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5th-generation GTI hustles VW back into hot-hatch forefront
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

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 automotive world.

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.

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 old days.

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 ceremonies.

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 current gear.

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 complements.

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."

None 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 elsewhere.

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 this."

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 cars@jwgilbert.com.