5th-generation GTI hustles VW back
into hot-hatch forefront
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (SNS) –
For those who remember the glory days of the GTI, Volkswagen’s new
"Mk. V" – to designate the fifth generation of the quick, compact
hatchback – signals a return to VW’s most impressive venture into hot
performance on a budget.
The details are impressive, because the new GTI uses
the company’s impressive new 2.0-liter dierect-injectiuon
four-cylinder, which is one of my favorite engines in the entire
It comes with a low-pressure turbocharger, and is
shared with the Audi A4 and A3, where I got 32 miles per gallon with
It is also shared with the new Jetta, which, in
reality, means there is one platform for the Jetta and Golf, so the
Jetta is basically a four-door Golf with a trunk – just like in the
Also just like the old days is that the GTI is the hottest version of
the Golf, and it has a sister ship in the GLI, which is the hottest
performer in the Jetta line. It is interesting that Volkswagen has
carefully introduced the Jetta, the GLI, and the GTI in separate
Consider that the Honda Civic was introduced all at once, and it
became the overwhelming choice of auto writers as the 2006 North
American Car of the Year, primarily because it includes a great
four-door sedan, a trick, high-mileage Civic Hybrid, and a couple with
a sizzling Si sports version. It was a lot to digest at one function,
but it contributed to winning the award.
If VW had used that strategy, we might have been
introduced all at once to the Jetta as the four-door model, the Jetta
TDi turbodiesel as the super-high-mileage model, and the GTI and Golf
as the two-door hatch and hot-performer.
Nobody’s complaining, though, because having a full day to appreciate
everything the new GTI can do was impressive and satisfying. The car
is tight, rock-solid in handling because of its new independent rear
suspension setup and razor-sharp electro-mechanical steering.
Plus, there’s that engine, which turns out 200
horsepower from 5,100 to 6,000 RPMs, and 207 foot-pounds of torque
from 1,800-5,000 revs.
VW claims 0-60 times of 6.8
seconds, and it is electronically limited to 130 mph top speed.
The continuously-variable intake and exhaust valves
on the transverse-mounted four-cylinder is operated by either a
six-speed manual or an automatic, which also is a six-speed DSG
unit with switches on the steering wheel – click the right switch
to upshift and the left switch to downshift.
The automatic has a two-clutch arrangement, which,
as you rev, already has engaged the next gear, so when you hit the
switch, you get instantaneous upshifts as it disengages from the
At $21,995, the GTI flashes back into a more receptive world that
seems to enjoy strong performance on a budget, with all the safety
structure (15 percent stiffer dynamically, and up 35 percent in
torsion rigidity) plus front, front-side, and head-curtain airbag
It drives, handles and performs like a sports car
costing far more, and two adults can sit in the back seat, with
surprising storage space under the hatch.
The isolation of the GTI introduction is being accompanied by an
advertising campaign that is certain to stir up some controversy. The
object of the campaign, kicked off on telecasts of the Winter
Olympics, is something called a "Fast" – as in: "Make friends with
your Fast" -- because it implies an attempt to encourage those
hooligans who might drive aggressively to be out there zipping around
and even screeching the tires now and then.
More people will be startled to see Helga, a very German blonde woman,
enticing folks – presumably young men, or at least men of youthful
spirit – to hustle on down to a dragstrip and blow the doors off the
winged Japanese-based tuner car alongside it.
And still more might take offense at Wolfgang, a
very German man who ridicules other tuner "Whatchamacallits" by
suggesting they should "unpimp their auto," and, at the touch of a
button, demolishes their overdone tuner cars with a wrecking ball,
squashes them flat with a huge weight dropped from the ceiling, or
flings them to early destruction with a giant catapult – replacing
them with shiny new GTIs as their worthy replacement.
Even some of the automotive journalists
attending the introduction of the new GTI expressed dismay over
the campaign, as if we should all keep it secret that some people
truly like and want strong-performing, good-handling, high-tech,
but rock-solid cars.
In one upcoming tv commercial, a young man
orders a pizza, and when the shop says, "Pick-up, or delivery?"
the guy looks out at a monsoon-like rainstorm, and hesitates. The
next frame shows him jumping into his new GTI, turning on the
lights, and roaring away, while a voice says: "My Fast thinks
‘delivery’ is for the weak."
of that bothered me.
But then, I’ve always put a premium on the
"fun-to-drive" category of car-buying and car-driving. Anyone who
would be offended by the racy ads is not in the market for a GTI,
while those who are either too young to remember the car’s heritage,
or are aware of it but might be unaware that the new GTI has
recaptured that competence, will enjoy the ads and will find their
interest rekindled in a very impressive car.
