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2006 VW Golf GTI MK-V Review

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The Original Pocket Rocket - All Grown Up Just Like Me

By Steve Purdy Detroit Bureau

The year was 1983. I was a young man. Well, relatively young anyway. The Volkswagen Rabbit was becoming as popular as its antecedent Beetle and being copied by everyone. Unlike the quirky Beetle the Rabbit was modern in its interpretation of a practical, efficient and forward-looking economy car. It differed from all the American economy cars of its time in terms of wonderful handling and sturdy German engineering. With a transverse in-line four-cylinder engine and front wheel drive the little square Rabbit led the way into a generation of automobiles of all sizes using that new configuration. There was even a diesel Rabbit that was so slow it couldn’t get out of its own way but so efficient that nothing on the streets could get more miles from a gallon of fuel. Mine got over 40 mpg.

Then in 1983, seemingly out of nowhere, VW introduced the GTI – a Rabbit with enough horsepower to leave everything else in its wake, handling tweaks to make the already nimble little car even more so, and just enough sexy trim so anyone who knew anything about cars knew that it was cool. It was the first “Pocket Rocket.”

My second-generation GTI was one of the last cars out of the ill-fated Pennsylvania VW plant. To be gracious let me just say it had some issues. Certainly the drive train and suspension were great. It was a hoot to drive and looked like a Teutonic hot shot. But the windshield and sunroof leaked; the hatch straps broke; the radio was temperamental . . .I could go on and on. Lets just say the quality was not up to VW standards. My nephew, on the other hand, was driving an original 83 GTI at the time and, while he spent a great deal of time under the hood, it served him well in spite of his tendency to flip it up on its side occasionally.

Over the intervening years VW redefined the GTI again and again. Sometimes making it too expensive for entry-level customers, sometimes making compromises in power and features to make it more affordable. There was even a short time without a GTI at all. As with any successful product copies came quickly. One of the best was the GLH (Goes Like Hell) Turbo by Dodge that not only looked like the original GTI but was so fast it nearly became air born on full acceleration. Then came the Japanese who massaged their little cars into performance champs and soon the market was rife with pocket rockets, or hot hatches, or whatever we’d like to call them.

Well, now here is the new fifth generation GTI – not as fast as some, a bit pricier than those that came before, but all grown up and with all the stuff it needs. If you read the GTI article posted here on TheAutoChannel last week in the Automotive News section you have the VW company line. That article was generated by the VW PR folks and was complete and accurate, though a tad flowery. I’ll provide my impressions of the car here and try not to be as effusive. But be forewarned, I like the GTI a lot.

The GTI has been available in Europe for over a year and the long lead scribes have already posted their impressions. You may have seen articles in the major magazines in the past month. We short lead guys got our hands on the little beast last week in San Diego where a couple of well thought out loops through the foot hills northeast of town provided a chance to test GTI’s competence.

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First we spent some time with VW executives and engineers in the classroom talking about the mechanical details and previewing the marketing plan, including some ads that are going to knock your socks off. More on that later. As we exited the classroom the test cars were lined up at the curb LeMans style. I was immediately drawn to the Tornado Red one. My codriver suggested that the red one might be too likely to attract the attention of local law enforcement professionals who are not likely to be sympathetic with our need to thoroughly explore the GTI’s capabilities. So we grabbed the United Gray one.

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The GTI is a Golf two-door hatchback (a four-door GTI is coming later this year) distinguished visually by low-profile tires on 17-inch - or optional 18-inch wheels - red brake calipers, rear spoiler, black valences along the lower edge of the car, dual chrome exhaust tips, and a distinctive front treatment with shinny black chin and red stripe surrounding the black mesh grill. Bold angular evil-eye headlight housings are chip resistant and house high intensity gas discharge headlamps (Xenon) and a washer system. Halogen fog lights are integrated into the lower bumper. Small GTI badges front and rear serve to verify its identity. The sporty stance and styling is distinctively VW and its connection with the past GTI is apparent.

Slipping through San Diego traffic on the way to the foothills we’re impressed with the look and feel of the GTI on the inside. We’re luxuriating in firm leather seats with adequate, but not harsh, bolsters. The leather is optional. Standard is a neat red, white, black and gray plaid “heritage” fabric. Metal trim on the dash, gauges, shifter, steering wheel, knobs and pedals punctuate the black non-glare surfaces. Nothing inside looks cheap or tawdry. On the contrary, the interior details confirm the up-market aspirations of the VW brand. It’s beginning to be difficult to distinguish the premium Audi products from those of VW.

