Teutonic styling, the GTI may not look like a performance car. But those inside will have no doubt about its dynamic capabilities. They also will enjoy the room and comfort and cargo capacity of its versatile interior. They may even come to like that Interlagos plaid.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Larry Edsall filed this report from San Diego, California.