SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide
When it first appeared, the Volkswagen GTI created a new automotive category. Called "pocket rockets" or "hot hatches", the GTI and its imitators were the antidote for the ubiquitous, utilitarian, economical, slow, and boring economy hatchbacks of the time. Although the category remains popular in Europe, hatchbacks of any sort are rare in the U.S., with the VW Golf one of the few remaining.
The latest generation of Golf hatchbacks was introduced in the States for the 1999 model year. While still easily identified as VWs, they feature slightly sleeker styling and a host of mechanical improvements. Four-door models have the "Golf" name, and a choice of four-cylinder 115-hp, 2.0-liter gasoline and 90-hp,1.9-liter turbodiesel engines. "GTI" graces the two-door variation, with the 2.0-liter four or VW's innovative 2.8-liter narrow-angle VR6 V6 engine the current engine choices. This Spring, the naturally-aspirated two-liter GTI engine will be replaced by the 150-horse 1.8-liter powerplant also used in the Turbo Beetle.
The 174-hp VR6-powered GLX is the undisputed top of the GTI line. The original bad boy has grown up since its introduction, with leather upholstery, real wood trim, and 6-level seat heaters among its standard equipment. Its suspension is tuned for comfort as much as for speed, and the VR6 engine has been refined over the years, with much-improved low- rpm torque characteristics. And, for the 2000 model year, GTI GLX models have a new Monsoon audio system, all-speed traction control, improvements to anti-theft security, and child seat tethers. The GTI GLX is now one of the most luxurious cars in the sport-compact class. If it sounds like it has gotten soft in its old age, don't be fooled. As I discovered during a recent week, it still has plenty of hot-hatch attitude and performance, it's just added comfort to its repertoire. Pocket luxury rocket, anyone?
APPEARANCE: The Golf/GTI is a utilitarian two-box hatchback at heart, with wheels placed toward the corners of the car, short overhangs, and a near-vertical rear hatch maximizing space utilization. But the little VW still has its own style. Thinner roof pillars give it a leaner look than the previous version, and a more-sloping hood line adds sporty rakishness. The front light treatment is the car's most interesting aspect. On each side, the headlights, foglamps, and turn signals are all placed behind a clear polycarbonate cover. Not only does this protect them from damage, it gives the GTI and Golf a unique, high-tech look. The standard Volkswagen "trolley pole" antenna adds a bit of whimsy, making the car look like a large radio-controlled model.
COMFORT: You don't like hatchbacks? OK, then try to get a 17-inch computer monitor box into the trunk of a sedan. Oops.... And, although some fastback hatchback coupes may hold that heavy box, the liftover can be back-annoyingly high. No problem in the GTI, or any other Golf. A low liftover, large opening, and plenty of room inside are reminders of the good characteristics of the hatchback design. And the rear seat not only is split 60/40 to fold down, but its cushions flip up SUV-style for a flat cargo area. One reason that hatchbacks lost favor in the US is that many were low- budget, uncomfortable econoboxes. Not the Golf. Even the entry-level GL models are comfortably-appointed, quiet, and solidly-constructed. With its high equipment level, and leather and wood trim, the GTI GLX is closer to its upscale Audi cousins than to an old Beetle. Its supportive front bucket seats have height-adjustable cushions. The steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach, so an optimum position is available to all drivers. Instruments and controls are placed well. Seemingly minor details improve life with the GTI - a visor above the rearview mirror can keep the sun out of the driver's eyes at critical times. The rear seat is roomy enough for medium-sized people for moderate distances, and, as mentioned, converts to cargo storage quickly and easily. Need comfort and versatility to go with fun? Look no further.
SAFETY: The GTI's rigid unibody structure includes front and rear crumple zones. All outboard seating positions have three-point harnesses. Dual front and front side airbags, antilock brakes, and all-speed traction control are standard.
ROADABILITY: In the true hot-hatch manner, the GTI has sports-car handling and road manners to go with its utilitarian functionality. But it has matured. Its MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear suspension is not race-replica harsh but comfortably compliant, with plenty of travel for soaking up bumps and chuckholes. Hard cornering produces plenty of body roll, but the GTI stays planted. It's every bit as much fun as any GTI has ever been, it's just more civilized.
PERFORMANCE: Volkswagen may be German, but it has taken the classic American hot-rod philosophy for performance to heart with the GTI VR6: there's no substitute for cubic inches. The 2.8-liter engine is the largest in the import sports coupe class, and so has torque (181 lb-ft worth) to go with its 174 horsepower. The compact, narrow vee-angle VR6 has been refined over the years, and now has excellent midrange power. Unlike some of its competitors, the GTI VR6 doesn't need to be run near its redline for the best performance. It's quick, but quick in a relaxed, civilized manner. Fittingly, the only transmission offered is a slick, smooth five- speed manual. Clutch action is light, and shifting is rarely necessary due to the engine's wide power band.
CONCLUSIONS: The original hot hatch has matured. But don't worry, this just means that the VW GTI adds comfort to its performance-fun abilities.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 22,620 Price As Tested $ 23,245 Engine Type 15-degree V6, single overhead cam per bank, 12 valves Engine Size 2.8 liters / 170 cu. in. Horsepower 174 @ 5800 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 181 @ 3200 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 98.9 in. / 163.3 in. Curb Weight 2,930 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.8 Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium (92 octane) recommended for best performance Tires P205/55 HR16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 28 / 22 0 to 60 mph 6.9 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 15.4 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.31 OPTIONS AND CHARGES CA/NY/etc emissions requirements $ 100 Destination charge $ 525