Preview Drive: 2006 Volkswagen GTI

VW's "pocket rocket" is back, with 200-horsepower turbo

2006 Volkswagen GTI

by James M. Flammang

SAN DIEGO - More than two decades ago, in 1983, Volkswagen kicked off what would become known as the "hot hatch" revolution with its GTI hatchback coupe. A performance-tuned offshoot of the tamer Golf model, the GTI gave Volkswagen an alluring image among the highly-coveted young-male buyers.

This June, Volkswagen's fifth-generation Golf series will debut. Long before that, in February, the latest GTI began to reach dealerships, with a new 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine leading the charge.

"Back in 1983," said sales director Dave Wicks, "we weren't shy about being different. And proud of it." For its latest GTI, Volkswagen took the first-generation model as a benchmark. This Mark V edition "strikes at the heart and soul of the brand," Wicks said, and with a $21,990 base price (plus $615 destination charge) it also delivers "real value for money."

The 2006 GTI is "all about performance and VW styling," said Wicks. Simply put, it's a "turbo 200-horsepower, high-torque wolf in sheep's clothing." Wicks describes the GTI as a "pure and authentic German-engineered sporty car that is affordable." Volkswagen claims it's targeting the German-built GTI at 18- to 45-year-old males, but the likeliest prospects should be younger.

In 1983, the first GTI "jumpstarted the hot hatch culture in the United States," said product planner Paul Spevetz. The 2006 model was "designed from the start as a modern interpretation of the original." All technologies "are designed to extract maximum fun from the road," resulting in "connectivity between driver, car, and road."

Again based on the two-door Golf hatchback design, the GTI features "signature" red striping surrounding its black honeycomb-pattern grille. Blue-tinted glass is installed, and bi-xenon headlamps include washers. Brake calipers are painted red. Standard tires are 17-inch size, but 18-inch BBS wheels are optional. Five colors are available, including Tornado Red, highlighted by genuine aluminum trim.

Standard plaid upholstery is similar to the original GTI. Sport leather seats are available (heated with partial power assist and four-way lumbar support).

Turbocharging helps deliver strong performance

Inside, either a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission or a Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) works with the 200-horsepower turbocharged engine. The DSG unit consists of two gearboxes with two clutches. Gear changes take a brisk 0.2 second, and the driver's hands never leave the three-spoke perforated leather steering wheel, which contains twin shift buttons.

Turbocharging lets the 2.0-liter FSI 16-valve four-cylinder engine develop 200 horsepower at 5,100 to 6,100 rpm. Torque output peaks at 207 pound-feet, as low as 1,800 rpm. With the Direct Shift Gearbox, a GTI can accelerate to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, according to Volkswagen.

Judging by EPA estimates, Volkswagen has managed to eke out impressive gas mileage from the GTI: 23-mpg city and 32-mpg highway with the standard six-speed manual shift, or 25/31 mpg with the Direct Shift unit.

Antilock braking, traction control, and an Electronic Stability Program are standard. Front side-impact airbags and curtain-type airbags also are installed. When it joins later, the four-door may also be equipped with optional rear side airbags.

Option package 1 includes a sunroof and satellite radio. For $3,160, Package 2 adds sport leather seats, Climatronic, and heated washer nozzles. Separate options include 18-inch wheels, the Direct Shift Gearbox, and a navigation system.

Into the California mountains, fun is hard to avoid behind the GTI's wheel

Even if you're not searching for driving excitement, you get it in the GTI. And even if you're well past the target age group, you almost feel like you belong there, at least for the moment. In that sense, Volkswagen has succeeded mightily.

Plenty of automakers claim that their sporty cars grip the road as if cemented there (or various words to that effect). Well, the GTI really does tackle (and conquer) twisty roads at ample speed, as if it's glued to the pavement. Seductive and hard to resist, it induces the driver to whip through turns at higher velocities than planned. At higher speeds on straightaways, the speedometer belies the GTI's actual speed because it steers so precisely and sticks to the surface with such tension.

Although the ride isn't bad on smooth surfaces, this isn't a car for long-distance, comfortable travel - especially with 18-inch tires installed. There's a rather high degree of motion, even if most of the harshness is planed down effectively. On the whole, the GTI always feels tight and somewhat hard. Steering is quick and domineering, with a tight turn radius, too.

Though quick, the GTI is not outlandishly rapid in acceleration. And you don't get a sensation of lightness or nimbleness at all when pushing hard on the pedal; instead, it feels oddly heavy for a small car. Yet, this coupe definitely gets the job done with dispatch. A rich exhaust note rounds out the experience, but it's not overpowering.

Almost grabby in nature, the clutch is more assertive than usual - clearly performance-oriented, though not really taxing to operate. Volkswagen's six-speed gearbox is a minus. Though it shifts easily enough, it's hard to tell which gear you're in, if it's not fifth or sixth. There's no springiness to speak of, to push it back to the middle for third or fourth.

Sport seats are snugly bolstered, but impressively supportive and more than adequately cushioned. Manual seat controls are a long reach, but the big adjustor knob for the seatback angle turns easier than some VWs. Excellent white-on-black gauges are just-right in size.

Front occupants get lots of front head and legroom, plus good elbow space. The rear seat is not so easy to enter, but adequate once there. Ample storage is available in the rear, augmented by a wide, good-size glovebox. Mirrors could be bigger, but no visibility problems are evident.

With the Direct Shift Gearbox, steering-wheel buttons go only one way, and the driver could forget which is up and which is down when turning the wheel fast. when pressed correctly, though, the DSG transmission reacts with amazing haste, compared to most manual gearchange setups. Better yet, the gears change with impressive smoothness; almost indiscernible, in fact. After a time in Sport mode, with no change taking place, it reverts to full automatic, which also responds with appealing smoothness and rapidity.

Without a doubt, Volkswagen needs a winner. As sales director Wicks noted, "2005 was not a great year" for the German company. "And not surprisingly, we were not satisfied with results." Volkswagen's primary goal is "long-term viability for the brand," and marketers hope that the GTI will set that trend into motion.

GTI marketing: Is it energizing or excessive?

Because 2005 sales in the U.S. fell far short of expectations, Volkswagen is pushing hard to pull in those 18- to 25-year-old shoppers. Judging by the company's media presentation here, and by early TV commercials, they just might be edging into risky territory.

Just about every automaker, it seems, has been hammering on performance lately, with commercials that flaunt cars that are snarling toward high velocities, spinning, tossing gravel, and otherwise threatening the nearby populace. Still, Volkswagen has taken this high-performance hype to a new level - fun, yes, but sending some unfortunate messages to impressionable adolescents.
more on GTI marketing...

© All contents copyright 2006 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
Home | New Cars | Used Cars | Comparisons | Newsletter | Consumer | Industry