Onto the freeway it’s obvious that the power train is up to the responsibility of being a GTI. The 2.0-litre four, mounted transversely in front and driving the front wheels, generates 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque enhanced by a turbocharger and intercooler. Four valves per cylinder and dual belt-driven overhead cams are conventionally managed without the variable valve timing systems so pervasive with the Japanese power plants. Red line on the tachometer indicates 6500 rpm but we exceeded it twice before the rev limiter kicked in. Once we were at 6800 and once at 7000. I think there are some shenanigans programmed into the electronic engine management that allows a few extra rpms for those pushing the limits. Even at maximum rpms this engine is smooth, quiet and willing, making it a distinct pleasure keeping the revs up.

The 10.3:1 compression ratio makes premium the fuel of choice but regular octane will not hurt, just reduce the fuel mileage and performance a bit. The fuel tank holds 14.5 gallons and EPA estimates are 23 city/32 highway for the stick and 25/31 for the automatic. Cruising range will be 350 to 400 miles depending on conditions and how exuberantly one drives.

Two transmissions are available. The standard six-speed manual and a wonderful six-speed automatic called DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) with Tiptronic and Sport mode. The manual transmission is cable actuated, tight and precise. Gear ratios are nearly identical with the manual or automatic. The DSG is a marvel of mechanical design and works slicker than black ice. With two clutches it is essentially two gearboxes. The DSG preselects the gear on either side of the gear we’re in and when we tell it to shift, or we let it make the decision for us, it shifts decisively in two-tenths of a second. We first experienced this transmission on the GLI last summer and the novelty hasn’t worn off. We can manage the DSG either with the console-mounted shifter or use the racing-style paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel. Waaay cool!

We had two circular routes on some great roads to test the GTI with sections akin to an autocross course where we could just stick it in second gear and dodge, swerve and sway through the twisties. VW bills this new Golf chassis as being considerably stiffer than its predecessor. I certainly wouldn’t question that. It felt extremely competent both switching direction quickly and jouncing over harsh bumps. Both front and rear suspensions are fully independent. McPherson struts in front with lower wishbone and a tubular anti-roll bar and a four-link design in the rear with separate spring and shock arrangement including a tubular anti-roll bar there as well. Steering is through an electro-mechanical power rack-and-pinion system that manages to give good – not excellent - feedback to the driver. Pushing hard through the twisties we got it to slide just a bit. Control and predictability are first rate.

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Stopping the GTI are power assisted vented front discs with solid discs in the rear. ABS, Electronic Brake-pressure Distribution and Hydraulic Brake Assistant systems are standard.

The basic GTI with a premium 10-speaker AM/FM radio sound system (compatible with MP3 and satellite radio) with in-dash 6-disc CD changer, heritage cloth seats and 6-speed manual transmission begins at $21,990. Dressed up with all the options, including navigation, sunroof, satellite radio, heated leather seats, dual climate control, 18-inch wheels and rubber floor mats you might get the sticker up to around $28,000.

Warranty is 4 years/50,000 miles.

On our way back to town we were stop light dicing (not racing really) with a young man in a Neon SRT-4. He already knew a lot about the GTI but was intrigued by its looks and ability to nearly keep up with him. Perhaps the new GTI will appeal to these youngsters as much as it will to those of us who remember the original. We’ll see.

Now, I promised a word or two about the new GTI ads you’re about to see. They take place in an airport hanger and involve Wolfgang the German engineer, and his assistant Helga, a tough-looking Teutonic Amazon in white boots with a knot of white hair accentuating her scowl. Each of the three ads features an exaggerated Japanese tuner car with huge wing, gaudy paint and fat tires accompanied by its equally stylized owner. The arrogant Wolfgang is bantering with the tuner car guy in heavily German-accented street talk, dissing the tuner cars, just as something dramatic happens to each car. I’ll not spoil the surprise but just know one involves a huge wrecking ball, another features a massive steel shipping container and the third – and best – involves a 30-foot tall catapult. Watch for them on MTV and some of the other youngster-oriented cable networks. I saw one on network TV last evening.

You probably noticed the GTI ads during the Olympics the past couple of weeks featuring the young man getting into trouble with his young lady and the police because of his need for going fast. In fact the whole thrust of the campaign is about getting in touch with the “fast” that is in most of us. You may recall the little black softball-sized evil-eyed creature in the car. He has a red smile matching the red trim of the GTI grill and he represents the fast in all of us. Every buyer of a new GTI will find one of these creatures in the mail a few days after delivery of the car.

If you are as old as I (or as young) you’ll recall the remarkably creative advertising in the early days of VW here in the US. When asked by one of the skeptical journalists last week about the wisdom of glorifying such irresponsible behavior as going fast, Volkswagen of America director of brand innovation Karri Martin seemed a bit taken aback as if such a concern had not entered the discussion. “Just having some fun,” she explained.

And that, dear readers, is what the GTI is all about…just having some fun.