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2006 Volkswagen GTI Preview

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By Carey Russ (c) 2006

I need a fast. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. And no, I don't mean that I need to stop eating. I just need a fast.

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The GTI FAST mascot

A fast is Volkswagen's mascot for its newest offering, the 2006 GTI. It looks like some sort of prop for a cheap sci-fi movie, a mutant robo-rabbit with glowing red eyes, but it's more snidely humorous than evil. Which is fitting, as the 2006 GTI is a complete makeover of VW's long-running hot hatchback, and a fitting tribute to the original U.S.-market Rabbit GTI of 1983.

Back then, GTI Generation 1 offered a remarkable amount of performance - very nearly that of the big-name German sports sedans - for remarkably less money, wrapped in a utilitarian three-door hatchback body. It started the hot hatch trend in this country. Like the original, the new GTI has attitude galore for a very reasonable price, and the performance to back it up.

Of course, standards have raised in 23 years, so today's GTI is more refined and considerably quicker. Back at the end of the Automotive Dark Ages, the `83 GTI's 90-horsepower 1.8-liter single overhead cam, fuel-injected engine and five-speed gearbox gave it the ability to go from 0 to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds, with a top speed of just over 100 mph. All for around $8,500. Doesn't sound too impressive today? Back then the other performance value was the Porsche 944 - good for a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds, with a top speed in the vicinity of 120 mph, and yours for around $20,000. Quicker? You bet. But not by a performance for the dollar measure.

Yes, times have changed, and for the better. The new GTI, based on the same platform as the Jetta, and the upcoming next-generation Golf, is a three-door hatch like the original. In further nods to heritage, it even has the familiar red pinstriping around its grille, and tartan cloth seats. But the newest GTI is not about nostalgia, it's all about performance.

Power is from VW's 2.0-liter FSI direct fuel injection turbocharged and intercooled, dual overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine, with an even 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. It drives the front wheels through a choice of a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed DSG twin-clutch electronic paddle-shifting automatic manual box. As in all GTIs since the beginning, the front suspension is by MacPherson struts, but the torsion beam axle found in the rear of all previous models has finally been replaced by a fully-independent multilink system. Weight has gone up by around 300 lbs, but chassis is considerably more rigid - up 15 percent in dynamic and 35 percent in torsional rigidity.

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Stylistically, the new GTI is evolutionary, with the most noticeable difference from the previous generation at the front in the form of VW's new-look grille treatment. But rather than the chrome chin trim of the Jetta and Passat, the GTI gets a blackout look that goes well with its red-trimmed matte-black honeycomb grille. A roof spoiler is found at the rear. Standard wheels are 17-inch alloys, with 225/45 WR17 performance tires. Even lower-profile tires on 18-inch rims are available.

Inside, the new GTI is definitely not an exercise in nostalgia. OK, the standard seat cloth is a nod to the past, but the interior design is pure modern Volkswagen, and the car is equipped to a high standard, with power windows, mirrors, and locks with remote locking, single-zone climate control, an AM/FM/6-CD sound system that also plays MP3 CDs, an antitheft alarm system, and two power outlets in the center console and another in the cargo area. The front seats are eight-way manually-adjustable, with a ``Fast Entry System'' to make rear-seat access easier, and the driver gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel that adjusts for both tilt and reach. The rear seat splits 60/40 for cargo duty, and also boasts a center armrest and passthrough.

If a more luxurious experience is desired, VW is happy to oblige, with such options as upgraded leather seats, either XM or Sirius satellite radio, and the same Volkswagen DVD-based navigation system that is found in the Passat - which does require moving the CD changer from the dash to between the front seats.

Safety equipment is comprehensive, with front, front side, and side curtain airbags, active front head restraints, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake-pressure distribution and brake assist, and the ESP electronic stability program.

So how does it work? The new GTI is just a little quicker than the original - 0-60 in 6.8 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 130 mph. After spending a day driving several examples through the winding roads in the hills east of San Diego, California, I don't doubt that at all. Best of all, the high-tech turbo engine develops its power early, and stays strong, making for an easy driving experience. Not peaky at all, it's the opposite of some Japanese competitors.

Since both transmissions are six-speeds, and manual at heart, choice will be influenced by traditionalism versus techno-lust and budget. The standard manual box shifts well and is a pleasure to use; the DSG (that's Direct Shift Gearbox) is a manual gearbox with twin motorcycle-type wet clutches and electronic/hydraulic-controlled automatic shifting or manual shifting by means of steering column-mounted paddles. In manual mode, it shifts much more quickly than the standard transmission, and in automatic mode it works better than a conventional torque converter automatic, with less power loss. Advantages? Automatic mode, for those times when traffic and convenience dictate, and incredibly fast shifting. Disadvantages? Fifty pounds or so more weight and an extra $1,075 to the bottom line. It's a hard choice between the two, really.

The new suspension, and all that rubber on the road, give it excellent roadholding abilities. The standard wheels and tires offer surprisingly a comfortable ride quality, with none of the harshness or thumpiness often associated with low-profile tires. The eighteens are a little thumpier on less-than-perfect surfaces, but no more so than any other sports sedan, and make up for that with a commensurate increase in turn-in quickness.

Build quality, inside and out, is very good, as expected in a German car. The GTI is built in Germany, not Puebla, Mexico. There is a pleasant amount of engine growl, but the overall interior noise level is low, and comfort high. The pocket rocket lives, and is better than ever.

The 2006 Volkswagen GTI is on sale now, with a base price of $21,990 for the manual gearbox model and $23,065 with the DSG. Add $630 for the destination charge. Key options are satellite radio, either flavor, for $375, 18-inch wheels and performance tires for $750, and rubber floor mats and trunk liner for $185. There are two option packages, Package #1 with a power sunroof and satellite radio for $1,370, and Package #2, which adds automatic dual zone climate control, leather upholstery with heated front sports seats that are a touch better than the standard seats for $3,160. The navigation system may be added to option package-equipped cars for an additional $1,800.

With a price range from $22,620 through $29,590, the 2006 Volkswagen GTI offers a high degree of performance, comfort, and refinement for its price. And it has far more character than is commonly found is today's cars, best exemplified by that cheeky robo-rabbit. Fast, indeed.