To me, there are all kinds of cars, some better than others, some more
reliable than others, but if all things are equal, the car that is a
hoot to drive around a cloverleaf, or to turn rush-hour gridlock into
a satisfying stretch of time with an enjoyable ride, I’m all for it.
It doesn’t mean you have to speed or break the law.
All it means is that Kerri Martin, who was hired last spring to come
up with a provocative campaign for the car, hit her target broadside.
Her purpose was to reinvigorate the image of the GTI as the original
"pocket rocket," and of Volkswagen as a brand, in general.
"Íf the Beetle is the heart of Volkswagen," said Ms.
Martin, "then the GTI is the soul of Volkswagen."
She explained that the weird little gremlin-like "Fast" souvenir,
which every GTI buyer will receive shortly after they’ve taken
delivery, is an emblem of the GTI, which requires "one heavy foot, and
10 white knuckles." She said that the new GTI can rekindle the
interest of those of us who remember the first GTI as a simple,
functional but excessively fun-to-drive hatchback, and that VW also
wants to attract the tuner culture, which has been seeking out
inexpensive sports coupes, mostly Japanese, and loading them up with
performance chips, trick suspensions, exhausts, wings, wheels,
paint-jobs, and audio systems.
Volkswagen first gained fame with the original Beetle, then the
Rabbit, which was a departure from rear-wheel-drive air-cooled to
front-wheel-drive hatchback. The Golf followed. The first GTI,
Volkswagen says, came to the U.S. in 1983.
I thought it was before that,
because I believed the GTI was the car that started the
"pocket-rocket" trend of the early 1980s. However, I owned a 1979
Dodge Colt hatchback, made by Mitsubishi, which had a two-range
gearbox with its four-speed stick, meaning you could shift eight
times if you were quick enough, or had three hands.
But that little bumblebee-yellow-and-black Colt’s
1,600-cc. engine could screech the tires in the first three gears and
still deliver 42 miles per gallon in town. That car remains the reason
I’m cynical when new subcompacts come out "boasting" of great fuel
economy that falls shy of 30.
My first trip to Germany was in 1989, and I drove an Audi quattro
coupe on the autobahn, with no speed limit, flat-out at 210 kilometers
per hour on the speedometer -- 135 miles per hour in our terms. At
that speed, moving up swiftly to pass you would be big BMWs, Mercedes
sedans…and every once in awhile a Volkswagen Golf GTI with a 16-valve
four-cylinder engine. I was impressed.
Years later, VW committed a grievous blunder. The company decided to
make a cosmetic version of the GTI -- a "base" version GTI that only
seat and trim upgrades to give the illusion it was special. The price
was kept low that way, but the resale plummeted on all GTIs, and
Volkswagen’s reputation nosedived along with it.
The GTI regained its capabilities, if not its stature, in recent
years, going to a stronger V6 engine and other upgrades. But the tuner
crowd, particularly favoring very good Japanese coupes, has gone
That's why I applaud VW’s marketing effort. The new car is all-new,
and it is outstanding. Sharing a drive through the mountains east of
San Diego, my co-driver and I put both the stick and automatic through
their paces with some degree of aggressiveness.
I love stick-shift cars, and in almost every case a
stick is preferable to any automatic for performance driving. In the
GTI, however, I had to concede that the DSG automatic, switched into
sport-mode, and controlled by the little paddles on the steering
wheel, was quicker-shifting that the stick.
At one point, I zapped around two or three tight curves with amazing
precision, and came up behind a slower moving vehicle. It took a
couple more miles before we came to a stretch of dotted line rather
than the prevailing double-solid-yellow non-passing lines.
Now, I never advocate illegal speeding, but when I
pull out to pass, I believe the quicker you can pass, the less time
and less hazard you are in the oncoming lane. So I downshifted and hit
the throttle. Smoothly and swiftly, we pulled out, swept past the
other car, and eased back into our lane.
With no tight turn ahead, I glanced at the speedometer, and as I
glanced back up, I realized there were three digits on the left of the
needle. I did a double-take, and, to both of our amazement, the needle
was pointing at 120! It was exhilarating, and it also was unintended,
but it was so smooth and easy we both thought I was somewhere between
80 and 100.
The things we do in the name of comprehensive evaluation.
Later, I spoke to Kerri Martin again about the ad campaign. "We take
safety very seriously" she said. "We’re just having some fun with
With EPA fuel economy estimates of 23 city/32 highway with the stick,
and 25 city/31 highway with the direct-shift gearbox automatic, the
GTI is set off – same as the GLI among Jettas – by a red underline on
the grille. A mysterious "Dr. Keller" points out in another ad, that
if you see that red grille stripe in your mirror, it means, "Schnell!
Move over, dumbkopf – you’re going too slow!"
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.